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Heading for the hills

Posted by Matt Pepin, BostonGlobe.com Staff  March 25, 2013 01:18 PM

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100allysonmanchester.jpg Allyson Manchester is one of six Boston Marathon entrants testing Polar personal training gear and blogging about it for Boston.com
Hills have entered common vocabulary as a metaphor for life’s most daunting situations. The process of encountering a hill, starting at it from below, and struggling to the top requires psychological and physical intensity. It involves defying gravity, breathing heavily, and forcing the body into a state of discomfort.

In terms of training for the Boston Marathon, I value my hill workouts above all else. I began to incorporate hills into my running routine when I was a student at Stonehill College several years ago. Stonehill was situated on mostly flat terrain, but I found a long staircase as a substitute. Now, I love living in Brighton where hills abound—check out the beautiful city view from the top of my favorite hill!

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congratulations_x.jpgThis week, my Polar RCX3 joined me for a 6-mile run that included a steep, 0.4-mile ascent. The watch conveniently displays training data in “sport zones,” so I was able to look back after the run and evaluate how the hill affected my heart rate during and after the climb. While running the hill, my heart rate jumped to 184 (94 percent), as compared to the average 151 (77 percent) for the rest of the run. The summary on the watch also provided shockingly intuitive, personalized feedback on the workout. The screen read, “Good pace! You improved your aerobic fitness and endurance of your muscles. This session also developed your ability to sustain high intensity effort for longer.” I love being congratulated!

If you find yourself shying away from hills on your runs, I have compiled a few tips for increasing your body’s efficiency and developing a hill mindset:

Three hill tactics from Runners World and Cool Running.com, two very reliable running sources:

1. Posture matters: While on an incline, your body should be as upright as possible. Practicing this posture was difficult for me at first—I naturally tend to hunch over when I am exhausted. Keep your head and chest up, shoulders back, and eyes straight ahead.
2. Get vertical: Vertical motion is just as important as forward motion for hill running. You can increase your speed and stride length by pushing up and off the hill into an “exaggerated knee lift.”
3. Use the downhill: Most runners underestimate the energy required to run downhill. It’s easy to run too fast on a decline and let your muscles take a beating. According to Runner’s World, the best strategy on a downhill is to step softly without letting your feet slap the pavement.

Three hill tactics from me, a semi-reliable running source:
1. Find a power jam: When it comes to running hills, music functions like a jetpack. I have spent many years perfecting the song selection and order of my running playlist, and have now produced a five hour-long masterpiece. Amidst the carefully organized collection, I have four upbeat songs that I reserve solely for running hills.

  • Avicii – “Levels.” When I first moved to Boston last year, I spent far too much time in bro bars. The only positive outcome of this otherwise dark phase in my life was that I learned to love Avicii. A Swedish DJ, Avicii produces bold, dance-friendly tracks that sync perfectly with my hill running pace. “Levels” is composed mostly of instrumentals, but the song still communicates a strong message about energy and focus. While being interviewed in Rolling Stone after the 2012 Olympics, Michael Phelps recognized that the song mirrors the experience of a race: “Swimming a multiple-event program requires you to conserve and manage emotional and physical energy, so you’ve got the goods when you need it most. It’s all about levels.”
  • Beyonce – “Countdown.” As the title suggests, Beyonce engages in a rhythmic, high-powered countdown from the number 10 in the chorus of this song. My high school cross-country coach always suggested mental counting while running up hills, so these lyrics provide built-in focus.
  • Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – “Can’t Hold Us.” A recent and welcome addition, this triumphant beat helped me to survive this Saturday’s 22-mile training run from the Hopkinton starting line to my apartment in Brighton. I queued up the track at the perfect moment: right at the foot of Heartbreak Hill in Newton. As far as I am concerned, any song that manages to reference Bill Cosby’s sweaters, Bob Barker’s suits, Shark Week, and Wu Tang is an instant winner.
  • Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass.” As much as it pains me to endorse this pink-wigged diva, “Super Bass” hasn’t lost its pizazz since I heard it for the first time in April 2011. Incidentally, I have found myself on a never-ending quest to master the jam-packed lyrics of the first and second verse.

face_x.jpg2. Make a face: In all seriousness, nothing makes me feel more powerful while attacking an incline than making a super-determined facial expression. I have actually read running books that advise against this tactic, as using extra muscles to grit your teeth and furrow your brow detracts from the energy in other (more important) parts of your body. I disagree. “Making a face” allows me to give external expression to my internal desire to run up the hill. My mom once captured one of my running faces on camera — this picture is from a high school cross-country meet in 2004.

dad2012_x.jpg3. Envision a cheering section: Sadly, the majority of my running life does not take place in the presence of actual fans. I do spend a lot of time on runs thinking about the people who support me and keep me motivated. While running hills, I often visualize my biggest running role model standing at the top: my dad. My dad ran the Boston Marathon in 1993 and 1994. Although he since has retired from running, he still enacts the qualities of the best runners: he is optimistic, strategic, and fierce. His favorite phrase is “full beast mode” (borrowed from Rob Gronkowski). Living in “full beast mode” means working your absolute hardest—whether you are on a run, at school, or at your job. I have always seen my dad work his absolute hardest, which is why he is the perfect inspiration for steep hills. On the days when I am feeling a little more aggressive and vengeful, envisioning old boyfriends on hills works just as well!

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Look for updates, news, analysis and commentary from the following.
  • Steve Silva, Boston.com senior producer, two-time Boston Marathon sub-four hour runner.
  • Ty Velde is a 16-time Boston qualifier who's completed 12 consecutive Boston Marathons and 25 marathons overall. Ty is now training for his 13th Boston run and will provide training tips for those who train solo and outside, no matter what temperature it is.
  • Rich 'Shifter' Horgan is a 19-time Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team member who runs in honor of his father, who died of colon cancer. He will provide updates on local running events with a focus on the charitable organizations that provide Boston Marathon entries for their organization's fund raising purposes

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