By: Jeff Godin, Ph.D., CSCS, Director of Spartan Coaching
The beauty of obstacle racing is that it exposes your weakest link. Lack upper body strength? You will pay for it on the eight foot wall. Lack balance? You will pay for it on the log hops. Lack hill climbing endurance? You will pay for it all-day. Spartan Race is well known for its lung crushing climbs, and quad destroying descents. Listen to enough veterans and they’ll tell you about Tri-State, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Monterey, Utah… “the number of climbs is ridiculous,” as was once overheard.
The only way to beat the hill is to embrace it. Hill running increases oxygen consumption considerably. For example, an athlete running at an easy 10 min/mile pace has an estimated oxygen consumption of 36 mlO2/kg/min, where running the same speed on a 10% grade (a grade of 100% = 45 degree angle) increases oxygen consumption to 50 mlO2/kg/min. That’s almost a 40% increase in energy expenditure! Running on a flat surface, a runner only needs to produce energy for horizontal work. The extra energy needed to lift the body vertically against gravity accounts for this extra energy expenditure.
Running at an oxygen consumption of 50 mlO2/kg/min will be close to many athletes maximal oxygen consumption and certainly above the lactate threshold for all but the elite runners. This will result in an increase in muscle acidosis and increased rate of glycogen utilization. The end result is fatigue and possible glycogen depletion.
Although training will improve VO2 max and running efficiency, it will not be enough offset the increased metabolic demand of steep uphill running. The best solution is to adjust the pace or speed so the energy expenditure remains the same. For most, that will mean walking uphill at a much slower pace. This will prevent fatigue and spare glycogen and prevent bonking. Pace yourself on the hill climbs.
Spartans Run Hills
Walking or running uphill places unique stress on the locomotive muscles when compared to walking or running on flat ground. The change in slope puts the foot into severe dorsi flexion, stressing the gastrocnemius, soleus, and plantar fascia. The trunk also leans forward, placing more stress on the hamstrings and back extensors. A couple of small hills won’t negatively impact these muscle groups, but in the longer events where there will be 3,000 – 5,000 ft of climbing, there can be major damage to these muscles, especially in athletes who have not prepared on hills.
What goes up must come down! Running downhill would seem to be easier, and we think that we should be able to make up for lost time during the climb.
But, don’t fool yourself, the average speed of running uphill and then downhill for three miles will always be slower than running three miles flat. Running downhill requires control. No matter how much we think we are “letting go,” there is a natural “braking” action by the anterior tibialis on the lower leg, and the quadriceps on the thigh. This braking action is caused by eccentric muscle contractions; the muscles are developing tension and lengthening at the same time. Eccentric muscle actions cause muscle damage and are the cause of post exercise muscle soreness. If your muscles aren’t prepared for downhill running, the muscle damage will be accelerated and will result in premature muscle soreness, decreased muscle power output, and fatigue.
The good news is that this can be prevented with proper training. Yes, embrace the hills. Find the biggest, baddest hills in your area and run intervals up and down them. Do this twice a week. This will cause significant soreness initially, but over time your muscles will adapt to the eccentric contractions, muscle damage is reduced, and you will be able to tolerate longer bouts of downhill running. Training uphill will also stress the gastrocnemius, plantar fascia, hamstrings, and back extensions in a way that they will be used during a Spartan Race, thus minimizing the damage to those tissues as well. The reality is that running uphill will always be metabolically demanding and fatiguing not matter how hard you train. However, training with hill intervals, will improve your maximal oxygen consumption, increase your tolerance to acidosis, and improve your ability to utilize fat as a fuel, thus improve your hill running performance. Hill sprints suck as bad as Burpees, probably even more so, but if you embrace the hill training your body will thank you at your next Super Spartan or Beast.
Exercise Physiology 101: During any activity that lasts longer than three minutes we rely primarily on the aerobic energy system. Aerobic means that we produce energy with oxygen. The more intense the exercise, the higher the rate of oxygen utilization. Oxygen utilization is typically expressed as milliliters of oxygen consumed per kilogram of body weight per minute (mlO2/kg/min). Oxygen consumption can also be expressed as energy expenditure or Calories per minute (kcal/min). The higher the rate of oxygen consumption, the higher the rate of energy expenditure. For example a 180 lb male running a 10 minute mile consumes 36 mlO2/kg/min or expends about 14.5 kcal/min. The same man running the same speed at 10% grade consumes 50 mlO2/kg/min or 20.5 kcal/min.
Jeff received his Doctorate in Kinesiology from the University of Connecticut and is certified by ACSM, NSCA, and ISSN. He is currently Chair of the Departmental of Exercise and Sport Science at Fitchburg State University and the Director of Spartan Coaching.