10 Tips to Tame the Hills of Boston

This guest post was written by Matt Fitzgerald

We are now in Boston Marathon season. With under 16 weeks to go, most Boston Qualifiers will already have started their base training for the pinnacle race in April. We are hoping to become Boston Central for running articles, and have lots of new posts on how you can get the most out of your training to make sure you are ready.

If you have been following Runners Connect for any amount of time, you will know that we love listening to what Matt Fitzgerald has to say. We have featured Matt on two podcasts:

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Matt is not only an expert in nutrition, he is also a very experienced Boston Marathoner, starting when he was 11 years old he ran the last mile of the race with his father! Matt has a PR of 2:41, which he ran at the age of 37 after years of injury left him questioning if he would ever run a marathon again.

Matt is one of the most well known writers within the running world as an author over over 20 running books, including writing a book with Brad Hudson, “Run Faster from the 5k to the Marathon”.

This is one man who knows running, and knows Boston Marathon.

Best selling Endurance Author Matt Fitzgerald gives his 10 best tips of how to race well over the Boston Marathon hills.

I ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. My goal time was 2:37. My recent workouts and tune-up races suggested that this was a realistic aspiration. Instead I ran 3:18. The hills did me in—not so much the ups, such as the famous Heartbreak Hill at mile 21, but the downs; those quad-busting 310-foot elevation drops that occurs in the first 4 miles of the race.

Many other runners have had a similar experience. Some runners manage to sail over the climbs and dips between Hopkinton and Copley Square with remarkable success, even on their first try. Those who do are the ones who come prepared. Here are my nine tips—learned the hard way—to prepare for taming the hills of Boston.

1. Include plenty of hills in your training.

Training on hilly terrain will reduce the amount of muscle damage your legs incur when going downhill, and will increase the efficiency of your uphill running.

I recommend that you do most of your long runs on rolling terrain as well as a handful of workouts featuring short, high-intensity uphill and downhill intervals. If you live in a flat area, do this type of training on a treadmill (check back later this week for a post on creative ways to prepare for Boston).

2. Break out your foam roller.

Marathon training tends to create trigger points, or knotted areas of the muscles. These spots are likely to be the first ones to become painful when subjected to the challenge of a net-downhill marathon like Boston.

You can loosen your trigger points, and arrive at the starting line with healthier muscle tissue by practicing myofascial release; a form of self-massage, at home with a therapeutic foam roller. All it takes is 5 minutes of rolling every other day or so, as long as you are not making these 4 Mistakes Runners Make Using the Foam Roller.

3. Work on your hill running technique.

When you run downhill in training, listen to the sound your feet make, and try to run more quietly. Don’t think about the actual movements of your body, just concentrate on what you hear and let your body find the most natural way to descend hills more quietly, which will translate into less impact force and less wear and tear on your legs.

When running uphill in training, concentrate on staying as relaxed as possible. This article on how to Run Uphill and Downhill Effectively should help.

4. Change your attitude to altitude.

Some runners hate going uphill. I myself, have always hated going downhill. Something about the way I’m built makes it awkward and uncomfortable. If you have a strong dislike for either uphill or downhill running, make an effort to acquire a taste for it in your training.

Attitude has a powerful effect on performance. If you expect to suffer on the hills of Boston—either the ups or the downs—you probably will. But if you mentally embrace the challenge they represent, you will feel and perform better.

5. Including plyometrics in your training.

Plyometrics, or jumping exercises, are proven to enhance running economy by improving the ability of the legs to capture energy from impact with the ground, and reuse it for forward propulsion. This type of exercise also helps the legs stand up better to the abuse of downhill running.

Include one or two plyometrics exercises in your strength workouts. An example is the single-leg step jump: Stand on one foot and leap forward onto an aerobics step stacked to 12-18 inches in height. Jump back down to the floor and repeat 12 times, then jump from the other foot.

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6. Study the course.

Elite runners often visit the Boston area weeks before the marathon, to train on and familiarize themselves with the course. The best alternative to this measure is studying this Boston race strategy guide or checking out one of the video course tours available online.

The tougher parts of any marathon course are always more dispiriting when they’re unexpected. Seeing the whole course ahead of time is a good way to avoid any nasty surprises in Boston.

7. Choose your shoes carefully.

One of the few smart decisions I made before the 2009 Boston Marathon was to wear slightly cushier shoes than I normally would wear in a race. A little extra midsole foam takes some of the bite out of the steeper descents on the course. Just be sure to make your shoe selection well before the event so you have time to practice in them.

8. Drink tart cherry juice.

Tart cherries contain nutrients with anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that drinking tart cherry juice before an exhaustive exercise test reduces muscle damage and inflammation. Less muscle damage and inflammation incurred during a marathon equals less pain, and less pain equals a lesser probability of hitting the wall.

To get the best results, drink two servings of tart cherry juice daily for the last six days before the race. Practice this protocol at least once beforehand (perhaps prior to a half-marathon tune-up race) to get comfortable with it.

9. Warm up properly.

You don’t need to do an extensive warm-up before a marathon, but your warm-up should include some plyometrics drills such as single-leg forward hops.

The reason is that this type of exercise triggers an effect called post-activation potentiation, which improves subsequent muscle performance. This effect is all the more helpful before races that start off downhill, as Boston does.

10. Pace yourself!

Starting too fast is the most common mistake in marathon running. It is particularly common at the Boston Marathon, where the first mile drops 85 feet. Don’t “fall” for the trap! Stick to your goal pace despite the helping hand you get from gravity in the early portion of the race.

It’s not so much about saving energy as it is about sparing your legs from unnecessary abuse. Your quads will thank you after you summit Heartbreak Hill and begin a 220-foot drop to the finish line over the final 5 miles of the race.

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Download your FREE Boston Marathon Pace Calculator now in your members-only download section.

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The Boston Marathon pace calculator uses the steepness of the hill, along with its length, to assign a difficulty score for each mile.  Each mile is then extracted to provide you with the perfect pace per mile to maintain an even effort throughout the entire race.

The calculator will keep you from going out over your head over the first few miles and fading on the Newton Hills.

Matt Fitzgerald Matt Fitzgerald is an endurance sports coach, nutritionist, and author. His many books include 80/20 Running and Racing Weight. A regular contributor to magazines such as Competitor and Women’s Running, he also serves as a training intelligence specialist for PEAR Sports. He is certified by the International Society of Sports Nutrition and provides nutrition coaching services to athletes through racingweight.com.

What would you add to this  list? Which of these are you guilty of missing out on?

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