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If I Can Only Choose ONE (Hill Training for OCR)

I'm sure everyone, at some point, has been asked something like, "If you could only choose ONE food to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?" Or, "If you could only watch one TV show for the next 5 years, would you choose The Big Bang Theory, or Orange is the New Black?"


Today we ask, "If had to choose between treadmill, pavement, or trails as your ONLY HILL training for OCR in 2019, which would you choose?"


First climb at the 2018 Spartan World Championship - Lake Tahoe

I'll go over some of the pros and cons regarding the three available options, tell you my conclusion, and then I'd love to hear what everyone else thinks on the topic and how everyone is CURRENTLY implementing their hill training.


There are a lot of factors that fall into play in this discussion. I think it is important to first realize than training on any hill, no matter what surface is being used, will result in better performance when it comes to hills at an OCR event. Any hill training done safely is better than no hill training.


For the Treadmill:

Treadmills have a few VERY DISTINCT advantage that pavement and trails do not. They can go on for millions of miles endlessly on an incline. No matter how high the mountain is that you are climbing, or how long the paved incline, the treadmill can take you a longer distance UP. That's a big deal for people who live in very flat regions who don't have any real hills to train on.


Luke came to workout with me one evening. We did an hour of weight training, and then an hour at 30% incline on the treadmill.

For example, the Vernon, NJ Spartan Beast in 2018 had a very steep, very long climb towards the end of the race. I have no idea how far it actually went from bottom to top, but it was LONG. A lot of people won't have regular access to hills anywhere near that steepness or length.


Another VERY DISTINCT feature that the treadmill has is that you never have to run back down the hill. It's an advantage for your joints...downhill running, especially if not done properly, can put a ton of stress and impact on your knees and surrounding tendons and ligaments.


The issues you'll face with the treadmill are just what you might expect/have heard:

1: Potentially higher joint impact than on grass/dirt.

2: No variance in terrain. It's not the same us running up a hill with rocks and mud and divots where you have to pick your footing carefully and where your stride lengths are constantly changing.

3: You don't run back down the hill. In an OCR, if you go up, you almost assuredly will come back down. Having trained for the backside of a hill (the downhill portion) will be very helpful and that training will help to strengthen your legs, which, in theory, will result in better uphill ability.


For Pavement:

Pavement brings you CLOSER to real-OCR conditions. You're outside which means that you have to deal with (potentially) more wind resistance (a bigger factor than most think if it's a strong wind). You'll have to deal with the weather - no matter what type of weather it is. The pavement might not be perfectly even or flat, and the integrity of the surface may be better or worse in places just like on an OCR course. You may have to adjust your stride lengths to match cracks, rocks, and any other ground obstacles that might be encountered.



A few of the issues with hill training on pavement are:

1: High impact on the joints. Pavement has virtually no "give" which means that whatever force your shoe isn't absorbing, you are.

2: While well-designed shoes can help prevent slippage on wet grass and mud, wet pavement can be a real issue even with the best shoes; especially when coming back down the hill.

3: It'll be hard to find a paved hill long enough to replicate some of the "death marchers" and you'll likely have to go to work with lots of hill repeats.


For Trails:

Trails are the closest you can get to replicating the demand of an OCR event. Really, unless it's also a carry, trails are the exact demand.


Trails have such a wide variety of terrain between the mud, rock, and grass and every conceivable shape and size of each. Nothing will prepare you for running up a steep trail like running up a steep trail. Your ankles will get stronger on the uneven terrain, and your legs will get stronger as one or the other is forced to work harder to match the terrain through each stride. Further, if you are running on a primarily dirt/grass surface, the impact on your body will be much lower than on many treadmills and all pavement. Rocky terrain may be a bit different, but usually trails aren't ALL rock, so you should still have much lower impact over the duration of the training.


A few of the issues with hill training on trails:

1: Not everyone has access to decent trails with hills...so...availability might not be there.

2: Without a good pair of trail shoes, you might be in for a slip-n-slide fest.

3: You have to come back down the hill on technical terrain. It is much harder to descend safely on technical terrain and you may end up putting a lot of stress on your knees as you "brake" to slow down.


My Choice:

With only the very slightest hesitation, I would choose TRAILS! Actually, it isn't fair because I've already chosen trails. While I used to live in the city, quite far from any trails, and did almost all of my hill training on a treadmill, I much prefer being as close to the real deal as possible. I also just love being out in nature and enjoying the scenery as I run.


Like I said: The scenery.

My very slight hesitation was for the Treadmill. I LOVE controllable variability, and treadmills give such a extreme amount of controllable variability. Speed to the tenth of a mile-per-hour. Inclines to every half percentage. Distances can be as long and short as you want, and you have control over the exact pace for time and distance.


It's just not the real McCoy, so Trails take it for me!


What do you think? Let us know in the comments. Even if you only have access to limited training resources, there are always to improve your training and reach a higher level of performance for yourself.

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