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Cooper River Bridge Run Column - February 28th, 2005
Hill Training in the Lowcountry

By Art Liberman

No question about it, the major appeal that draws thousands of participants annually to the Cooper River Bridge Run is the challenge of conquering Charleston’s largest mountain, the Silas Pearman Bridge. But before this impressive steel structure is dumped into the ocean, the Pearman proudly stands as the centerpiece of the Bridge Run for the final time, ready to take on all who relish the opportunity to scale it.

Whether you’re one of the Kenyans favored to win the race or a middle-of-the packer running it for fun, getting over “The Bridge” is no easy task. Everyone who takes that first step onto the Pearman surely feels some degree of anxiety and fear along with a healthy respect for the difficult climb awaiting them. Anyone who says otherwise is lying!

So how does a runner prepare for the 5th largest and arguably the toughest 10K race in the United States? The obvious answer is by including some hills within your training program.

Benefits of hill training
Hill training provides both physical and mental benefits. The muscles used for the propulsion to climb hills, the quadriceps and calves, become strengthened. Uphill running quickly raises one’s heart rate, making it a great anaerobic workout. The proper mechanics used to run both up and down hills translates to improved rhythm and running efficiency on the flats. And learning to cope with the discomfort of running on hilly terrain develops mental toughness and increases confidence.

Heed the following guidelines to keep your risks of injury low. Before including hill workouts as part of your training, its important to establish a consistent mileage base so that you are comfortably running a minimum of three miles three to four times a week. Because it’s considered a hard workout, hill training should be couched between either days of rest or light mileage. The distance of hill segments within a workouts should be increased gradually, by no more than 10 percent a week. And only the most advanced runners should consider training on hills more than once a week.

Downhill running poses it’s own specific challenges and risks due to the increased forces the muscles must absorb. This pounding at the very least, can result in stiffness, soreness, and fatigue. And overdoing it (too much and at too fast a pace) increases the chances of injury. For this reason, the distances of downhill practice should be limited.

Techniques for Uphill Running
Running uphill can be made easier by taking a cue from cyclists. They know that downshifting into a bike’s lower gear is the most effective technique for climbing hills. The runner’s approach to “downshifting” involves subtle adjustments in one’s stride and form: Rather than trying to maintain your pace on the flats, it’s more important to focus on running with an even and steady rhythm and effort level. Here are some other tips:

  • Lean slightly forward (your entire body angled into the hill)
  • Increase your leg turnover while shortening stride slightly
  • Lift your knees a bit more than usual
  • Increase arm swing slightly, pumping with an up/down motion
  • Look ahead (15-20 feet) rather than straight down
  • Stay mentally focused and maintain effort to the crest of the hill

Techniques for Running Downhill
After cresting a steep incline, running downhill may seem like a breeze. Changing your running mechanics as follows will make the descent a smoother and quicker one, along with less pounding on the legs.

  • Let gravity do the work – Glide, don’t brake
  • Lean forward a bit
  • Slightly lengthen your stride
  • Try to land midfoot or forefoot with your knees flexed
  • Maintain balance and rhythm by slightly shifting the position of your arms

Hill Workouts
Along with one’s level of experience and race goals, several variables must also be considered when planning hill workouts: (1) How many hills to include, (2) the steepness of the grade, (3) the distance of the climb to the top, and (4) the intensity/pace of the workout.

The focus for those new to hill training is to practice good running mechanics while trying to maintain a consistent and comfortable pace on the inclines. Conversely, the experienced runner’s approach for ascending hills is to maintain the same intensity level as when running on the flats. This equates to 5K effort pace (not to be confused with actual race pace). As is the case for any hard workout, be sure to include both a one-mile warm-up and cool down.

A simple and effective method of hill training is to include a few inclines of various grades within your route once a week.

Hill repeats are considered a more structured workout. Find an incline of about 150 – 200 meters in length with a grade of 3 – 5 percent. As its name implies, the process of running uphill is repeated several times. Upon reaching the top, the runner either jogs easily or walks down to spare the muscles of the extra pounding.

“Hill” Running in the Lowcountry
While the topography of the Charleston area is often described as being “flat as a pancake”, there are a variety of ways local runners can practice running hills.

Treadmill running is a practical way to train for hills by adjusting the incline and speed setting to the desired intensity level of the workout. Parking garages provide a creative alternative although the inclines between levels are short in distance. You can always take a short day trip to the Midlands where hills of every level of difficulty abound.

Finally, there are numerous bridges of varying heights, grades, and distances in Charleston County, all of which provide the opportunity for great workouts along with scenic views. Be aware that the deck surfaces are constructed of reinforced concrete, which is tough on the legs. Whenever it’s possible, always run facing traffic. Thanks to Chris Gossett, Area Bridge Inspector with the S.C. Department of Transportation for providing the following information:

  • Silas Pearman Bridge – 5% grade, 3000 foot incline distance from Mt. Pleasant to its crest, 174 feet above The Cooper River; 5% grade, 2700 foot incline distance from downtown Charleston to its crest, 162 feet above Town Creek
  • Isle of Palms Connector – 5% grade, 1800 foot incline distances from the either side to its crest, 76 feet above the Intercoastal Waterway
  • James Island Connector – 3 to 3.6% grade, 1800 foot incline distances from the Albermarle Point and Harborview Road entrances to its crest, 75 feet above the Wappoo Cut. The incline distances of the Charleston approaches to the crest above the Ashley River are approximately 2000 feet and are a bit steeper in grade.
  • Ben Sawyer Bridge – 3.5% grade, 620 foot incline distance from either side to its crest, 80 feet above the Intercoastal Waterway
  • Limehouse Bridge – 4.5 to 5.5% grade, 1400 foot incline distance from either side, cresting 82 feet above the Stono River

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