The ‘Ex-hill-arating’ Workout

Running Mountains

Getting fast the aerobic way: It’s all downhill from here.

Recently after a  few weeks of aerobic-only workouts, I began feeling a little sluggish.

I’d gone exclusively to aerobic training following a season of racing and then several weeks of coaching my son in cross-country, which included weekly hill repeats with the team and some intervals.

All this had left me feeling a bit fatigued, and possibly flirting with injury.

I knew intuitively it was time to work on my aerobic balance. However after a few weeks of low-intensity training I began to feel dull. I considered adding some intensity back to the mix but just the thought seemed painful. My body simply was rebelling from any type of anaerobic workouts. I had lost my “snap.”

That’s when I remembered neurological workouts, which Dr. Phil Maffetone has recommended for years and discussed in his Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing. These include downhill workouts and aerobic intervals.

“You can train your brain to turn the legs over much more quickly than would ordinarily occur during a run on a flat course — all while staying aerobic,” Dr. Maffetone advises.

As an example, many athletes are able to run a pace 45-50 seconds-per-mile faster on a downhill while maintaining the same heart rate.

These workouts work well for runners, but can also be used to build speed in any aerobic sport, including cycling, cross-country skiing or even skating. In addition, aerobic intervals can be performed on flat terrain with athletes pushing the threshold of their aerobic zone as determined by the 180 Formula (see sidebar below).

I live in the mountains so it’s not difficult to find a hill on a dirt road. I started out with one pickup on a short downhill during an aerobic run, careful to stay in my aerobic training zone. Gradually I began to add more speed to more downhills. As the weeks went on I was able to build up to six or seven short downhill bursts, up to a quarter-mile in length, during a 5 or 6-mile run. This gradually improved my leg speed and turnover all without stressing my anaerobic system.

You can also pick a longer downhill, say something that takes 10 minutes to run, and just run the entire length at a faster pace while staying in the aerobic zone.

“Downhill workouts are a great way for individuals to improve speed while relieving themselves from the burden of the track and stopwatches,” says Dr. Maffetone. “Often these anaerobic workouts do not match an athlete’s specific needs and can lead to injury.”

One day I finished one of these downhill bursts and an uphill loomed ahead of me. I suddenly felt the urge to go fast and soon found myself powering through an uphill interval. I knew then that my aerobic-only phase had reached a point where it was safe to add some anaerobic workouts back into the mix for a while. Another story for another time.

If you want to build some leg turnover and put some snap back into your workouts without going into the anaerobic danger zone, here are some tips for doing so safely:

  • Always warm up before and cool down after the workout.
  • Use a heart-rate monitor and the 180 Formula to avoid too-high intensity.
  • Find a long downhill that is not too steep. A dirt road with fence posts or telephone poles is ideal for downhill intervals as you can measure distances by posts or poles.
  • Start out short and slowly. Start with one or two bursts of speed, say only a minute or so, and don’t try to run all-out during the first few sessions. Just focus on improving your leg turnover.
  • Focus on recovery. Just because you’re not overtaxing your anaerobic system doesn’t mean you don’t need adequate time to recoup from the stress to your joints and muscles. For most people one or two downhill workouts per week are enough.
  • Don’t overstride. This can put too much mechanical stress on the feet, knees, hips, and spine. Even on the right grade, your stride length should be about the same as if you were on level ground.

It’s easy to get going with the help of gravity. Downhill intervals can be downright “ex-hill-arating.” Have fun, feel the speed, and enjoy these faster workouts without all the stress of anaerobic training.

Aerobic Intervals

Once you have achieved a higher level of aerobic speed by building a more effective aerobic system, it may be difficult or impossible to reach your aerobic maximum heart rate, depending on the type of workout and the course. This is due to an improved aerobic system enabling you to perform faster at the same heart rate — the increased fat-burning provides you with more energy for running, biking, and so forth. This is most true in swimming, cycling, skating, or cross-country skiing. Some runners will also feel the difficulty in maintaining a 6- or 7-minute per mile pace everyday. At this stage of your development, you may be ready to add aerobic intervals to your program.

Aerobic intervals enable you to train at your maximum aerobic heart rate for short periods despite the difficulty in maintaining that level of activity. You’ll know when you’re ready for aerobic intervals; riding or swimming, for example, at your maximum aerobic heart rate will be physically challenging—your heart rate won’t exceed the maximum aerobic level but you’ll physically have a difficult time maintaining it, or even reaching it because you’ll have to ride or swim faster than your comfort level. This is exactly the opposite of what you felt when first starting out with the MAF program and thought that the pace was too slow.

Since you won’t easily be able to maintain your maximum aerobic heart rate for the whole workout, or if it’s just too challenging for an everyday activity, you can perform a short interval at or near your maximum aerobic heart rate, then slow down for a period of time, then go back to the maximum aerobic level. This is much like traditional interval workouts, except it’s all aerobic.

For example, if your maximum aerobic heart rate is 152, and you want to do an aerobic interval session on the bike for 90 minutes, here’s a sample workout:

  • A 20-minute warm-up
  • Ten-minute segments consisting of five minutes at a heart rate of 152 and five minutes at 120, repeated five times for a total of fifty minutes
  • A 20-minute cool-down

— Dr. Phil Maffetone, The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing

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