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Running in Singapore: How to tackle hills

By: Verne Maree

In this regular running column, we talk about training, shoes, gadgets, nutrition, racing, hashing and more. This month, Verne Maree heads for the hills. Want the latest list of marathons and races in Singapore? Head here.

Is this a hill or a flat path and wonky camera angle? 

Hills are many runners’ least favourite terrain. That’s mainly because they slow you down, says Dagny Scott in her Runner’s World Complete Book of Women’s Running, but also because they hurt.

On the other hand, if you’ve been doing all your running on fairly hilly terrain like the Botanic Gardens, the pancake-flat East Coast Park can cause discomfort. That’s because you’re having to use the same muscles in the same way continuously, without the relief and variety – both physical and mental – that come from running alternately uphill and downhill.

Why bother with hills?
Long, slow runs may account for most of a distance runner’s training, and that’s how it should be. To improve as a runner and achieve your best running fitness, however, you need to be able to perform at different speeds and on varied terrain.

If you’re planning on doing a hilly race, it’s pretty obvious that you have to practise hill-running. To overcome a monster, you have to tackle it head-on. That hilly race is unlikely to be in Singapore, though, where most events are run over very flat, fast courses. (The hilliest race I’ve encountered here was the Standard Chartered half-marathon, when they moved the course to Sentosa a couple of years ago.)

But even for flat races, hill-running is the fastest way to build real strength. Even a moderate amount of hill-training will make your quadriceps and glutes stronger and tougher, as Running for Dummies co-authors, Florence “Flo-Jo” Griffith Joyner and John Hanc, point out. Your heart has to work that much harder when you run uphill, which increases your cardiovascular endurance and stamina, too.

If you’re strong on hills, you won’t have to fear any course or terrain. Knowing that is a comfort itself, and will make your runs even more enjoyable.

So, there’s plenty of reason to head for them thar hills, say once a week.

The hard way – hill repeats
This is fairly straightforward.
1. Warm up with a run of two to five kilometres.
2. Find a hill, one you can climb in between 30 seconds and a minute.
3. Run hard up the hill.
4. Jog or walk down the hill.
5. Repeat.

Afterwards, you should feel tired but invigorated; if you’re absolutely knackered, clearly you’ve done too much. As you get stronger, you can increase the number of repetitions, or challenge yourself on hills that are longer or steeper. The truly anal runner (and I’ve been one of those in the past) will keep a record of his or her times over each series of repeats, and smugly watch them improve.

Feeling miserable just reading this? Happily, there is an easier way to achieve the same result.

The easier way
Find a hilly area or course, and then, after running a few kilometres to warm up, start to pick up the pace on the inclines, recovering on the declines. Though Singapore is short on suitably hilly courses*, the MacRitchie trail is perfect for this exercise. On short hills, push yourself a bit harder; on longer hills, don’t go quite so fast: the idea is to make it to the top without bursting a valve.

This way is far less draconian than regimented hill repeats, and you might even have some fun along the way.

*Why is it so hard to find hills in Singapore?*
Blame Sir Stamford Raffles and his ilk, who summarily flattened the erstwhile hills of Singapore so as to reclaim marshy swampland. Try the parks: Botanic Gardens, Fort Canning, MacRitchie and Bukit Timah (which is closing for restoration in September). Even the reclaimed East Coast, mostly flat, harbours some useful inclines: in Siglap and Opera Estate, for example.

Hill-running form:
“Shorten the stride and increase the cadence,” advises Singaporean running guru Dr Ben Tan in his book, Run for Your Life! “Lift the knees higher while driving the elbows further back. Lean further forward.”

Try to keep your shoulders, chest and hips in a straight line. Keep neck and shoulder muscles relaxed, and don’t clench your hands.

Keep your gaze slightly in front of you all the way to the top… and over. Aim for a smooth and steady pace up the hill, trying to spread your effort evenly across the entire length of the ascent.

Beginners, take care!
“Hills are like pancakes,” says John Hanc: “don’t stack too many on your plate until you have a feel for how many you can digest.”

So, build your strength up gradually by slowly adding hill running to your exercise regimen. If you’re a new runner who can jog 30 minutes or longer on a flat course, look for a course of similar length that includes three or four gradual inclines. Out of breath at the top? It’s fine to walk for a bit; but the eventual goal is to carry on with running.