There are great reasons to keep fighting gravity, man.
Going up hills works different muscles than staying on the flats (and it works the same muscles harder, too). It provides natural interval training. You don’t need some trainer shouting at you “now go harder” – Mother Nature takes care of that. And not least, it gives you a sense of accomplishment and can-do power to help sustain fitness motivation as life unfolds.
But it’s not easy. As the saying goes, if it were easier, more people would be doing it. To keep you among the relative “few who climb,” here are tips for use before, during and after that hill looms up in front of you.
BEFORE THE HILL
It’s obvious, but worth saying – in order for that hill to loom in front of you, you need to plan your route to include it. So in the same purposeful way that (I hope) you consciously mix endurance, strength and flexibility…throw in some hills as you plan your workouts.
Then once you’re out on the road, IGNORE that rationalizing, excuse-making voice in your head that desperately casts about for “reasons not to.” We can be remarkably adept at justifying not doing something hard like climbing a hill under our own power. So just be resolute that you planned to go up that hill, the hill is approaching, and there’s no #@$%! way you’re going to shrink from it.
DURING THE CLIMB
I believe in what I just wrote, but I’ll admit: blood-and-guts, force-of-will motivation does have its limits. Especially if you’re not an 18-year-old Marine recruit, but a 40-, 50- or 60-something guy (or older) trying to get up a steep hill.
So we need to use our brain, too (something we’re better at than younger guys). We need some hill-climbing tactics.
First, if you’re running, go to a higher-cadence, shorter-step stride pattern and make sure to exaggerate your arm swings. The arms can be kind of a metronome that the legs naturally follow. If you’re hiking, and it’s really steep, there’s something called the Hiker’s Rest Step you should check out and try. Whether running, hiking or biking, until that particular hill becomes a “familiar foe,” don’t try to be a hero on pace. Slow down as needed, to make sure you get up the hill one way or another.
Second, regardless of whether you’re on foot or on wheels, don’t look all the way up the hill from the outset. All this does is signal something like “it’s too far and too steep” to your body and spirit (and that’s dispiriting). Instead, pick out and fix your eyes like an eagle on some marking in the road, a parked car, a tree…any kind of object…that’s just about 50-100 feet in front of you.
Focus ONLY on reaching that point. Then as you reach it, pick out something else another short way ahead. In this way, you can conquer the hill, mentally at least, in phases. Don’t pooh-pooh this before you try it, dude. It really helps you to always have in sight a visual end-point that’s not too far away.
AFTER THE HILL
Once you’ve reached the top of the hill…exult, brother. Think about all those guys 10-20+ years younger than you that can’t do this. In fact, they’re probably on a couch or bar stool somewhere even as you take in that beautiful view from the top. Keep this feeling in mind!
The way down, if you’re on foot, is sometimes tough on the knees or feet. Harder, in that way, then going up. If this bothers you, it helps to “slalom” down the hill following a serpentine pattern so most of the time you’re not actually facing straight downhill.
Finally, long after the workout is over, the next time you’re feeling good and strong you can mentally connect that feeling, in part, to your effort on that hill.
I recall a video of Hall-of-Fame football coach Bill Parcells shouting to players before a 4th-and-short, “THIS is why you lift all them weights!”
Paraphrasing this, I sometimes think to myself “THIS is why you run all them hills.” Connecting your feelings of progress to efforts you’ve made in the past helps you get psyched up for more hard efforts in the future. (And anyway, you’re not doing all that much with your brain during a run or a ride anyway, so you may as well think about this type of semi-corny motivational stuff, as I see it. I’ll take all the help I can get.)
One of the beautiful things about getting and staying committed to fitness as we age – part of the “poetry” of it – is that we maintain our connection to a natural state. We’re doing things man was meant to do. In addition to the physical benefits, this keeps us mentally grounded and more able to transcend the day-to-day stresses the modern world provokes.
Climbing hills is one of those primordial, therapeutic things. It hurts, but it feels good.
It also keeps exercising our most important source of power: our belief-in-self. As Henry Ford said, “The man who thinks he can, and the man who thinks he can’t, are both right.” I’m here to tell you that you CAN. I hope these tips help!
“Climbing up on Solsbury Hill, I could see the city light. Wind was blowing, time stood still. Eagle flew out of the night.” (Peter Gabriel, Solsbury Hill—click to listen)
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