International mountain runner Ben Mounsey blogs about the importance of including hill reps into your training and how to win the mental battles involved in such gruelling sessions.
‘IT’S A HIDDEN PART OF MY WORLD THAT NO-ONE ELSE EVER SEES’
It’s 6:37pm. It’s a time when most people are sitting down to enjoy their evening meal or relaxing in front of the television. I can’t help but feel jealous – it’s been a long and stressful day at work. In comparison, I’m doing uphill running reps on Trooper Lane and I’m part way through my third repetition. I’m planning on doing 10 so I’ll be here for quite some time.
To make matters worse my legs are already feeling tired from racing at the weekend and there’s a huge temptation to give up and call this my last one. Nobody else cares if I do 10 reps anyway, in fact no-one will ever know. It’s my choice to be here – I don’t have to do this. If I set off home I could be sat with my feet up in front of a warm fire and enjoying my dinner at a reasonable hour for a change. It would be really easy to give up now.
Instead I have to remind myself why I’m here. I’m about to run up Trooper Lane for the 150th time this year. It’s a milestone achievement that only I will witness and appreciate. There won’t be a crowd of supporters at the top to greet me with rapturous applause and I certainly won’t win any prizes. This is a solitary and lonely task. It’s a hidden part of my world that no-one else ever sees. Ironically it’s the most important part of my training and the foundation of every racing success. It doesn’t bother me that I’m alone. I haven’t got time to celebrate anyway – I’ve another seven reps to complete.
I’m often asked how or indeed why I run up and down Trooper Lane so many times. Admittedly it’s hardly the most enjoyable way to spend an evening, especially after a tough day at work. The thought of running up the same hill 10 times is a daunting prospect. The monotony of the task is reason enough to talk oneself out of it in the first place. As well as the obvious physical demand, it requires an enormous amount of mental strength to complete 10 reps. In fact the first thing I need to do is to trick myself into thinking I’m not really doing 10, when deep down I really know that I am.
‘I IMAGINE I’M RACING. EITHER BEING CHASED OR CHASING SOMEONE DOWN’
It’s not all about pace either; instead I try and focus on form and technique. I’m more concerned with how well I run up the hill rather than how fast I can rep each one. I stay positive at all times and I tell myself over and over again that I can do this. Visualisation plays a key role in keeping me focused and motivated. I dream about fell running and mountain running for England and Great Britain and what I need to do to earn those international vests. I imagine that I’m in a race, either being chased by or chasing someone down. If I stop or go slow for even a moment then I’ll lose, so I work as hard as possible until I reach the summit. Needless to say I’ve never lost a mental battle with myself yet.
The preparation for ascending over 4,000ft in one hill repeats session takes almost as much effort as actually running it. Firstly you have to find the time to do it… usually a session like this requires a window of almost two-and-a-half hours. Trooper Lane is three miles from my house so the run across to it is treated as my warm-up and the return journey is my cool-down. Every repetition up (and the recovery back down) usually takes between 8-10 minutes, depending on the speed and intensity of each effort. It’s almost half-a-mile from the bottom to the top, with an elevation gain measuring over 400ft and an average gradient of 15%. I have to break down the session into manageable chunks to preserve my sanity.
‘TO DEVELOP AS AN ATHLETE YOU NEED TO ADOPT A POSITIVE GROWTH MINDSET’
At first I focus on three reps, that’s the absolute minimum I can accept as a worthwhile hill session. After this it doesn’t take me long to complete five, and from a mental perspective this is a significant milestone. Once I reach seven then I just tell myself it would be a shame not to hit double figures… and when I eventually get to 10 I even consider doing a few more! To develop as an athlete you need to adopt a positive growth mindset. You should always try and set high expectations and work towards achieving great things. So of course the best thing about doing 10 reps is that when I do plan to do an easier session, then five always seems really easy!
100 minutes of pure hill repping is a long time to stay focused. I make sure that on the downhill recovery I give my mind and body the break that it requires. I’m mostly visualising my next race, the physical shape I’ll need to be in and what I need to work on to improve my performance. Much of my time is also spent thinking about what I’ll be eating when I get home and, of course, what I’ll call my run when I upload it to Strava! In my opinion it would be a criminal offence to call a 10-rep Trooper Lane session something like ‘Evening Run’. I try and think of a catchy title that befits the effort I’ve made. ‘Super Trooper’ or ‘Ben 10’ would be far more appropriate. However given that I couldn’t resist the urge to do an extra rep I finally decide upon ‘Legs Eleven, Trooper Heaven’ (see below).
‘IF YOU TRAIN HARD THEN RACING IS EASY’
Ultimately what gives me the most satisfaction about a brutal hill session like this is knowing that I’m now training as hard, if not even harder, than my rivals. It gives me absolute confidence in my own ability. So when I line up at the start of the race I no longer suffer from nerves and I don’t have any regrets about not training hard enough. I know that I’ve done everything I can to prepare and I’m always ready to face any man or mountain that stands in my way. It’s important to remember that if you train hard, then racing is easy.
MY TOP TIPS FOR HILL REPS SESSIONS
The very mention of ‘hills’ is enough to make most people run a mile (excuse the pun). Don’t be afraid – hills can be your friend. The more you do the easier they get. Hills are a staple diet for any fell or mountain runner (just ask Orlando Edwards who does his on The Great Wall of China) but even those who prefer the road running or track running can enjoy their benefit. If you incorporate a weekly hill session into your training then you will see a huge difference in your performance. I’ve never been naturally good at running uphill but I’ve turned it into my secret weapon by regularly doing hill sessions and slowly increasing the difficulty and speed at which I do them. It’s also good to vary the incline and terrain so that your body learns how to adapt to the changes in ascent. Remember that no two hills are ever the same.
The main problem for me isn’t actually finding the motivation for a hill session; it’s finding a hill big enough to meet my requirements. Most of the big fell and mountain races I compete in have a serious amount of ascent, and although I live in a beautiful part of Yorkshire, my local hills don’t even begin to compare to the size of those in the Lake District. It’s because of this that I’m forced to run smart and make the best use of what hills I have on my doorstep. Study what your local environment has to offer, get friendly with your own version of Trooper Lane and make it into your very own mountain. Failing that you could always come and join me on mine!