Adaptive Training: San Francisco Marathon Hills (pt 2)

So, how does one train for a course with this kind of elevation?

Elevation chart for the SF Marathon. 1,686 ft elevation gain

So, over 26. 2 miles the SF Marathon course has a net elevation gain of around 1,686 feet.  And there are some pretty nice hills to cover as you try to maintain a Goal Marathon Pace (GMP). So the question remains: how does one prepare for this race?  What I’d like to do is discuss how we fashioned workouts for Megan’s 2010 SF race, and how we are doing the same for my 2011 SF race.

So, to train for SF with a GMP in mind, one has to think about doing a couple of things over the course of marathon prep:

1) Find a hill profile that models what you will see, in part, at SF.

Of course, Megan had a distinct home-field advantage, since she lived in the Bay area and could either travel up to the city and run the course, or turn either direction on her street and find BIG hills.  My task here in Alabama was to find a hill profile that would allow me to work the legs in such a way that the SF hills would  not feel so large.  Where I live in Alabama is the highest part of the state and we have a hilly terrain. So there is ample opportunity for me to find some largish hills on which to train. One of these is 11th Street.  This is a street that is .70 of a mile from one end to the other.  It has rolling hills, and a mother of a climb at the end of it.

Here is a screen grab of a recent run along 11th street (in this run, I did 5 repeats of 11th street)

Hill repeats on 11th Street

2) Weekly hill sessions need to have some similarity to race course hills and if possible get at or close to Marathon Pace.

So, it is not enough to train for SF by doing the occasional workout with hill repeats. Training “flat” for this course may help you finish the course, but you won’t finish strong and you certainly won’t achieve a goal time.  So we have to think outside the box a little.  Hill runs and long runs with hills are a necessity.  To be sure, not every long run should have a hill component.  You need to have time to cruise at goal paces and build endurance.  Hill runs should be a little more than repeats up and down a hill. Do that early in the cycle to build endurance. But as your training cycle evolves (and it should EVOLVE, adapt, reshape as you grow or struggle), then creativity is called for.

What we did with Megan was design hill workouts that focused on several things. First, we wanted to climb hills at a slower pace, modeling a hill climb in a race, but training for quick recover at the crest and then regaining the desired race pace after the hill was conquered.  To do this, we had Megan run her normal warm up, run a fast 1-2 miles on a flat portion, then climb slowly, much slower than desired race pace, for example, something like GMP + 30 seconds.  As she returned to a flat portion, she had to “make up” her pace to regain an overall GMP average pace for the ascent and descent of the hill.  We called this erasing the “pace deficit” and she did it over the space of a hill run.  At the end of that session she might then do a couple of fast sub-MP miles to visualize a strong finish on tired hill-climb legs.

We played off of this sort of plan a good deal. One week she would climb slowly and catch-up, as I described above. Other weeks she might climb at or near GMP, and hold on to pace on the flats.  You can play around with it and make it interesting so that each week is not the same thing.  But we did use fast, flat miles before and after the hills to get the legs used to post-climb racing at GMP or better.

So here is a sample of one of our hill sessions that Megan ran in taper week one (17 days from race):

10 min warm up
20 min hills at GMP. (but if you are slower, don’t stress, just practice TRYING to maintain MP on the up hill.)
8 min recovery (not slow, but not GMP of around 8:00-ish per mile)
20 minutes of hills
in this section go up the hill at 9:15 or slower and at flat area run equal amount distance of the hill you just climbed at pace fast enough to get you back to MP average, and erase the deficit.
8 min recovery
15 minutes run (hills or not–whatever you come across) at SUB- MP.
try to really hammer.  you’re gonna be tired after the other intervals. lets see what you can do. and don’t fret if you can’t get to GMP or sub GMP. This is good mental practice time now, at this part of the run
10 minutes cool down

total of 91 minute run

So now, as I train with her for the 2011 race, we are adapting these hill sessions for my training here in Alabama.  So where will I do this?  Two locations. 1) 11th street , which has rolling hills and a booger of a climb at the end.  See the elevation chart above for a glance at 11th Street’s elevation profile. Not huge but running back and forth over it for 5 miles or more sure feels like a lot!

The goal is to run up, at pace, the steep incline in the distance.

and 2)Mountain Drive, which has a nice steady uphill grade (much like Golden Gate Park) and then literally goes up a mountain, a local small foothill we have here called Chimney Peak.

Note the elevation for just the lower part of mountain.  From mile 7.5 throu 10 or so, there is a 1 mile approach that has a slight Golden Gate Park-ish grade then erupts into a full-blown mountain.  The road I was on climbs much higher than I was prepared for on Sunday’s long run.

Mountain Drive

And here is a pic of the road from where I turned around.

Mountain Drive climbs for another mile or so to Chimney Peak

So, over the next 13 weeks, I’ll see a lot of these roads during my long runs and my hill-specific runs.

NEXT POST: Part 3. Hill training on the long run.


  1. hey gordon – running aside, I hope that these tornado’s haven’t affected you and yours – mother nature is so indiscriminate – be safe, lisa

  2. I was looking at this very helpful post for training for the Nike Women’s Marathon — unfortunately I just found out I didn’t get in. 😦 But I will bookmark it in case I get in next year, thanks!

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