Average runners can hate them. The great ones eat them up.

For an exhausted cross country runner they’ll either make you or break you.

They are hills.

It’s just as critical to be able to sprint down them as up them. For a coach it’s important to balance how and when to practice hill work to prepare for the final three weeks of the season, better known as the “Peak Season”.

More than ever, hill work must be done to build up speed and strength.

“I’ve researched this topic quite a bit,” said Edward Little coach Dan Campbell, who has coached the sport for 25 years. “The timing of it is important – when to use hill training, how to use hill training and get the most out of it.”

Leavitt coach Tina Meserve has the luxury of hosting the state championships this fall for the third straight year. The course features a long, gradual incline that has become the signature hill for the state’s cross country runners. It’s officially called Hardacker Hill, which is a play off of ‘Heartbreak Hill,’ and named for former Leavitt runner and state champion Kala Hardacker.

For the rest of the state’s competitors, it’s affectionately nicknamed “Satan’s Inferno”.

“At the top of the hill we have a pebble box,” says Meserve. “Every time the kids run up the hill in practice they drop a pebble in the box. The goal is to fill up the box by the time of the state meet.”

“We stress a little bit shorter stride and using their upper body,” says Meserve on her teachings of climbing hills. “Sometimes our girls want to pump their arms. You always want to swing your arms in the direction of the trail and not side to side.”

Coaches vary workouts depending on whether to focus on speed work, repetitions to build up strength or even finding a hill similar to one at the next race venue.

Lisbon coach Hank Fuller attended a conference a few years ago at which a former coach of the Greater Boston Track Club outlined hill training drills that have helped the Greyhounds capture four consecutive state boys’ titles. Fuller calls the drills “hill blasts” which are timed repetitions of a measured distance. Over the years he has kept records of runners’ performances in the drills. After initiating this training method, he saw immediate results.

“One, we got faster,” says Fuller. “They’re short, quick bursts and the kids recover quickly so we can work out the next day. The kids became less concerned with hills.”

Campbell’s Edward Little squads have won four state titles between the boys and girls. He has become an expert in getting his teams to peak at the right time and his hill training methods have proven results.

“We get better and better every year because of our hill training,” says Campbell. “Hills are your friends. You have to be able to pass on hills and know when to relax on hills. Everyone knows the concept, but putting it into practice is a different ballgame altogether.”

Campbell uses the athletes’ target heart rates and has them run up hills with certain grades for time intervals. He also strategically varies the hill workouts.

“Sometimes we’ll find a hill and have the kids run to a point when they’re just about exhausted,” he says. “Then we have them run up the hill and do a 100-200 yard kick up.”

Running down a hill is just as important. This phase is often harder to teach and can cause injuries if the runners put too much pressure on their body. The great ones pull away from the competition on the down slope.

“Instead of having your legs underneath you,” says Campbell, “we teach the kids to unlock their hips and let their legs carry them down the hill. You don’t want to try and run with your arms because you don’t want to change the gait of your legs.”

Leavitt’s Justin Fereshetian is one of the better downhill runners.

“The best kid I’ve seen running downhill is Fereshetian,” says Lewiston coach Ray Putnam, whose team does its climbing and descending on a hill he calls ‘The Pit of Despair.’

“He’s extremely effective. When he runs downhill, he’ll spurt,” Putnam said.

Mt. Blue coach Kelley Cullenberg recently took her squad to Acadia National Park for three days. While the trip focused on team building, she also incorporated hill work throughout the carriage trails around Cadillac Mountain.

But sometimes enough can be enough when training on hills. When asked if she had the kids run up the mountain, her reply was simple.

“You know what we did on Cadillac Mountain? We drove up and watched the sunset.”


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