Ease-in the Clutch

Ever forged your way up a hill early in a run, only to find, when you come upon another hill later, that your legs feel leaden and unresponsive? I certainly have, in fact it has always seemed to me that there was only so much climbing in my legs, and once it was used up, it was gone for several days. Now, I’m not so convinced.

Preparing for a rather intimidating trail event that that includes several large climbs spaced out over the total distance, I set the goal one morning of running up the largest of the climbs twice in a row – with even a distant thought I might be able to tough-out three laps. (Masochism runs in the family…)

The first time up was just as I expected with a fresh start; hard work, but steady, and I crested the ridge in decent (for me) time. On the way down I reveled in gravity’s assist while reminding myself not to overdo it – I’ve learned the hard way that even on a steep downhill, too fast a pace can take it out of you, and I had another lap planned.

Once at the bottom I turned right around and headed back up, but this time, because I’d set such a stiff goal – two laps on a hill I’d always considered an achievement to do once – I set out pretty slowly, telling myself it would be enough just to keep a running stride, regardless of the pace. Enlisting the music in my headphones to drown out the cries of my leaden legs, I settled in to daydreaming, but here’s the thing – when I glanced down at my GPS a good while later, I was surprised to find myself not that far off the pace of my first lap, and feeling almost as strong!

Which made me wonder: maybe that dreaded dead-leg syndrome was not so much about the exhaustion of particular muscles, as it was about the shock to the entire system when different muscles were enlisted in different ways to transition from downhill (or flat) to climbing once again. Between my low expectations and the distraction of music coming from my Shuffle, I’d managed to coast thru that transition and only gradually drift back up to the cadence, stride and level of effort that my conditioning caused to feel natural.

Now, I’m not saying it was painless getting up that hill again, and yes, my time was a bit slower than the first lap, but I made it feeling surprisingly strong, and headed back down with newfound optimism. Enough so that there was no doubt about trying for lap three, on which I made a point of starting out super-slow, and only building the pace as my legs felt capable, which they did after a few minutes of perfunctory complaining. Cruising down after cresting that ridge three times felt great, and I found myself looking forward to the upcoming event more than ever before.

From now on, my goal when approaching yet another hill will be to ease-in the clutch as slowly as possible, allowing the wise physiology of the body plenty of time to drop into a different gear before asking it to do its best.

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