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Training for Newton Hills in Boston Marathon Course

Posted by George Parker on
Training for Newton Hills in Boston Marathon Course

I have run the Boston Marathon twice now and each time the Newton Hills have destroyed me. In my first year, I humbly walked up Heatbreak Hill. Resolving to do better, the next time I ran hard through the Newton Hills, only to have run too hard and sacrificed the last four miles of the race. The overall performance was better (3 hours and two minutes), but still much slower than my qualifying efforts.

Boston 2020 will be different! I am going to specifically train for the rolling hills of Boston – and specifically for the Newton Hills.

The first and best piece of advice is to do more long-runs and tempo runs outside on a hilly course. I live in such an area (the hills, heat, and humidity of Atlanta). However, even a hilly course is not exactly like the Newton Hills

So, what exactly are the Newton Hills? They are four hills over a 5 mile stretch in the Boston Marathon. Individually, they are nothing special with 2-4% grades and less than 0.5 mile length. What makes them hard, in my opinion, is their placement on the course beginning at miles 16 through 21. Around mile 21 is the infamous where many marathoners hit the “wall”. The Newton Hills are difficult because of their timing before the “Wall” and their serial succession as illustrated in the graphic below.

Boston Marathon Newton Hills Graphic 

In my training plan, I do marathon pace effort each week: beginning at 6 miles and peaking at 10 miles at marathon effort. This workout helps me internalize marathon goal pace, which gets progressively harder as the legs accumulate fatigue during an 18 week training cycle.

Unlike many runners, I embrace the treadmill running for training. With my life, family, and work, I need the flexibility to run late/early, dark/light, or when kids are playing downstairs. I’m sure there are clever ways to get outside, but I’ve learned to make the treadmill work for me --- I’m fortunate that I am able to have one in my home.

I have designed a treadmill workout to help prepare for the Newton Hills. Here’s how it goes:

During my marathon pace runs, I pick a 5 mile stretch where I can simulate running through the Newton Hills (reference the illustration above again). The treadmill intervals then look like the below:

  • Marathon Pace Run: Marathon goal pace with treadmill at 1%
  • Interval 1 (Washington Hill): 0.5 miles @ 2.5% Incline at marathon pace (or 10-20 sec slower)
    • Recover: 1.0 mile at Marathon goal pace and 0.5% incline
  • Interval 2 (Brae Burn Hill): 0.4 miles @ 4% Incline at marathon pace (or 10-20 sec slower)
    • Recover: 1.5 miles at marathon goal pace and 0.5% incline
  • Interval 3 (John Kelly Hill): 0.4 miles at 3% incline at marathon pace (or 10-20 sec slower)
    • Recover: 0.5 miles at marathon goal pace and 0.5% incline
  • Interval 4 (Heartbreak Hill): 0.5 miles at 3% incline at marathon pace (push it!)
  • Finish run at marathon pace and 1% incline

The net result is a harder effort up the inclines than would occur during the actual race --- both the pace is higher and there is no “downhill” recovery. The net benefit --- at least I certainly hope --- is better physical and psychological preparation because I will have run the Newton Hills 10-15 times during training.

Of course, you could always move to Boston or fly to Newton, Massachusetts for the weekend. But, last time I checked, it is cold this time of year!

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