Oct 7, 2016
Thrill of the Hill

To other people, it may have looked like a giant pile of dirt. To Benny Ellison, it looked like an opportunity.

Last spring, when Los Fresnos (Texas) High School put new turf on its practice field, the construction project left a hill of dirt on school grounds as tall as the top of the school. Each day Ellison, the school’s Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, walked by it, an idea took shape. “I realized what we could accomplish by having athletes run on that hill,” Ellison says.

An avid runner himself, Ellison has experienced the power of hill training personally. “Every training program for a marathon includes a hill day every couple of weeks,” he says. “In the past, I have seen it develop great running technique and power. But we live on the South Texas Coast, and it is completely flat. There were absolutely no hills here anywhere — until the construction project.”

Ellison says school officials were easy to convince that the pile of dirt should remain where it was. “It was going to end up on school grounds somewhere,” he says. “It sits at the back of campus, behind the school. It isn’t an eyesore. And since it’s on the way to our practice field, it’s in a convenient place for all the sports programs to use it.”

Before the hill could be used, however, it needed some modifications. “When the field was finished, the hill wasn’t compact enough to run on,” Ellison says. “It wouldn’t have been safe. So we had a maintainer and a bulldozer come in and pack it down. They also sculpted the sides so they weren’t as steep — if someone had fallen, it would have been a two-story fall.”

The first group to try using the hill last spring was the school’s ROTC class, which ran it and also scaled the steep back side of the hill. Since then, track and field, cross country, boys’ and girls’ soccer, softball, and football have all used it.

The hill offers a 13- or 14-degree grade over 50 yards. Ellison’s teams use it during their warm-ups before practice, but it is far more of a training tool than a warm-up, he explains. “We do our dynamic runs there,” he says. “We start with high knees, rapid fire, up the hill for as many reps as they can do. Then we do butt kicks, A and B skips, and bounding.”

It’s obviously a fantastic conditioning tool, but Ellison says the hill’s biggest advantage is that it teaches proper form. “To run up a hill, you have to use a knee drive and have a slight forward lean,” he explains. “If you don’t, you will fall over backwards. It forces you to load the toe and raise the knee. If your toe gets lazy on a hill, you will drag your foot. We stress having arms at a 90-degree angle and having relaxed hands, relaxed neck. We tell them they need quiet, silent movement up top. All those things are exaggerated on the hill.”

Ellison says the results are visible. “When you see us run now, all of our teams look the same,” he says. “All of our athletes are developing excellent running technique from running the hill, and it shows up in their performance. They are faster overall.”

The hill has proved safe as well. The school’s athletic trainers have not seen a single injury.

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