Residents of San Francisco have no shortage of natural wonder waiting to be explored. On any given day, we are rewarded with sublime views of the diverse landscape around us. The icing on the cake is that this environmental eye candy also helps us stay in shape. We are forced to face the challenges imposed by the topography everywhere we walk, run, or bike. If you are a believer in High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) like myself, the incredibly steep, massive hills of San Francisco represent our low hanging fruit.
An abundance of research has been done on the health benefits of HIIT, which is characterized by short, intense physical activity, with small rests in-between. This New York Times article is a valuable source, explaining numerous benefits of HIIT. Here are a few reasons I’m inclined (get it?) to use San Francisco’s hills for training in this method.
- Less time commitment then long distance cardio sessions.
- Lower impact and safer on your joints than running on flat ground.
- Recruits a large number of muscle groups.
- Numerous ways to modify them.
- They can be meditative.
There are more reasons to list but I’m guessing you gather running up a hill really fast probably equals good for you.
When I moved to SF 11 years ago, the hill located at Kearny just above Broadway quickly became a favorite of mine. My friend and I would take a break from work to tackle that thing, at times with reckless abandon and other times with scientific precision. That particular hill offers a great workout due to consistency of a steep incline, a staircase providing a nice alternative climbing method, and is the beginning of a treacherous climb up to Coit Tower. My personal best performance was 8 full-out, fear-inducing, lung-destroying, jello-legged sprints to the top. Ultimately, my glutes and hamstrings would seize, forcing me to sit for 15 minutes until I recovered enough for the walk back to work. Sound appealing yet?
The aforementioned hill was referenced by an article published in 7x7 magazine which produced an updated list of the steepest streets in San Francisco. A couple of beasts on the list I was already well aware of, but most I never had the privilege of encountering. When I discovered the article I knew I had to take it upon myself to sample what workout opportunities the steepest of the steep had to offer. I was positive the fitness community would be waiting with bated breath to hear the results of my hilly quest.
WHAT I LEARNED
The mornings I woke up knowing I was going to find one of the hills and ascend as fast as my body would allow both scared and excited me. My stomach butterflies get restless when preparing to push my body to it’s limits. Would I find a hill I could not climb? One which destroys me physically and takes my dignity along with it? Possible cardiac arrest? Or perhaps, encounter a hill sprinting cult whose members, acting as my guardian angels, guide my ascension towards the heavens. Fortunately, I escaped the experience with my dignity, heart, and spiritual beliefs intact.
Few things in life compare to the feeling of pushing yourself until your physiology tells you, not so subtlety, to fuck-off. Personally speaking, this feeling can only be surpassed by indulging in a plate of ceviche from La Mar or maybe watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Feelings aside, you learn a few things when approaching these physical and mental boundaries.
1.You’re not going to die. It may feel like it, but you come to understand you’re going to pull through every time. Have a fear of death? Sprint up a San Francisco hill and death will sound like a vacation.
2. How to control your body’s response to a stressful situation. Like I implied before, sprinting up a hill is stressful; however, you can draw on these experiences of exceptional exertion. Knowledge of the intensity achieved and endured when running hills can be applied to future stressful situations. You get familiar with how stress manifests itself, physically and mentally. Subjecting yourself to these stressors regularly will reduce their impact.
3. Understanding your body’s limitations and how much of those are physical vs. mental. Chances are you will want to stop at some point when sprinting up what feels like, a near-vertical, never-ending hill. Is it because your lungs and legs feel like they’ve been set ablaze? Or maybe because you have never pushed yourself this hard before and are unsure of how high a intensity you can endure? Ask yourself what limits you from reaching your potential, then take steps to push past those limitations.
Over the course of two months I ran five of the hills on the list. I found the hills with the steepest grades tend to be fairly short in length and do not have a consistent incline. But yet, with a small amount of ingenuity backed by knowledge of HIIT you can experience a workout which has physiological and psychological benefits exceeding that of most any other form of exercise.
I don’t want to come off as a fitness elitist. Any workout is better than no workout. None of this may be up your alley and I failed to inspire you. At the least, tonight instead of an Uber, I hope you take a hilly walk home and enjoy the view.
Have a suggestion for a great running hill near you? Please get in touch!
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***Please check with your doctor before engaging in exercise.****