I’ve mentioned a few (hundred) times that my quads and I are nervous about running the Colorado Fall Classic Marathon. I’ve run reasonably well on courses with lots of downhill before (Estes and Boston, specifically), but those were rolling courses. This one is all downhill, dropping 2500 feet over its 26.2 miles. And downhill running hurts.
In this article, Matt Fitzgerald explains why running downhill is so painful: “When your foot strikes the ground, impact forces try to make your knee buckle. Unconsciously, you contract your quadriceps to stabilize your knee and remain upright. But your knee does flex and your quads do stretch a bit when you land, so those muscles are essentially pulled in two directions simultaneously. This strain causes microscopic trauma to the muscle fibers.” The effect of that trauma is twofold: limited performance and substantial soreness.
Obviously, I’d like to avoid both of those effects as much as possible (though post-marathon DOMS is inevitable), so I’m working hard to prepare for that long descent. Recently, I’ve searched all over the Internet, dug through some of my favorite running books, and learned a lot about downhill running.
As an English teacher, I know that one of the best ways to learn about something is not just to read about it, but to synthesize all that information and create a piece of writing. So today, I’m practicing what I preach and compiling some information about how to become the best and strongest downhill runner possible. I hope you learn something from this little synopsis, too!
Four Strategies For A Solid Downhill Race
1. Run downhill. A lot.
Duh. Fitzgerald says that “a single downhill run that is extreme enough to cause significant soreness provides a protective effect that lasts up to two months.” Of course that doesn’t mean that just one downhill run will entirely prepare me for this race, but it does mean that every downhill run I can get in will be beneficial. I don’t live near any long hills, but I’m hoping to get in at least two long, all-downhill runs. Even without long hills at my disposal, research suggests that I’ll be able to reap similar benefits from running downhill repeats. Here are some examples of killer downhill-repeat workouts from this article by Jason Karp:
- 4 x ½ mile downhill (2-3% grade) at 5K race pace effort
- 3 x 1 mile downhill (2-3% grade) at 10K race pace effort
- 5 x 100 to 200 meters downhill (6-8% grade) at 5K race pace effort with walk back up hill as recovery
I’ll also be running most tempo and interval runs on a decline, even if they’re on my gym’s incline trainer.
A word of caution: Just like you would with any new stimulus (speedwork, increased distance, etc.), add downhills gradually. Going from zero downhill running to five days a week of downhills is a recipe for injury. Start with one downhill workout every week or two and build from there.
2. Run uphill, too. Running downhill exclusively will strengthen your quads, sure. But you’ll be neglecting your hamstrings, glutes, calves, etc., as Pete Rea explains in this article. Running uphill will develop those back-body muscles, giving your body better balance and the strength to push through that long downhill course. Ian Torrence explains, “Any short hill sprint or long ascent workout develops power and endurance, two necessary attributes when descending tricky slopes.”
3. Find the downhill running form that works best for you, then keep it consistent. Running form in general is fairly individualized, and downhill running is no different. In his book You, Only Faster, Greg McMillan explains that the “best” form varies from runner to runner, so experimenting is the only way to find the form that is truly best for you (p. 217). There are some form guidelines that all runners should follow, though. In Advanced Marathoning, Pete Pfitzinger discusses those guidelines: “On downhills, try not to brake. Keep your center of gravity perpendicular to the hill” (p. 147).
This article from Competitor has some great downhill form advice, including using your arms for balance and looking ahead down the hill, and everything I read emphasized the importance of avoiding overstriding. Keep your feet under your center of gravity, just like you (should) do on the flats.
4. Do downhill-specific strength training. Certain strength exercises can help prepare a runner’s legs for the brutality of downhill running. Along with basic strength exercises like squats and lunges, Torrence suggests this quad strengthening movement:
(it’s apparently called “quadruped eccentric quad strengthening, but I call it “shifty downward dog”) and box jump-downs with a small hop. Bobby McGee, quoted in this Runner’s World article, encourages other plyometric-type exercises that include “hopping and bounding” so your muscles get used that that pounding.
A strong core is also essential for all running, but especially downhill running, as your core is what keeps you upright and balanced. Planks (front and side), v-ups, metronomes, Jane Fondas, leg lifts, hip bridges, etc., are all making regular appearances in my strength routine.
5. Eat a lot of cereal. Just kidding. That one is in preparation for my all-night trail relay with the ladies of team Cereal Killers. But really, it can’t hurt.
Downhill running provides some unique challenges, that is certain. By following these tips, I’ll be ready (I hope) to tackle 26.2 downhill miles three months from now — and you’ll be better able to approach whatever declines your next runs send your way.
Any downhill running tips I missed?
What’s the most challenging race you’ve ever done?