Why It’s Important to Train for Those Downhills too
Love it or loathe it, most runners know and understand the importance of incorporating hill repeats into their training. And while hill running is a frequently-used tool in many runners’ arsenals, most tend to focus on going uphill rather than downhill. But isn’t that kind of the point, you might ask? To build strength through the increased workload that is required by propelling yourself uphill? In part, yes, and these gains can be invaluable in improving your running performance.
But keep in mind that what happens on the other side of the hill crest can be equally beneficial, especially if you’re training for a rolling or hilly race. Far from simply acting as a recovery jaunt in between uphill bursts, structured downhill training can prepare your body for the rigors of race day and benefit your performance in a number of ways. Here’s the low-down.
What downhill running does to the body
If you’ve ever completed a race with steep downhills, you’ll know that they’re not kind to the body. They jar your joints, tax your quads and, quite frankly, can be much harder to contend with than uphills in some instances. So what exactly happens to your body when you run downhill? According to Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D., “running downhill requires eccentric muscle contractions as you brake with each stride: Momentum forces your quads and calves to lengthen as you’re trying to contract them. The resulting damage to muscle fibers eventually slows you down and can lead to crippling soreness”.
And why you should do more of it
So why, then, would you want to expose your muscles to more of that? Enter the repeated bout effect. According to Hutchinson, “even one experience of eccentric muscle damage is enough to trigger the “repeated bout effect,” which lessens the muscle damage and strength loss of a similar exercise session for up to 10 weeks”. Which ultimately means that, if you practice running downhill before a race, you should a) be better at it and b) ache less while doing it during your race.
The aim should, therefore, be to include just enough downhill training in your schedule to get your body used to it without crippling it, which, granted, could take a bit of practice to figure out.
How to master the art of downhill running
Which brings us to the next question: Is there a proper or correct way to run downhill, or is it simply a matter of taking of the breaks and flying home? While it’s certainly not necessary to over-complicate things, there are ways in which you can turn yourself into a more efficient downhill runner.
According to running coach Jenny Hadfield, the key to a good technique is to stop trying to fight gravity. “Work with the hill by gently leaning your body into the hill. Relax and let it pull you down”. She adds that you should try to plant each foot slightly behind the hip line. “Normally your foot lands just beneath your hips, however, moving it to just behind your hips will help maintain momentum and reduce the impact forces you feel when your feet land under or in front of your hips,” Hadfield explains.
Hutchinson adds the following tips:
- Quicken your stride. Don’t overstride! By taking shorter, faster steps, you can lessen the impact of each step. In order to find your perfect downhill cadence, play around until you find a stride length that enables you to limit the feeling of “breaking” to a minimum.
- Continually alter your foot strike. By not landing on the same part of the foot with every step you take, you can ensure that the weight is not only carried by one specific muscle group as you descend. So instead of only landing on the midfoot or balls of your feet on the downhill, make an effort to vary between these as you run. Also try to avoid hard heel strikes, since these tend to break your speed and put unnecessary stress on the joints.
Just a note of caution: Be sure to ease into this technique and practice it a few times before launching into it head-first during a race. You don’t want to end up bruised, injured or defeated by going all-out on your first try!
How much downhill running should you do?
And how big should your focus on downhill running be when you’re training for a hilly race, you ask? The key is to not overdo it. Hutchinson recommends mimicking the demands (i.e. gradient, length and frequency of hills) of your goal race in your training. In other words, if you are training for a race that encompasses many hills, take some time to try running fartleks, with caution. Additionally, if you are thinking about training for the Boston Marathon, take the time to consider practicing long runs on a treadmill on a decline – before testing it outside.
Prepare your body for the ups and downs of a race
So next time you enter a hilly event, remember to prepare your body for both the up- and downhill sections of the race. Not only will this benefit your performance on race day, but it should also spare you a whole lot of pain and agony post-race too!