By Dr. Steve Smith, Pacers Founder and Team Doc
It would seem that running downhill would give you a lot of help from gravity with an easy cruise into the finish line in record time. The reality is that downhill races often end with disappointment and very sore legs. Chances are good that you will burn up your knees and end up limping to the finish line. Then it’s patellar tendonitis for the next eight weeks and a bunch of visits to the sports doc getting a lot of therapy.
Although your cardiovascular system will work a lot less on a downhill race, your shock-absorbing mechanics will be working overtime to absorb all the impact forces.
Let’s go over some strategies to get you to the finish line with a personal best finish time and a smile on your face.
Put miles under your feet. The more you run, the more adaptive stress you place on your gait muscles. The more your muscles adapt, the stronger you get. Simple concept: stress your muscles and they react by adding more myoglobin, more mitochondria (the little organelles that produce energy), and stronger cross linkages.
For a downhill marathon, Coach Edgar, our marathon coach extraordinaire, has great results with his runners by getting a minimum of 30 miles per week and there is plenty of science to back up this magic number. There are other studies that indicate more mileage is even better, with another big breakthrough at 70 miles per week. The famous Kenyan runners put in somewhere between 150 to 174 miles per week! You will have to account for your age, general fitness level, natural ability, work schedule, family situation, and stress levels in determining your optimum training mileage. But 30 miles per week is a minimum if you want to perform well in the marathon.
This doesn’t mean that you run 15 miles on Saturday and then three 5-milers during the week. Though you need long runs, consistent mileage in constant dosage is better than tearing down your muscles from a single long run. It is better to be consistent with shorter mileage, to avoid unnecessary muscle damage. Getting 20 mid-week miles plus your Saturday long run (more if you want to run the race of your life) is a good rule of thumb even for an amateur marathoner.
There is an old maxim of athletic training: training should always be sport specific. So, if you want to be a runner, run. If you want to race downhill, train downhill. Simple as that.
Your quadriceps are the main shock absorbing muscles and downhill training runs will cause them to engage like nothing else. But, there is a particular problem with quad activation when running downhill. While the quads are being shock contracted, they are at the same time being stretched as the knee bends, exerting tremendous loading on the Patellar tendons. When you run downhill, high impact forces cause muscle damage to the quads. Your body will repair the damage with stronger tissue, resulting in stronger muscles and better shock absorption. What is important to know here is the healing time required to repair that muscle damage: two to three weeks. Knowing the muscle healing time should set your training agenda for about 14 days between downhill training runs. There isn’t any guess work here, these numbers were determined by muscle biopsies on runners who did downhill training runs.
A Word About Warm Up
A good warm up will allow your capillaries to dilate, diverting blood to your working muscles and turn your running energy systems. Downhill running requires a longer warm up, due to reduced strain on your cardiorespiratory system. Take the first two to three miles to warm up at a much slower pace and you will avoid injuries. Coach Edgar has had great success using longer warm up times with his program, with fewer injuries and runners feeling less tired and sore at the end of long runs.
Gait and Posture
Long strides end with big impact so keep your strides short. Short strides don’t get you very far so you’ll need more of them. This means that you will need a quicker turnover rate. Fast turnover and shorter strides will keep the impact forces from destroying your quads and lower back.
If you experience soreness in your lower back the day after a run, then change your posture. A slight amount of pelvic tilt will help distribute the forces more evenly across your joints. Try flattening the curve in your lower back, just slightly when running downhill, but not by bending at the waist.
Strong heel strike should be avoided at all cost because of braking force, causing high impact on knees and lower back. Leaning back will cause more heel strike. A slight forward lean will allow more forefoot strike, but avoid excessive forward bending at the waist. Aim to strike on the forefoot, but expect to feel the greatest force through the mid-foot.
Don’t lean back! This causes huge impact forces on your legs and back. Tighten your core as if you are on public display and you’ll protect your back while increasing stride efficiency.
Guidelines to Avoid Injury
There are wide variations for appropriate training mileages and speeds, so how much mileage and at what exertion level you should train depends on your current level of conditioning. Here are some simple guidelines you can use as a gauge that will keep you from risking injury while applying enough training stress to accomplish your goals:
- Know the grade of your race downhill and train on a similar hill. If you can, training on the race course itself is the best. You will need a two-week recovery for each downhill run and at least 10 days of taper before your race, so plan accordingly.
- If your race has an extreme descent then your downhill training should start early in the program and increase the grade of your run in phases before you do your capstone training run on the race course.
- Start with a 45-minute run and keep your pace to about 60 or 70 percent of your maximum effort. At 60 percent effort you will be running at conversation pace, but you will be going significantly faster and with less cardiovascular exertion than your pace on a flat road. This will exert an adaptive strain on your quads that may leave you sore over the next couple of days. If you are not sore or tired then the training stress is too low and you can run again in a week. If you are very sore, then you will need a couple of weeks to recover. Your next run should be adjusted accordingly.
- If you had little reaction to the first run, gradually increase the time and pace accordingly. Even though you didn’t feel much from the previous run, the training stress is present and you will have gained strength. Don’t let the confidence gained from the first run affect your pace. Hubris has killed many training programs—be patient—accept that you are getting stronger with grace and hold back on your pace. You will be glad you did on race day. You don’t need to run downhill for hours at a time to gain strength in your legs, a 45 to 90-minute run is more than enough to get the job done.
- Uphill running adds strength to your hamstrings, gluteal muscle and quads. This is a great advantage allowing you to get to train uphill to get to the downhill. This means you can do an uphill run, work hard, build strength, then turn around and have some fun running back down. You can use a parking structure if you are short on ideas where to train but more than likely there is a wicked hill nearby that will help you build shock absorbing strength.
Good luck in your next downhill race!