Gain strength and speed by running the opposite way on an incline.
Hill repeats. The mere mention of these two words to a runner spurs up thoughts of attacking an ascent at near full speed in an effort to build strength and power. Muscles burn as gravity inevitably slows you down until your watch tells you it’s time to stop.
Let’s reverse those thoughts for a moment and explore the benefits of running the opposite way on an incline.
Running downhill in training from time to time has its upside. Doing so will better prepare you for the rigors of racing on an undulating course, but will also help strengthen and toughen muscles that get ignored when running uphill or on flat ground.
“The main benefit from downhill running is the strength gains you can get from it,” says Steve Magness, exercise scientist and a coach with the Nike Oregon Project. “This is extremely helpful for training for races where you’ll spend a lot of time running downhills because now you won’t have this weak link in your chain that hasn’t been accustomed to the pounding that it has to withstand. Additionally, even if you aren’t training for a race with downhill in it, some of this training can serve as an injury prevention method to strengthen that area.”
Proceed with caution when barreling down a decline, however. Running downhill may require less effort than going in the opposite direction, but it’s much harder on the body. One of the main things to be wary of when running downhill is overstriding, which causes a braking effect, forcing you to land harder on your heels and sending greater impact forces through your body that make you more susceptible to injury.
“Downhill running puts an enormous eccentric load on both your quads and hamstrings, which is the reason people tend to get sore when doing much downhill running,” says Magness. “What happens though is your body adapts to this stress load by repairing the microtears in the muscle fiber and strengthening the tendons so that they can withstand that eccentric strain in the future.”
So how do you become better at running away from the top of a hill? Gary Brimmer, the 1996 U.S. 50K trail running champion and a running coach in San Antonio, Texas, suggests carefully and gradually sprinkling some downhill running workouts into your weekly routine, and even incorporating tempo runs on a net downhill course into training.
“We mix in downhill tempo efforts either on portions of the same course or on a treadmill,” says Brimmer, whose athletes do specific downhill training only when preparing for either the 3M Austin Half Marathon or the Boston Marathon. “This helps the runners get used to running race pace while going downhill and helps condition the quads for the pounding.”
Next time you’re preparing to tackle a tough set of hill repeats, remember: what goes up is also worth going down.
Five Fast Downhill Races
Boston Marathon: The iconic Patriots Day race in April features a net drop of 480 feet in elevation from start to finish. Known for its infamous uphills late in the race, this course can be rocket fast on the right day, as Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai showed when he ran the 2:03:02 in 2011 – the fastest marathon in history. www.baa.org
Steamtown Marathon: A popular Boston Marathon qualifier (approximately 27% of all finishers post qualifying marks), this rocket-fast course in northeast Pennsylvania drops 955 from start to finish each October. Most of the significant descents take place in the race’s first 8 miles. Get your quads ready for the task! www.steamtownmarathon.com
Austin 3M Half Marathon: Taking place in late January, this race features a point-to-point, mostly downhill course in Austin, Texas that is home to many a runner’s half-marathon personal best, dropping 315 feet over the course of 13.1 miles. www.3m.com
Millennium Mile: Want to ring in the new year with a new personal best in the mile? Head to Londonderry, N.H. on New Year’s Day with 1,100 of your newest friends and fly down a course that drops 88 feet in 1 mile. www.millenniumrun.com
Broad Street Run: Philadelphia is known for having a few fast race courses and the Broad Street Run, held the first Sunday in May, is one of them. A straight shot down Broad Street, the course drops 130 feet from start to finish – leading to personal bests for most of the 30,000 participants. www.broadstreetrun.com
This piece first appeared in the May 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.