Gain strength and speed by running the opposite way on an incline.
When Sir Isaac Newton defined his law of gravity by stating that, “what goes up must come down,” he probably didn’t have running workouts in mind, but the same basic principle applies when training for downhill races.
The mere mention of the word “hill” to a runner usually spurs up thoughts of unrelenting ascents that cause muscles to burn as gravity inevitably slows your pace — which is why you sought out a downhill half-marathon or marathon in the first place to pursue a new personal best.
But just because there’s more down than up on a race course doesn’t mean you can simply coast down easy street and expect an automatic PB. It’s important to prepare your body for the rigors of racing on an undulating course during some of your key training sessions such as long runs and tempo runs. Inserting a few deliberate downhill workouts into your weekly routine will help strengthen and toughen many of the muscles and joints that get a free pass when you’re running on flat ground or uphill.
“The main benefit from downhill running is the strength gains you can get from it,” says Steve Magness, head cross country coach at the University of Houston and coach to several professional runners. “This is extremely helpful in training for races where you’ll spend a lot of time running downhill 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, and you may be inclined to speed up since your turnover will naturally quicken, but keep in mind that going down is much harder on the body, particularly the quads, hips and knees. 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. Instead, lean forward at the hips, keeping your center of gravity over your feet to avoid overstriding. Land softly on your midfoot to maintain stability and reduce the shock to your shins, knees and hips.
“Downhill running puts an enormous eccentric load on both your quads and hamstrings, which is the reason people tend to get sore when doing too much downhill running,” Magness says. “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 key downhill running workouts into your training schedule. Schedule a few of your key half-marathon and marathon workouts, such as long runs and tempo runs, on a net downhill course so you can simulate the conditions that you’ll face on race day.
“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, both of which feature a drop in elevation from start to finish. “This helps the runners get used to running race pace while going downhill and helps condition the quads for the pounding.”
When prepping for a new personal best in the half-marathon or marathon, remember: what goes up must come down. Practice running downhill before your big day and reap the rewards of Newton’s law of gravity.
Five Fast Downhill Races
Here are a handful of great downhill races. Sign-up early (as most sell out), train wisely and start conservatively.
St. George Marathon
Oct. 5, St. George, UT
This fall favorite descends nearly 2,600 breathtaking feet from the Pine Valley Mountains to Worthern Park and is a popular option for runners seeking a personal best or a Boston qualifier.
Oct. 13, Scranton, PA
A popular Boston Marathon qualifier (approximately 27 percent of all finishers post qualifying marks), this rocket-fast course drops 955 feet from start to finish, most of which comes in the quad-burning final 8 miles.
California International Marathon
Dec. 8, Sacramento, CA
This point-to-point downhill marathon is one of the fastest 26.2-mile courses in the country. It descends 340 feet from start to finish. www.runcim.org
3M Austin Half Marathon
Jan. 19, 2014, Austin, TX
This mostly downhill point-to-point course runs north to south and features many long straightaways and numerous pace groups to help pull you to a fast time. www.3mhalfmarathon.com
Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon
June 1, 2014, San Diego
The new 13.1-mile layout of this classic race through America’s Finest City is mostly flat for 10 miles, then drops significantly over the final 5K. Kenyan Bernard Koech ran the fastest half-marathon ever recorded on American soil (58:41) and numerous age-group participants notched personal bests. www.runrocknroll.com/san-diego
This piece first appeared in the August 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.