The Upside Of Downhill Training

Photo: John Segesta

Spend some time going down. Your legs will thank you.

We are nearing the end of January and for 30,000 or so lucky marathoners that means the Boston Marathon is only a little over 12 weeks away. As far as marathons go, Boston is unique in that from the moment the starting gun sounds in Hopkinton runners are blasting downhill. In fact, with a cumulative drop of 130 feet, the opening mile is quite a descent. The steady downhill continues all the way to the fourth mile, where the net decline is 310 feet.

This rate of descent is one of the reasons Boston is not an easy marathon course. Though it may seem counterintuitive, downhill running can take its toll on your body—especially when it comes early in a 26.2-mile race. Downhill running is all about braking–and braking means muscular stress. And as you might imagine, sustained muscular stress on the quads over the course of two, three or more hours is not good for marathoners.

MORE: Hit The Hills, Reap The Benefits

So is there anything you can do to prepare for a downhill race course like Boston? Most runners include uphill repeats in their training, but is there any benefit to running repeats in the other direction?

There are different schools of thought on this subject. Surprisingly, the fastest American ever to run on the Boston course, Ryan Hall, isn’t a big fan of downhill training. “I actually don’t do any downhill training,” he says. However, Hall admits he “played around” with downhill running before, but it didn’t do him much good. “I felt that it wrecked my legs for weeks,” he says.

Instead, Hall prefers to prepare for Boston by doing marathon-paced workouts on rolling terrain. “I don’t feel like Boston plummets downhill or anything extreme,” he contends.

Another Boston course expert is Desiree Davila, who finished second in the women’s race last year, running a huge personal best of 2:22:30. She prepares for the race a bit differently than Hall. As a member of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, Davila takes part in team marathon-pace workouts that mimic the course’s first six miles. These workouts are completed “very early” in her marathon build.

“There is noticeable fatigue in the quads after the first workout,” Davila admits. “It gets easier over the next few. It’s good to get an idea of how the downhills will feel on your legs. In addition, you’ll head into the middle of your marathon training on tired quads, similar to how you’ll head into the middle miles on race day.”

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One thing that Davila and Hall both don’t do is include any weight training to toughen up their quads. Though it may seem like a good idea—heading to the gym to build up the quadriceps—both runners prefer to use their own bodyweight while running to prepare for a Boston-type elevation drop.

Two-time Olympic Trials marathoner-turned-coach Joe Rubio incorporates two routines — “Wake Forest Drills” and “Adams State Miles” — for his cross country athletes who have to be ready to run fast both uphill and downhill.

In the “Wake Forest Drills” Rubio has his athletes run uphill for 800 meters on a gradual dirt grade. “We run the uphill at cross-country race effort,” he says. “Once we hit the top, we immediately turn around and run the downhill at a sustained (not jogging) effort with the goal being to hit the downhill 800 meters about 20-30 seconds slower than the uphill. Once we get to the bottom, we turn around and run back up at race effort. Up and back equals 1 mile, so whatever distance the athlete has normally been running their [tempo runs] we’d do the same distance here.”

Rubio’s “Adam State Miles” are completed on a 1,500-meter (just short of a mile) course that is gradually uphill the entire way. “We’ll run up at race effort, take our 3 minute recovery and run the same course downhill focusing on running fast and smooth,” he says. “We always finish with a downhill mile at a pretty fast effort. The athletes usually run 20-25 seconds faster on the downhill.”

For his Boston-bound marathoners, Rubio incorporates the same marathon-specific pace runs that Davila does, but he puts them near the end of the athlete’s training cycle — typically in the last six to eight weeks before it’s time to taper. “For Boston, we’d do the first half of say a 2 x 4-mile tempo on a gradual downhill asphalt section and on the second 4-mile session, we’d start flat the first 2 miles and hit some uphills the final 2 miles,” he says.

Rubio shares the same opinion on weight lifting as Hall and Davila. “I’m not aware of any weight work that would significantly improve your ability to run downhills better than actually running race-specific workout on downhills,” he contends.

Regardless of how you go about training for your next race, don’t forget about the downhills. In the marathon, these sections of the course can either make or break your day, so prepare for them accordingly. Your legs will thank you.

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