Olympic Lifting For Better Downhill Running

In order to run faster downhill, incorporate some weightlifting into your training regimen.

In this article, we will discuss the importance of downhill running and how we can improve it. Any runner who has run marquee races such as the Boston Marathon, the Dipsea, Western States, or faced the steep hills at the Wildflower Triathlon know that being able to run down is as important as running up.

I learned this lesson painfully in my first ultra marathon.

I was running in the chill and salty Cape Town air, facing three miles of upward, unrelenting pavement with a in view of the Indian Ocean. I was about to plunge down a three-mile descent of equally unrelenting pavement along the Atlantic. I was about 15-18 miles into the Two Oceans Marathon — my first (and let the record show) only ultra marathon.

I trained well, chugging by runners on this steady ascent. With 20 miles still to run, this strong feeling gave me that much needed confidence in my plan and preparation to keep going.

Midway down the descent, however, it was me who got passed. While my heart rate was low, I just couldn’t run faster. I was maxed, and my hips and knees ached with the effort. I resigned myself to watching the same runners I previously passed retake the lead. I started to ask myself: what does it take to be a good downhill runner? And why am I a bad one? I suffered through, finished the race, and went back to the drawing board.

As I learned, our ability to carry speed down hill is not governed by the standard running regimen, i.e. the tempo, track, and long runs that train our physiological limitations. Instead, it’s beholden to our physical and mechanical limitations.

We all have a given comfort zone of speed. If we let a downhill carry us too fast, we lose control, our body tenses up and we start to slam the ground harder, resulting in greater impact both on our joints and on our musculature. So the key lies in expanding this comfort zone to get more of that free speed on the descents.

As I have learned from coaching at San Francisco CrossFit, the ability to handle this speed and impact of each foot strike goes hand in hand with the ability to jump and land in a powerful and safe position. If these jumping and landing mechanics are wobbly (as was my case), we sense this instability and slow ourselves down.

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Runners jump and land all the time with each step. Cranking up the speed, distance per stride, steepness, and technicality of the terrain increases the demands on every foot strike. If our hips, knees, and ankles are unstable we cannot keep up. Further, we risk “fast” injury in the form of ligament damage, broken bones, or cuts and scrapes from acute stress, or “slow” injury in the form of runners knee, shin splints, and stress fractures from repetitive stress.

Our strength and conditioning program should exaggerate these athletic realities so we can handle the speed and impact of downhill running. That way we can push out our comfort zone and minimize the potential short and long term damage.

The clean (an Olympic lift), the box jump, and the double under in the gym together teach us how to jump and land in a way that will expand our speed comfort zone. The clean teaches us how to jump and land under a heavier load and full range of motion, the box jump teaches us how to jump and land quickly with our body weight, and finally the double under teaches us how to handle jumping and landing at speed with a high cadence. It goes without saying that the prelude to these dynamic exercises is a solid squatting foundation.

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