Most experienced runners are aware of the benefits of including uphill repeats in their training schedules: increased power, strength and speed, improved VO2 max and also the reinforcement of running with good form, i.e., shortening your stride, driving forward from the hips, lifting your knees, engaging your core and pumping your arms.
But what about going downhill? Since it doesn’t take much effort to run away from the top of a hill, invites over-striding and only tends to make you sore and stiff anyway, running downhill probably isn’t worth practicing, right?
“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,” says Steve Magness, author of “The Science of Running” who coaches distance runners the University of Houston. “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.”
Working on your downhill running in training can have huge benefits come race day. Along with strengthening your legs, including various types of downhill repeats in your training schedule from time to time promotes faster turnover, which will improve your basic speed, helping you become a more complete runner who can take advantage of the declines on an undulating race course.
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When running downhill, it’s important to pay close attention to your form and effort level. Going kamikaze down a steep grade is a likely recipe for disaster, so it’s important to exercise some discipline, especially if you haven’t done much downhill training in the past. Avoid over-striding by employing a rapid turnover and trying to strike directly underneath your center of gravity as best as possible. Be light and nimble on your feet. Finally, look where you’re going and use your arms for balance, especially if it’s a steep descent.
Not sure how to start going down? Here are a few workouts worth sprinkling into your training schedule. Remember, downhill running—especially if you haven’t been doing a lot of it—places a tremendous amount of stress on the body, especially your quads and hamstrings. Allow yourself the opportunity to recover properly in the days that follow.
Seek out a gradual incline in the range of 3-5 percent that’s roughly 100-200 yards long. After easy runs twice a week, perform a set of six to eight 20-second accelerations, alternating directions so that the odd-numbered reps take you uphill and the even-numbered ones go downhill. When doing strides after a run, accelerate for 5 seconds, hold close to your fastest sustainable speed for 10 seconds and gradually decelerate over the final 5 seconds. Post-run strides are a quick and easy way to improve turnover and reinforce good mechanics.
Often when we do uphill repeats, it’s common practice to stop at the top of the hill to catch our breath before walking or jogging back down before repeating the process. A simple twist on such a workout is to run up a 5-7 percent grade at a steady, moderately challenging effort and over the other side (or right back down the hill) at a quick—but not all-out—clip. An example would be running uphill for 1-2 minutes before turning around and running back down at a quick, but controlled, effort. This is a great workout that emphasizes both concentric and eccentric loading of the muscles and teaches you how to shift gears in preparation for a rolling race course. If you’re a trail runner, doing Up-Downs on the type of terrain that you’ll be racing on is good practice for improving your footwork and descending skills.
Eight, 10, 12 (or more) one-lap repetitions of the track at a fast pace has long been many a runner’s staple speed session, but moving this tried-and-true workout to a downhill stretch of road or trail every once in a while is a great way to work on accelerating your speed—literally—as well as for developing a better sense of how race effort relates to race pace. For example, running 12 x 400m on a gentle 3-5 percent decline at your 5K race effort with 90 seconds recovery between reps will yield a faster pace than you’d run for the same workout on a track or flat stretch of road or trail. Aside from promoting a faster turnover, downhill intervals can help you to better understand the relationship between effort and pace, which will come in handy when you’re racing on a rolling course.