ups and downs

AS A survivor of the Leek Half Marathon, Cheadle 4, Flying Fox, Trentham 10 and Meerbrook 15k races, I can safely boast I have some knowledge when it comes to tackling some of the county’s worst hillocks.

However, what appears to make me unique, is that while I loathe mustering the mental and physical strength to get up them (like most sane people), I relish attacking the downhill and flying along at a furious pace. A pace I can never match normally in the absence of the force of gravity.
In fact, it’s not been unknown for me to generate such speed downhill, that I’ve moved up several places in races, despite their far superior efforts of others on the uphill sections.
Why? It was only after Meerbrook last year having spoken to several fellow survivors that I realised many road runners (fell runners are a different breed in this respect) completely loathe a steep downhill stretch. Pushed beyond their comfortable pace, many walk away with bad lower backs, screaming quad muscles, aching shins and shoulders.
Because the truth is, while most runners understand the importance of hill training and including hill reps etc in their weekly routine, how many actually practice running downhill at a full racing pace?
Yet downhill running is as much a skill to be mastered as getting up them if you are to remain injury free and avoid losing precious minutes when racing. Running down after a hard climb, rather than taking a breather, is one of the key skills of hill running.
Most runners make one or two obvious mistakes when running downhill. They either sprint, which causes severe muscle soreness later on, or they’re so hesitant to surrender to gravity that they’re constantly braking, which fatigues the quadriceps muscles.
The optimum pace is somewhere in between.

What happens when you run downhill

The act of running downhill produces eccentric contractions in the quads. This means that the muscle becomes longer as it contracts. Muscles don’t like doing this as it is very traumatic and requires a lot of energy, and results in a dramatic loss of power and endurance.
You may have noticed the effects of this if you have run hard down a steep or long descent – you reach the bottom and suddenly it feels like your wobbling legs have had half a dozen pints of beer.
Many runners rightly add hill sessions to their training routine. Almost all run uphill hard, and jog back down easy, repeating this several times until satisfied or exhausted (or they vomit, as I have on occasions).
This is all well and good, but it doesn’t help to run downhill fast, or help to recover from a downhill section mid-way through a race or long run when there are still several miles left to cover.
By regularly reversing the hill session and running uphill easy and downhill hard, the runner can train their quad muscles to become more bomb-proof in the battle of eccentric muscle contractions. And this also improves downhill running technique.

Can downhill training really help prevent injuries?

Definitely. Most hill-related injuries, both minor and major, occur on the downhill sections of a course, when gravity is working with you and the full weight of your body is pounding through your joints and muscles. Practising downhill running during training forces your quadriceps muscles to contract ‘eccentrically’ – minimising the soreness which often follows a hard, hilly section – and will also condition the ligaments and tendons in your knees and ankles to the strain of moving fast downhill.

Downhill running – posture

• When running downhill, try not to lean back. Work WITH the hill by gently leaning your body into it (keeping your torso perpendicular to the horizontal), keep your body forward, just like when you’re going uphill. You don’t lean back and fight it.
• Adopt a good running posture looking up and ahead, and on steeper ground take very fast steps and try to minimise the time each foot is on the ground. Be light on your feet, pushing off on the ball of the foot, and getting your feet off the ground as quickly as possible.. Try not to let your feet slap on the ground when you are running downhill. Step lightly and don’t reach out with your feet. Slapping can be a sign of weak muscles in the shin area, in which case you need to strengthen them.
• Open your running stride (cover more ground stride for stride) and focus on planting your foot just behind your hip. Normally your foot lands just beneath your hips, however, moving it to just behind your hips will help maintain momentum and reduce the impact forces you feel when your feet land under or in front of your hips. This takes practice – make sure to try this a little at a time to avoid injury.
• Let your arms swing out a little wider than usual to maintain balance and rhythm and remember to relax your neck, shoulders and arms and run comfortably. Think about letting yourself just flow down the hill.

Downhill running – the don’t’s!

• Don’t brake. Resist the tendency to hold back. It slows you down and, more seriously, increases your risk of injury, especially to the quadriceps muscles in the front of the thigh.
• Don’t over-stride. If you reach way out your heel will hit the ground and that will send the shock all the way through your body.
• Don’t try to run as fast as you can. You’re already running fast because gravity is pulling you down the hill, so just concentrate on technique.

How to train for heading downhill

Incorporate hill repeats into your training, but mix it up. Choose a day where you use the uphill as “recovery” and work on the downhill. This is an opportunity to execute good technique and allow you to run faster than normal. If you are running on a “rolling” course, this is also a chance to practice running well downhill. Of course, ease into this type of regimen, with just a few repeats, keep the speed restrained and start with a moderate grade, such as 2%. Over time, as your legs get used to the extra pounding, you can increase not only the length of the repeat but the grade and your pace. Let the downhills become your forte and a place to gain “free” time. Better downhill technique will translate into better overall running performance.

You can also ready your body for the rigors of downhill running by doing some specific exercises in the gym or at home. Strengthening your legs and body is important. Incorporate whole body strength exercises for your upper, lower and core muscle groups (see my exercise in this magazine last year!). Exercises that will develop strength in your abs and low back, quads, hips (your core muscles) and calves are especially important. If strength training is new to your regimen, start gradually with one set of 12-15 repetitions per set. Doing more will risk intense leg soreness which will set your running back.

Single Leg Lunges are great for runners as they train each leg independently and strengthen the quads, hamstrings and hips. Start with stationary lunges for single sets of 12-15 repetitions and progress to 2-3 sets of 8-12. As you get stronger, hold hand weights, alternate legs, or walk and lunge to progress. Watch yourself in the mirror to make sure your hips stay level

The Plank is an excellent way of strengthening your core. Start with 3 timed sets until you fatigue [10-30 seconds] and work your way up in time on each set.

Step Up’s are a great tool for strengthening your thighs. You can perform these on stairs, benches or even chairs if you are very careful.

In conclusion

Hills are not your enemy. They’re an obstacle and are tough and challenging, breaking your rhythm and putting your body through immense – but they’re good for you – uphill and down. Training on hills improves leg-muscle strength, quickens your stride, expands stride length, develops your cardiovascular system, enhances your running economy and can even protect your leg muscles against soreness. In short, hill running will make you a stronger, faster and healthier runner. What’s more, the benefits are relatively quick to take effect. In as little as six weeks of regular hill training you can expect a significant improvement in your muscle power and speed.

Kerryanne Clancy is a VTCT Level 3 Sports Massage Therapist and a keen runner

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