This two-part series is intended to assist you with improving your performance by providing strategic workouts aimed at strengthening your uphill and downhill running. You can read part one here.
We all love the downhills on race day or otherwise. We can move quickly with little effort and catch our breath while doing so. If you’re good at them, you can use the downhills to your advantage and catch the runner in front of you. To the unprepared runner, however, too many long, steep descents can be demoralizing, essentially ending the race and making it difficult to walk afterwards. Running downhill is an activity that is nearly impossible to mimic. There are no machines at the gym, no stretches or medical tools that can properly prepare your legs for the rigors of a long trail descent. Unless you’ve programmed some regular downhill running sessions into your training schedule, come race day, you could find yourself relegated to a walk with burnt quads.
Downhill running is an eccentric exercise where the muscle is severely stressed during use due to the forces of deceleration (or braking) and impact absorption. Eccentric use of a muscle can cause it to work beyond its full potential. An example of this is moving a heavy object—it’s much easier to put down a heavy item (running downhill) than it is to pick it up (running uphill). This excess stress causes significant muscle damage.
If you are not physically prepared for descents on race day, the effect will be twofold. First, damaged muscle fibers caused by early downhill miles in the race will negatively affect the latter portion of your race. Your legs will feel heavy and tired well before you reach the finish line. Damaged muscles don’t perform as efficiently as healthy muscles. In the hours, days, and perhaps weeks after the competition, you will experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which will impact your post-race recovery and return to normal training.
It is important to start gradually with short downhill repeats. Overzealously training your downhill muscles or racing aggressively without proper preparation will prohibit you from being able to train comfortably for a week or more and, possibly, cause injury. Through these workouts below, you will not only gain confidence in your downhill ability, but you’ll improve your sense of balance and leg turnover.
SHORT DOWNHILL REPEATS
Find a hill with a medium slope (6 percent to 10 percent) that takes a minute or two to descend. It is best to start on softer surfaces, such as smooth trail, grass or a dirt road. Stay away from rocky, technical trails for this workout. Descend at a comfortable, controlled pace, keeping your feet underneath you and allowing your glutes and quads to absorb the impact, not your knees. Keep your “brakes” off in order to keep the jarring to a minimum. Like the uphill repeats, do six to 15 downhill repeats, depending on your fitnesslevel. Jog slowly or walk back to the top for recovery. You want to start each downhill repeat feeling fairly rested. Your goal is to work on technique; this is not a cardiovascular workout. Building gradually to a cumulative total of 20 minutes of downhill running at this grade will prepare your body to withstand more advanced descents. Due to the potentially damaging aspects of this workout, allow plenty of recovery between sessions. Do these repeats every seven to 10 days.
Although there is no substitute for real descent repeats, eccentric single-leg squats and lunges may also prepare the muscles for downhill running. These are sometimes referred to as “negatives.” The goal is to resist the weight in the exercise. For example, when performing a single-legged squat, focus on very slowly lowering into the squat position by taking five to seven seconds to do so.
LONG DOWNHILL DESCENTS
Once your legs are prepared for the shorter descents, it’s time to put that fitness to work. Long downhill descents can last anywhere from a quarter-mile to six miles. Short downhill repeats are no longer necessary due to the length of these longer descents. To avoid a bout of DOMS and to successfully build on your downhill leg strength, schedule a long downhill running session at least every 10 to 14 days during peak training. Muscle memory for this kind of work begins to disappear after two to two and one-half weeks.
To save time, you can and should incorporate these two workouts into your weekly long runs. It is, however, very important that you plan your training appropriately based on your fitness level.
STRENGTH TRAINING FOR DESCENTS
Downhill running produces a lot of torsional forces on the legs, knees and hips. These forces can cause overpronation, discrepancies in leg angles and impactive forces that stress everything from the pelvis on down, and can cause Iliotibial Band Syndrome. The following exercises can help prevent these issues.
Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL) Strengthening:
Start position: Lie on your side on a table or firm mattress with legs one on top of the other. Place a weight over the instep of your shoe or foot (ankle weights work well too). Keep your knee straight and flex the upper hip (top leg) 45 degrees forward (like you’re kicking a soccer ball).
Action: Slowly lift your flexed leg 12 to 18 inches off the table. Avoid rolling backward at the hips. Perform two sets of 10 lifts for each leg.
Avoiding Patellar Femoral Syndrome or Chondromalacia
Thigh muscles are obviously very important downhill muscles. If they are weak or not properly prepared when downhill forces are applied, they can “misfire” and cause improper kneecap tracking and eventually swelling under the kneecap. Preventive actions include:
Straight leg lifts: This exercise will strengthen the quad and assist in re-training the large quad muscle (the VMO or Vastus Medialis Oblique) to fire correctly again. Lie on your back with the working leg straight and the non-exercising leg bent near 90 degrees. Lift the working leg 12 to 18 inches and hold for five seconds with the toe pointed towards the head and rotated away from the center of the body. The burn should be felt in the large quad muscle (VMO). Perform this exercise for three to five sets of 10 for each leg. As you progress, ankle weights or shoes can be added for more resistance.
Avoiding Piriformis Syndrome
Downhill running can lead to postural changes that can stress the lower back and some of the glute muscles. Generally, weak core muscles are the culprit. For exercises to improve core strength and for more information:
Jammed, Twisted or Loss of Flexion in Ankles and Shin Pain
Due to the cumulative stress and continuous pounding placed on the lower extremities, downhill running can eventually cause ankle or shin pain for the runner. Make sure you spend time strengthening and mobilizing your lower legs and feet.
Check out Ian’s iRunFar column for more articles.