AS FEATURED IN THE APRIL 2012 ISSUE OF RUNNING TIMES MAGAZINE
Seasoned Boston marathoners will tell you that the challenge of the race isn’t Heartbreak Hill. The challenge is the miles and miles of downhill leading into Heartbreak Hill. These downhill miles trash your quads just as you enter the most important part of the marathon – the last 10 miles. Handle those first 16 miles better and you’ll likely have a better finishing dive down into Boston after you crest Heartbreak Hill.
Sounds easy enough, but having coached hundreds of Boston qualifiers, I know that not all of us are created equal when it comes to our ability to run downhill well and, maybe more importantly for Boston, to run downhill in a way that our bodies can tolerate.
To get ready to run a better Boston and handle the early downhill miles with ease, you can employ two different strategies.
1. Find your best downhill running technique.
And no, there isn’t one best downhill (or uphill) technique for all runners. But, there is likely one that’s best for you. You just have to figure it out through a little experimentation.
Any time you encounter a downhill, play around with your form. Adjust your body position (lean forward more, then lean backwards more). Adjust your foot plant (land more on your heels, then land more on your toes). Hold your arms lower, then higher and see what feels best. Lastly, adjust your stride rate. Try running with a faster cadence, then try a slower cadence. See how you feel. What makes you faster on the downhill? What makes the downhill feel less stressful to your body? Hopefully, those two will be the same, but they may not be, and this is important to know. For Boston, the downhill form that is least stressful on the body is the most important one. You can save that lightning-fast downhill technique for times when you aren’t worried about shredding your quads.
2. Use delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) to your advantage.
My first coaching mentor, Guy Avery, wrote an article on this concept way back in the early 1990s. In the article, he advises creating a little soreness in your quads in training for a race like Boston. Use the training techniques below to safely stress the quads, and they’ll grow more resistant to the eccentric loading that downhill running creates. The result is that the downhills in Boston won’t tear up your muscles as badly. In other words, get a little sore in training so you can be strong for the race.
There are two great ways to create a safe amount of DOMS. First, any time you encounter a downhill on a run, pick up the pace. You need to do this to find your best downhill running technique as described above anyway, but this strategy also challenges your quads to grow more resistant to downhill running stress. Because we runners tend to be extremists, I’ll include my usual qualifier that you must be sensible to not overdo the downhill running. You want to be a little sore but not debilitatingly sore or even injured. Use common sense.
Second, begin to perform your post-run strides on a slight downhill. (You already do four to six 100m strides a few times per week after easy runs year-round, right?) Again, don’t get too extreme with the downhill; find a slight decline that challenges your quads. There should be nothing more than slight soreness a day or two after. This soreness shouldn’t interfere with your training.
A little more focus on downhill running in the last few weeks leading into the marathon will pay big dividends at Boston. Start with slight declines run at a moderately fast pace and progress to steeper downhills and a faster pace. Find your best downhill form and remember that it’s OK (indeed, recommended) that your quads are a bit sore after your downhill workouts. Just be sensible about this training concept. You don’t need much downhill training to get the desired benefits. With a little extra focus you’ll Boston-proof your quads for a faster race day.