Downhill running is an enemy in disguise to most trail runners. It can be a reprieve for the cardiovascular system and many see it as an opportunity to let loose and fly down the hill at full speed.
However, in trail races longer than half marathon distance, we need to be very wary of the downhill….
When running downhill, our quadriceps and calf muscles are working eccentrically (that is the muscle lengthens whilst under load). These eccentric contractions are known to damage our muscles significantly more than concentric contractions (muscle shortens whilst under load). Therefor downhill running can trash our quads and calves very quickly.
Downhills become particularly important for ultra distance events where becoming fatigued in your calves and quads early can be the difference between a PB and not finishing. Downhill running is a skill, so we recommend putting these strategies into place well before your next race.
Strategy 1: Shorten Your Step Length
When running downhill we often want to spread our wings and let fly. This often means big steps, landing with our foot well out in front of us. This is a great technique… if you don’t want to finish the race. To minimise impact loads on the body, we want to keep our foot closer under our centre of mass when our foot hits the ground. This means short quick steps when running downhill. Try and reduce your cadence (steps per minute) when running downhill by 5-10%.
Strategy 2: Practice Downhill Running
Specific practice is important for any sport and running is no different. By practicing downhill running, the neuro-musclar system will slowly adapt, increasing the muscles capacity to attenuate these loads. Including a session of fast downhills in your program once every 2 weeks will improve your ability to handle these loads.
When planning your downhill running session, ensure you adapt it to the race you are competing in. If your race involves running down a lot of steps, train on the steps. If it involves downhill running on slopped fire trail, train on fire trail. Being specific with your training is important, especially as you get closer to a race.
Strategy 3: Strength Training for Quads and Calves
Strength training is important for all runners, not just downhill running. Heading to the gym and completing eccentric training of the calves and quads will dramatically increase the distance you can run before your legs become trashed and you slow down. It is particularly important to focus on the eccentric component of these exercises, as this is how the muscle moves when running. Exercises for the calves should include weighted seated and standing calf raises (focus on quick concentric and slow eccentric contractions). Exercises for quads should include weighed front bar squats, seated knee extension and step downs.