Downhill Training

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Experience From - George Beinhorn #1, Anstr Davidson, Bob Givens, Ed Furtaw, Ralph Swenson, Dennis Halpin, Howie Breinan #1, Jay Hodde #1, Jay Hodde #2, Jennifer Aviles, Janice Da, Karl King, Matt Mahoney #1, Matt Mahoney #2, Matt Mahoney #3, Matt Mahoney #4, John Medinger, Dave Scott, Steven Derenzo, Tim Neckar, Torin Dewey #1, Tom Adams, Howie Breinan #2, Dave Covey, Bob Crawley, George Beinhorn #2, Torin Dewey #2, John Davis, Clem LaCava #1, Dick Collins, George Beinhorn #3, Bill McDermott, Howie Breinan #3, Clem LaCave #2, Jeff Wold , Matthew Kavanaugh , Jeff Riddle , Coach Weber , Dick Vincent , Rich Schick , Matt Mahoney #6, Don Hogardt , Skytop , Steve Simmons , Ed Phillips , Wes , Bob Stein , Jeff Selinger ,

George Beinhorn #1

I'd be extremely interested in hearing from anyone who's trained specifically for the down hills that are such a major feature of all of the great trail 100's. WS100 race director Norm Klein says 80% of the people who drop out of Western States do so because of quads trashed by the down hills.

Anstr Davidson

Based on no scientific analysis and only my own prejudices, I disagree with several comments about training for down hills. If I train at all for down hills, it is by running hard up hills. Running *hard* downhill (or bounding down stairs two or three at a time) seems to me to risk injury.

While you need a little bit of style practice in going downhill, you don't need much. I feel that all of the other stuff like weights, stairmaster, walking up stairs (and coming back down carefully), biking and the normal downhills in training prepare me for going up and down the hill. I wasn't sore at AC100 last year. (Of course, I wasn't very fast, either.)

I think that our bodies have only so many hard downhills in them.

Bob Givens

George Beinhorn inquired about training on downhills for major 100's. My comment is..."it's imperative". Norm Klein is right. Every time I have done WS, it's amazing how many people I pass the last 20 miles, that are walking because their quads have given out. The last 20 miles is my strongest part of the race. I am fortunate that I have great training grounds for that. Part of the descent into our Palo Duro Canyon here has a mile & quarter descent at 10% grade. Repeats....repeats...repeats until I drop. Due to that, I have never, ever, even been stiff in the quads after a major race, including 100's. I am also a firm believer in getting on the ole Stairmaster....... I think that helps, also.

Now, if I could just run UP those damn hills, maybe I could do better.

Ed Furtaw

Matt, You said:

"But around here, I have to do my downhill training on a concrete bridge."
Have you considered doing some training on stairs in a tall building? That would probably be good training for racing on steep uphills and downhills, such as at Barkley. Plus you would simulate the aspect of Barkley where you could die if you misplace one foot plant!

Ralph Swenson

I've always had trouble getting myself to do other than run as I feel and avoid things like speed work, etc.. However, this summer, preparing for the VT100, I decided to do some quad specific training. I found a quarter-mile hill, paved and with about three different pitches, and spent an hour once a week speed walking up and running down at a good pace. Not only did it strengthen my quads, but it gave me some pre-race walking practice, which I also generally avoid. In terms of the race, I was a bit slower than in the past several years, but my legs survived it much better. Frankly, I wouldn't overdo it, since the possibility of stress fractures always looms.

Dennis Halpin

Torin Dewey writes:

I will echo comments made previously about the best training to prevent quad trashing on downhills is doing as many downhills as possible. I am lucky, however, to live in Boulder where downhills (and uphills!) are not hard to find.

Another good exercise that has not been mentioned is the simple leg extension on a weight machine. By concentrating more on slowly lowering your leg, you benefit from the eccentric nature of the exercise. I also find that these exercises help in stabilizing the knee and preventing knee trashing that is also a dangerous side effect of downhills.

I second that. I have been working out on the weight machine religiously for almost 2 years now and it has helped my hill running tremendously. I have stayed with low weights and high reps and I began to notice the benefits after 6 months. I don't lose power going up hills like I used to and I am in more control of my running on downhills now. Living in an area where the only hills are man-made (bridges, overpasses, etc.), this has been an easy way to work on my quads.

Howie Breinan #1

I believe a critical element of downhill training is to actually run downhill to trash your quads in training. Stairmaster builds more of the "uphill" quads. It is hard to duplicate the eccentric contractions experienced in downhill running by other exercises- this is the loading on the quad caused by the muscle lengthening while contacting the ground far out in its range of motion.

To become a better and safer downhill runner, concentrate on using a relatively short stride with a very fast turnover. Try to think about lifting your foot up the very instant it hits the trail. Let your legs go free. Don't tense up or pull back- you waste energy braking. You will feel tired due to the very fast turnover, but you are actually doing your legs a favor and they recover in no time at the bottom. There are practical limits to this method: you may have to brake at switchbacks, and you must maintain control on dangerous or crowded trails. As always, you must start slow and build up. If you do not do speed work, the fast turnover will fry your hamstrings. If you are doing this on pavement, it also works, but you will want to build up your shin muscles.

I used to be a slow, conservative downhill runner, but improved dramatically in very little time with this technique.

Jay Hodde #1

Howie mentioned that stairmaster is designed to work the "uphill quad" muscles more than it is designed to work the downhill ones. I agree that stairmaster entertainment is a concentric exercise that is designed to mimic the uphill motion, but my experience suggests that the eccentric contraction associated with downhill running is also benefitted.

Right away, this doesn't seem to make much sense, but the overall outcome of any rigorous training program is an increase in overall strength. I believe that the strength gains associated with the stairmaster exercise are beneficial to downhill, as well as uphill, running, mainly due to the increased total lower extremity strength associated with it.

Howie mentions that training specificity is important and suggests a method to train the quads for eccentric contractions. I can't agree more, and I have found that his proposed method of short stride - quick turnover works extremely well. Too bad the longest hills in these parts come in the form of highway overpasses!

That leads me to another suggestion I forgot the other day: downhill treadmill. We have a treadmill here that allows a grade change from -5 degrees to +15 degrees. I've used the entire range, and I like it, but I don't know if the downhill training works very well. Why? 1) Speed on the treadmill is limited to 12 MPH. When I'm doing downhill work, I often run faster than this. 2) It isn't a natural motion -- the belt is moving in the same direction that you are. The ground doesn't normally do this (maybe after a few beers. . .)

Anyone else have experience with downhill running on the treadmill?

Jay Hodde #2

My two cents on surviving the downhills at WS, Leadville and any other race with significant climb (it's worked for me):

  1. Buy a road bike (the people-powered kind) and go cycling for hours on end.

  2. Even though it is the most boring form of exercise in the world, stair climb, stair climb, and stair climb. (Pick up a good novel and read it while you are doing this). And by the way, boring training will be useful mental conditioning!!

Of course, if you have significant "hills" in your backyard, that's probably the best training all around. BUT, if you live in Indiana, Iowa, Florida, or any other "flatland" state, the above suggestions really work.

Jennifer Aviles

Everyone's different. I have found that if I don't put in my downhill pounding at a significant grade many times before doing an ultra with significant descent as part of the overall run, then my quads give out. I found fascinating the comments here re courses found to do this, particularly the 2.5 mile loop or whatever distance it was that included that downhill section. That's why we run Mt. Wrightson here in prep for the Grand Canyon. The uphill is important but I really do think the downhill pounding prep is more important.

Janice Da

George, For the 95 WS I incorporated lots of reclined squats and quad extensions. I also ran many training runs on a trail loop that had almost 5000 foot gain and loss over 16 miles. It really was a quad pounder till I got used to it. I was really afraid of having quad problems in the race since so many people I know were destroyed by Forest hill, but I never experienced any quad pain or stiffness!

Karl King

  1. Downhills are hard to train for here in southeast Wisconsin. Two things work well for me:

  2. People have had some interesting comments on stretching injured areas. My experience is that it is impossible to regularly stretch a muscle or tendon injury and expect it to heal. The injured part is the weakest link in the chain that runs bone1 - tendon1 - muscle - tendon2 - bone2. This chain needs to be taken out of tension so that the damaged tissues can heal. Stretching, as normally done, puts the whole chain in tension. The good parts of the chain get a mild stretch but the injured part gets re-injured. What has worked for me on tendinitis is to lengthen the muscle by massage. Assume that the injury is in tendon2. Massage the muscle by stroking from tendon1 towards tendon2. Stop the stroke before reaching tendon2, the sore spot. Tendon2 may have scar tissue that needs breaking up, but you should let a professional sport massage therapist do that work. Icing to re-establish blood flow to the area helps, along with rest. The massage may have to be done daily, and especially before every run ( if you refuse to rest ).

I view stretching as preventative in such cases, not curative. I got a good dose of adductor tendinitis ( origin of left gracilis ) because I wasn't stretching the hip rotator muscles. They tightened and shortened, causing eversion of the left foot during running. That put lots of stress on the inside of the leg and led to the tendinitis. It is fixing itself now that I regularly stretch the hip rotators and massage the gracilis by the method noted above. If an area is injured, it is key to figure out WHY it is injured. The fundamental cause may be somewhere else - wrong kind of shoe, one leg shorter than the other, etc, etc.

Matt Mahoney #1

I'm interested not just in how you train for downhills, but how successful you think the training was too.

When I ran the Pike's Peak marathon in '93, Matt Carpenter set the course record for both the ascent (2:01) and round trip (3:16), but I was amazed at how easily he glided over the boulder strewn trail at a sub-6 pace, dropping 1-2 feet with every step. My descent time was the same as his ascent time, but still fast enough that I had the most negative split (2:40 faster than my 4:41 ascent) and was never passed going down, though I passed 143 runners.

The story is the same in 100 milers. At Vermont, Leadville, and Arkansas I walked the uphills and flats while being passed by other runners, but passed them back on the downhills going 6:30-9:00/mile depending on the grade (fastest at 15-20%). I use very little energy running downhill, not breathing hard even at 14,000 feet. I feel very relaxed, run with a long stride, and I let my arms flop around to absorb a lot of the impact.

I live in a flat area so the only hill training I do is when I travel to ultras and about once a month when I run intervals on a 2/3 mile long bridge with a 3% grade on concrete. I run intervals both up and down and finish with a very hard downhill sprint for about 200 yards at about a 4:00-4:30/mi pace. I also run intervals or fartlek on flat surfaces about once a week, and lift weights once a week (heavy, low reps) and bike 60-80 miles/week.

Before I ran my first trail ultra (Pike's Peak) I had done a lot of hashing and orienteering, so I was comfortable running over rugged terrain, although it was all flat and at shorter distances. I also did one 20 mile run on the bridge.

Matt Mahoney #2

Ed Furtaw wrote:

Have you considered doing some training on stairs in a tall building?
I have tried this. It doesn't hurt my quads, but going downstairs really trashes my calves. It is totally unlike using a stair climbing machine.

Matt Mahoney #3

Jay Hodde wrote:

Anyone else have experience with downhill running on the treadmill?
I've never seen a downhill treadmill or one that goes 12 MPH, but I guess the reason they are rare is because you need a big motor, lots of power, and a longer belt, all of which makes them expensive. In any case, I don't think I could simulate the braking action of soft dirt, gravel, scree, and mud, hopping over rocks and logs, and grabbing small trees to swing around switchbacks.

But around here, I have to do my downhill training on a concrete bridge. Sigh... :-(

Matt Mahoney #4

George Beinhorn wrote:

I'd be extremely interested in hearing from anyone who's trained specifically for the downhills that are such a major feature of all of the great trail 100's. WS100 race director Norm Klein says 80% of the people who drop out of Western States do so because of quads trashed by the downhills.
I don't know if I can help, but I usually have a good downhill run compared to my uphill and flat running (judging by where I get passed in races). The technique is hard to describe except to say that I "let off the brakes" and let gravity do the work. I seem to expend very little energy, for instance on a -10% grade and 7-8 minute pace I am not breathing very much even trails up to 14,000 ft. I don't usually have any quad soreness either (such as after Leadville), provided that I do a long hilly run 3-8 weeks earlier (such as the Vermont 100).

Since I live at sea level in an area without hills, I have to substitute speed work or interval training. Running fast for short periods (1-2 minute intervals) teaches you to be efficient at a fast pace, which is just what you need for downhills. I run very little (15 mile/week) but I do some type of interval or fartlek workout every week.

Also about once or twice a month I run intervals, both uphill and downhill, on a 2/3 mile long bridge with a 3% grade and concrete surface (since there are no other hills where I live). I make each interval progressively harder and usually finish with an all-out downhill sprint for about 200 yards.

I also ride a bike and lift weights (heavy, low reps, all major muscles) which helps I guess.

John Medinger

George, there are several big time downhills on the WS course:

  1. last 3+ miles before Duncan Canyon aid station
  2. leaving Cavanaugh Ridge down to Deep Canyon aid station
  3. Last Chance to the Swinging Bridge
  4. Deadwood Cemetery to bottom of El Dorado Canyon (this one's really bad)
  5. Gorman Ranch Road to bottom of Volcano Canyon (not so bad)
  6. Forest hill to Cal 1 aid station.

For the most part they are not all that steep. But they are LONG. For the middle of the packers, many of these downhills will have you running continuously downhill for an hour or so. It is this pounding -- especially after your legs get a bit tired -- that destroys people. Also, I think that a lot of people run too hard on the downhills. I always try to relax on the downhills and just flow with it so I can save my legs; if someone wants to pass, I let 'em go right by.

If you ran SNER then I'm thinking you must live in northern California. If so, there is NO SUBSTITUTE for running the actual WS trail -- especially the canyons -- in training for WS . You should plan to make a staple out of doing the tortuous 38-miler from Forest hill to Last Chance and back. It's an all-day run (9 hrs for a 24-hr runner) but it will get your quads ready. You should do this run 3 or 4 times between late April and the race.

If you can't train on the WS trail itself, you need to try to find a hill (mountain) that allows you to run continuously downhill for an hour or more. Run down/ walk back up and do four or five repeats.

Is this a fun sport or what?

Dave Scott

My advice is to a find a long downhill trail or dirt road, at least 2 miles long (4 would be better) and it must drop more than 500 feet per mile average or it is not steep enough. A paved road is better than nothing but make it steeper and run down slower. Run at least 10 miles of downhill per week. Riding the bike is a good addition. I found that riding a road bike on flat pavement as fast as you can for 20 miles helped me. Even a stationary bike ridden hard for 45 minutes will strengthen your quads. These are the things I have done to improve my downhill strength. I do not know your fitness level so you must adjust accordingly. The most important training I do in preparation for the only 100 mile race I run (WS) is train on the course. I make at least 10 trips to the course and run all but the last 20 miles (that part is too flat) at least 3 times, (30 to 50 miles of it each time). If you have several choices of downhill trails I would pick the roughest, rockiest, steepest one.

Steven Derenzo

I have found that raising the back end of the treadmill with three wooden planks (2 x 12) gives me a -14% grade and a very time efficient eccentric workout.

WARNING 1- This workout is HARD on the treadmill- I have a heavy duty Trotter- a light-duty model might be damaged. I can't operate faster than 9 min/mi or the house breaker will blow (it takes a lot of power to lift me at that speed and grade).

WARNING 2- This workout is very stressful on the legs- I have found that when I have not done it for a while, a 30 min downhill workout can produce as much quad soreness for the next 4 days as 12 hr runs on asphalt used to do. HOWEVER, the legs adapt to this stress (building connective tissue) so that I can work up to doing a 2 hr downhill workout every weekend (which I do before long races) with almost no delayed muscle soreness. So while this eccentric pounding is very stressful, the body is amazing at adapting to it.

By the way, at 9 min/mi, 2 hrs is 13.3 miles, and at -14% the descent distance is 9800 ft, a remarkable amount for 2 hrs investment in time.

Using this training method, I can run 50 mi trail runs without developing quad soreness and I resumed training (with minor soreness) a few days after WS100 this year.

Tim Neckar

Being from Houston and having no hills whatsoever to prepare for the Badwater run this past summer, I learned to be innovative. Twice a week I would run up and down the aisles of Rice Stadium (Football Stadium).

Going down I would skip every other step to pound out the quads. Granted, it only lasted for 15-20 seconds per time down. But after a 100 or more times of doing this, there was definitely a training effect.

This is just one suggestion.

Torin Dewey #1

I will echo comments made previously about the best training to prevent quad trashing on downhills is doing as many downhills as possible. I am lucky, however, to live in Boulder where downhills (and uphills!) are not hard to find.

Another good exercise that has not been mentioned is the simple leg extension on a weight machine. By concentrating more on slowly lowering your leg, you benefit from the eccentric nature of the exercise. I also find that these exercises help in stabilizing the knee and preventing knee trashing that is also a dangerous side effect of downhills.

Tom Andrews

Regarding trail ultras and hill running. Once I ran a fast marathon, close to my PR. 5 weeks later there was the Voyager 50 miler which has lots of hills, in particular a section of steep ups and downs called the "power lines". I had sore hips after the marathon and so did NO trail running whatsoever. In fact I did no running. Yet I finished 4th overall at Voyager What I did was Roller blade around the lakes in Minneapolis on the bike paths. On the flat, there were no hills there where I went. I rollerbladed as hard as I could, my favorite workout being twice around one lake as absolutely hard flat out as I could go. Really hammering it and then coming back after an easy day and seeing if I could better that time for the 6 miles or so. It helped my "wind" but I am sure it built up my "quads" as rollerblading puts weight on them. It was really terrific cross training, and must have helped on the hills at Voyager, as I have no other explanation.

Howie Breinan #2

To sum up what I believe succinctly (agreeing with what some others have said):



Dave Covey

Just wanted to put another two centavos into the pot concerning Bonnie Busch's questions about downhill training for Western States. It's been interesting reading the differing opinions about how to properly train for the downhills, some of the opposing viewpoints have come from very good runners. Howie Breinan, who advocates "trashing" the quads during training, is a very strong runner who ran a great Western States this past year, and Bill McDermott, who leans more towards the refining of the agility and skill used for running downhills, is a ten or eleven time winner of the Catalina Island Marathon, and probably one of the best downhill runners the sport has ever seen. Although as someone previously noted in a post that we are all an experiment of one, I've got to lean toward Bill's philosophy for running the downhills.

There is a lot of downhill at Western, and the quad muscles are going to have to be up to the task to take the pounding. However, most of the downhills are fairly gradual, not like the brutally steep hills on the East coast. To the best of my recollection, the steepest downhills at Western are right after leaving Foresthill, (63 mi.) and on the California street section somewhere around the 70 mile point. Both are not very long. The trouble most runners at Western run into with the downhills is that they get lulled into hammering those gentle downgrades the first 45 miles or so, so that by the time they get to the river (78 mi.), their legs are mush. FIGHT THE TEMPTATION to run those downhills hard! A gentle and relaxed, economical style will get you down those hills just fine, making up the time you lose on the uphills. The important thing is to leave something in those legs for the last 20 miles of the run.

It is important to do downhill training in preparation for Western, to teach the specific muscle groups in the legs that are used for this activity how to operate efficiently when the need arises. However, deliberately running lots of hard downhill miles in training is probably an invitation for injuries. I've got three running buds who all subscribed to the training theory of pounding out the downhill miles in preparation for WS, and two of them never made it to the starting line. One blew out his knee, one had a stress fracture in his pelvis, and the third guy dropped out at Michigan Bluff. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that one should do the smart training that will enable them to get to Squaw Valley in the first place. Bonnie might want to be more concerned about how to get through the heat of the canyons, rather than trying to make her legs bullet-proof. Judging by her results at some of her 24 hour runs, I'd say that her legs are already pretty strong, and she should be able to make it through Western just fine...

Bob Crowley

Indeed, Dr. Howie is correct about the correlation between hilly long trail events and attacking the downhills. In fact, the large majority of runners don't realize how much time they are losing by NOT running the downhills hard. You've got to use gravity in your favor and you've got to be prepared to "trash" your quads in training runs in order to bear the constant pounding your legs will take on race day.

For race walkers the same system applies. Try to "quickstep" the downhills by shuffling your feet; sort of gliding downhill. Minimize the pounding and maximize the glide. Running down steep grades requires agility and being light on your feet. For walkers, you've got to try and hop down the steeper slopes- you'll find it easier than trying to pound from rock to rock. Give it a shot and let us know how it feels.

George Beinhorn #2

There was a LONG exchange on the subject of training for the downhills at WS100 about 6 months ago. I started it and then collected about 30 answers, including messages from Dave Scott, et al. The upshot was: anything that strengthens your UPPER quads will help. Don't deceive yourself into thinking that training on uphills will help you (at all!) on the downhills. It won't.

The consensus: do wall sits, ride a bike very hard, do weight work for lower body (get the advice of a trained coach to find out what to do for the upper quads), and do a of hard downhill running. A friend of mine who ran WS100 4 times in the 1980s trained on a 2-mile circuit that included a long, steep downhill. He would run the circuit for 2 1/2 hours until his upper quads were shaking like jelly.

Torin Dewey #2

Anstr Davidson wrote:

"On the subject of the post, I am in the minority on the issue of "practicing" downhills. I believe that my body has only so many hard downhills in it. I don't gratuitously waste any in training. Yes, you need thunder thighs to make it down a hill, but I believe that you can build them up by going up the hill and back down in a more leisurely pace--or by just running or biking. But most don't agree with me on this and most of those are much faster than I!

Having been a contributor to past discussions about downhill running/training, I thought people might be interested in a conversation I had with Frank Shorter while running on Saturday in Boulder. I ran into him while doing my allotted 15 minute run recovering from a hip/back injury, and he was doing his allotted 30 minute run recovering from knee scoping 2 weeks earlier. We got on the subject of trail running and downhill running in particular, and he felt strongly that downhill running had very little training effect. Instead, he would simply run up longer hills and get picked up at the top to be driven down. He felt that the beating put on the body was simply an invitation to injury more than anything.

I (still) believe that there are advantages to practicing downhills for reasons other than trying to train your quads, etc. One reason would be a safety consideration, i.e. getting used to going downhill efficiently and quickly without face-planting. Also, I think one can waste significant energy and trash one's quads *more* sometimes by going to slowly or completely stopping TOO much on a downhill. For myself, though, I think the most convincing reason to run fast down the hills in training is......IT'S FUN! I'm sure that I'm not the only one who loves to bounce and jump over rocks and logs while bounding down a hill. It seems like the payoff for climbing the hill to me.

John Davis

You indicated that you had relatively few remaining miles left on your knees and therefore limited your fast down hills.

After knee surgery and being throughly scarred by the doctor as to remaining miles on the knee, I concur strongly with you. I have had about 8 years of moderately constrained running (including a WS100 and AC100 start including qualifications). I do not try to do fast work (under about 8 to 9 minute miles), do pavement marathons as a race walker, and minimize my training miles (few weeks over about 25 miles).

I also recognize that a lot of others will thrash their knees, etc. with out realizing it, and find out only after the fact. The cartilage will not grow back. It sure was fun being the fastest one down from the top of Mt. Baldy in the annual race. I knew I wouldn't have a problem because there was no warning. The initial damage was caused by a skiing injury.

As a 62 year old I am also finding that the absorption of shock by the back is deteriorating. The end of a 50K can be slow due to the combination of low training mileage, knee bone on bone impact, and a back saying that too much impact for the day has occurred. The good part is that there are still others behind me and I can make the cutoffs (most of the time).

Clem La Cava #1

In response to downhill training, I commented that I agreed with Howie, that training n downhills is beneficial.

I recently sent in my entry for Angeles Crest. This will be my first 100 if my entry is accepted. This race has 26,700 feet of downhill.

I will train on downhills. But, never on paved downhills! Several years ago, after a few minor bouts of patella tendinitis and after 15 years of running, I decided no more hard downhills on pavement. I avoid them (injuries to the knee scare me!) In addition, I avoid the track.

But, running down steep trails, over rocks, around trees, etc. never hurts (injury hurt). My long weekend runs, for the past six years, have been in the MacForest. It's all hills! I can't give a scientific answer with data, but the trail downhills (other than an occasional twisted ankle), never cause pain, except sore quads at times. I'm hoping that downhill training, along with a good base of miles will get me through Angeles Crest. I'll know on September 29th!

Dick Collins

I agree with John Medinger's statement.

I find that on steep, rocky, narrow trails, or a combination of these factors, that there is a rhythm or pace I find automatically, which allows fairly fast running, little danger of falling, and little holding back. This is my comfort zone in running downhill. I also take periodic walking breaks on long downhills as you can run yourself into the ground on downhills as easy as on uphills or flats.

George Beinhorn #3

Having been a contributor to past discussions about downhill running/training, I thought people might be interested in a conversation I had with Frank Shorter while running on Saturday in Boulder.... He felt strongly that downhill running had very little training effect.

I can tell you from personal experience that uphill running has very, very little effect on downhill success. As Norm Klein said, 80% of the DNF's at WS100 are due to fried quads. And these people train hard on the uphills.

I trained very hard on hill courses for three years, and then got totally fried in a relatively short race with hard downhills, the Sierra Nevada Endurance Run 52.4M. That put the fear in me. If I ever run WS, I will emphatically train those upper quads. The uphills at Sierra Nevada were easy. The downhills were excruciating.

Bill McDermott

I have always considered downhill running ability as the most important aspect of competitive running, but I cringe when I hear the suggestion to "trash the quads" as a means of downhill muscle conditioning. I have approached training from a very different perspective. I consider downhill running as a skill as opposed to conditioning, and the primary objective is to achieve maximum efficiency at the highest possible speed. The skill is based on agility, balance, overall body control, and eye-to-foot coordination. Drills can be used to practice running on rocky trail with a big emphasis put on total body relaxation. With highly developed downhill skills, it is possible to obtain the feeling of coasting at speeds well under 5:00/mile.

The concept of downhill running as a skill leads to the requirement that specific downhill training should be done only when your legs are fresh. When your muscles are fatigued, you lose the ability to properly learn and practice the skill techniques, and of course the risk of injury increases significantly.

Once the skill is developed, however, efficiency can be maintained in race conditions even after severe fatigue has set in. Efficiency in downhill running is the key to saving the quads.

Howie Breinan #3

To train for WS you should try to run as many actual hills as you can, and it is most important to concentrate on the DOWNHILL. Don't worry at all about the uphill. You will be walking a lot of that in the race, there are 5,000 more feet of down than up, and it is hard to train for downhill without also getting uphill unless you are taking a ski lift. People don't drop out because they are too tired to trudge up a hill- they drop (aside from dehydration and going out too fast) because they have trashed their quads on the long downhills.

A few killer downhill workouts where you really trash your quads before WS will do wonders. The secret is to really attack downhills, sprinting down them in training. Long hills are preferable, but repeats on shorter hills will help. If you are injury prone, be wary of downhill sprints on pavement- work into them slowly and know your limit. Trails are much preferred if you can find them. I would try to do a real tough workout at least once every three weeks, but not more often than once a week.

In your workouts, concentrate on quick leg turnover. Don't let your feet touch the ground. This will increase your downhill speed and the benefit of the workout. The quick steps also prevent you from turning ankles and tripping on trails. If you don't do much speed work, work into this slowly. Maybe do some flat intervals first until your hamstrings recall what speed is like.

There are other workouts which can help (wall sits, leg extensions, etc.), but nothing can replace actually running down hills. Seek out whatever hills you can and fly down them. WS hills are generally not too steep, but training on steeper grades may help.

Clem LaCave #2

In response to Howie's advice to Bonnie:

I can't speak from experience because I haven't run a 100 miler with lots of downhill and uphill, but I agree with Howie.

"A few killer downhill workouts where you really trash your quads before WS will do wonders. The secret is to really attack downhills, sprinting down them in training."

The MacDonald Forest 50KM on May 5th, could be a good training run or tuneup for some of the upcoming 100's out west. This race will have 5-6,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. When laying out the course, I just couldn't find a flat stretch. I tried (Yeah!), but I thought it would be too much fun running down, the Plunge, Chute Me, Groove Tube, etc.

I have convinced many of the local distance runners, that it's time they try an ultra. As the weekend, training runs go by, their quads hurt for fewer days after each run.

Jeff Wold

Subject: Uphill/Downhill Training Question

As part of my training plan to get back to 50 milers this fall, I'm running Pike's Peak marathon in August (I had to work the ultra angle in, right?). I'm not worried about the uphill part (well, not too worried) - but it's the second half that worries me.

How do I train to run steep downhill for 13+ miles? Big Sur marathon beat my legs to bloody stumps from the downhills!

I have a nice open space trail I can train on. Mount Falcon open space has a 1200' climb in under 2 miles where I can do repeats. Can anyone suggest a plan that incorporates both uphill and downhill training?

What about weight lifting? Biking?

Matthew Kavanaugh

I'm very interested in this training issue as well as I'm entered in the St. George Marathon in Oct. which is a downhill course (in the hopes of qualifying for Boston). My plan is to repeats down out of the Sepulveda Pass in Los Angeles, from the "summit" to south to West Los Angeles... should be 2- 3 miles in length. I found from my last attempt at qualifying for Boston on a downhill course (Calif. International Marathon in Sacramento) that my quads didn't have the training needed to absorb 26 miles of downhill on the roads. My theory is that specific training is best: as much downhill running as possible, but I'm certainly no expert!

Jeff Riddle

For me, the way to train for downhills is by running down hills with proper footstrike, ie on your forefoot. My thighs and shins have not been beat up like they used too, since, even on steep road downhills. You must practice this often, on slight downhills first.

If you are a heel striker going downhill your knees, thighs and shins take all the shock and beat you up. As you practice down hill form your calfs will take a beating, so it is very important to go easy.

It took me a year to switch to forefoot footstrike but has been worth it for me. I can fly down the hills without fear of injury. I have a high arched foot and run in the lightest weight racing shoes I can fine.

Coach Weber

To be a great downhill racer (or at least to not suffer immensely), one must practice downhill running AND must do strength training for the quads, hamstrings and butt.

In addition, the athlete when running downhill (especially extended downhills) should pay careful attention to cooling the quads. As Noakes points out, the quads heat up on the downhill like 'the brakes of a train'.

You'll notice that Charl Mattheus is constantly splashing water on his quads at almost every opportunity during the down run at Comrades...he's cooling the quads.

Another piece of advice is to minimize the 'air time' in the downhill. Get the feet back on the ground quickly...maintains speed and minimizes shock.

Speaking of downhill running...think I'll go out and do some...that pesky down hill at mile 60 of Badwater is not getting any less steep!

Dick Vincent,

Coach Weber wrote:

"Another piece of advice is to minimize the 'air time' in the downhill. Get the feet back on the ground quickly...maintains speed and minimizes shock."
I think that this is a very important aspect. Most runners tend to over stride on the down hills, causing a slapping sound and therefore pound themselves to junk. Your lead foot should hit the ground directly under your torso (the heel if you are heel to toe). Otherwise you are extending that leg out in front of you, your torso drops closer to the ground, your foot then hits the ground causing a breaking action (hence, slap, slap, slap...creating lots of trauma), then you have to raise your torso up again to get over your leg (spending more energy uselessly), etc, etc, and blah. Keep yourself compact and let you stride length increase naturally because your body is in the air longer. True, you will open up your range of motion some, but to much will to more damage than good. Listen to feet and your water pack. If your feet are slapping hard or if your pack is bouncing around wildly, you may be over striding. And if you do that for too long, it will be time to take out the gun with one bullet.

Rich Schick

My technique has always been to keep my body as close to perpendicular to the running surface as possible. If you get too far forward foot slap will start, too far back and heel striking starts. Of course on trail you will find descents too steep to do this, but on the vast majority of road surfaces it works well. The key is to let your legs turn over rapidly, not a long stride, and only brake if you absolutely must. I always tell folks that comment on how well I run downhills "I do gravity well!"

Matt Mahoney #6

I ran Pikes Peak in 1993 and 1996.

Since I live in Florida without hills or altitude, I substituted speedwork and weights for hills. My experience is that it works. I had the most negative splits of any runner for both years (expressed either as a time difference or a ratio), but that probably says more about my slow climbing than fast descent. My splits were 4:41+2:01 in '93, 4:30+2:00 in '96. In both years I ran (walked) the ascent the day before in about the same split time. A normal ascent time is your flat marathon time, but I guess that's for people living at altitude. Mine is an hour slower.

Running downhill on trail is much easier on your legs than on roads. The important thing is to practice good eye-foot coordination by running speedwork on rough terrain (flat trails in my case). When you run fast, whether flat or downhill, you will be taking big steps and landing on your toes, so practice is important.

The descent above tree line is rough and rocky, but runnable. Below treeline (12,000 ft) the trail is much smoother and faster. The fence near the bottom is good for grabbing onto so you can swing around the switchbacks and not lose time slowing down.

My experience is that running downhill fast is easier on your legs than running slow. To run fast, just let off the brakes. The braking is what causes the soreness afterwards, so the less you use them, the better.

For weights, work the calves and quads, of course, but don't neglect the rest of the body. Strangely, my hamstrings, but not quads, were sore after the '96 race (though they recovered in time for Leadville next week). Work the abs and back to protect your back from soreness. Work the upper body so you don't get hurt when you do a face plant.

Strong calves are especially beneficial for preventing twisted ankles. When you start to twist an ankle, your natural response is to take the weight off it and transfer the weight to the ball of your foot. Good exercises are running backwards, running barefoot on the balls of your feet, and running down stairs. I also do seated and standing calf raises with weights.

Don Hogardt

I had the same concern as you for Pikes Peak Marathon last year. As part of my training I did a mountain series of 5 races in May & June in my area. Although the races were base to summit, I ran back down to condition my quads and feet. Also did lots of leg curls & extensions with heavy weights. Finished with a final run on the Boston marathon course for 21 miles (mostly downhill) before heading out to Colorado. The 2 days before the race I only trained from the top of the incline on Mt Manitou to the finish area.

At the top turnaround it's almost impossible to run because of the boulders, altitude, and upcoming runners. It takes about 2 miles before you can running comfortably, then each mile you will go faster and faster. At Barr camp the trail is wide to move out, and by the cog rail station (steepest part of course) your at full stride almost uncontrollably. At this point you will know how your downhill training went.

I had almost no leg pain, did a 2:25 downhill, and spent the rest of the day sightseeing.

PS: recommend padded gloves, and shoes that grip on loose gravel.


I've been following this downhill running thread and have learned a lot from it. Thanks to all who have dispensed very logical advice. I've got my work cut out for me this summer toying around with the advice mentioned, mainly because I'm such a lousy #@*&+$ downhill runner and it's nowhere but up for this person in the realm of downhill running.

Nothing's been said about the arms, though. I do this thing where I hold my arms out like a floppy-winged chicken who's trying to fly and I don't really know why I do it. Should I be doing this? / Does it help? Or am I just trying to look like I know what I'm doing? Also, my very good running pal, who runs well downhill, said she trained for downhill running by skipping, which I do. Do others out there do that? Thanks to anyone who replies.

Steve Simmons

One way Soviet special forces, the Speznants, build leg strength is from simply and harshly jumping from high platforms. The impact stresses the legs a great deal. These same soldiers are also represenatives of the Soviet Unions' Olympic teams. But I'm not suggesting anyone go jump off their roof to train for an upcoming race. The Speznants are also very expendable.

Point is, for training, hammering the downhills must be an effective way. But it's often suggested that runners should hammer the downhills in races also, and I know alot of the Elite do just that, and they win the races. But I'm not sure there's all that much to be gained from being such a strong downhill runner.

It seems you can counter easy downhill running with strong uphill climbing.

I was talking to a good friend, Tom Green of Maryland, the first grand slammer, at Western States about running HR. He had run it sucessfully in a little over 43 hours. He said "Make sure you walk the downhills and save your strength".

Tom's a very experienced ultra runner so I took his advice. So coming down from Dives Little Giant, the first descent, I walked very easily, I was passed by lots of other runners, but I continued to go slow and easy down the descents.

My thinking was "Keep the impact on my legs to a minimum.", so as to enter each aid station almost as fresh as I entered the last one. Obviously I don't know what the outcome would have been if I had run the downhills as it is suggested alot by others. But I do know that aside from a bad spell over Handies Peak, I covered the distance at a strong, steady pace, and was as strong on the 2nd day as the first. I also know that the impact on my legs was alot less than that of runners who hammered the downhills.

I know alot of people recommend letting gravity run it's course and going fast on downhills, but how do people really know the effect that has on their overall strength and ability to climb later on?

It seems it would even out, you either hammer the downhills or hammer the uphills, you won't convince me that you can do both as effectively. Somethings got to give on one or the other. The only other option is a steady pace on both.

But one things for sure, hammering the downhills is high impact, hammering the uphills is low impact, and it seems the payoff would be tenfold on a runners ligiments and tendons from low impact.

Doesn't mean you'll never see me hammer a downhill, it is alot of fun, but I think it's wise to keep the impact to a minimum, especially on a course with alot of descent, like Hardrock with it's 33,000 feet of descent, or ACs' 26,700 feet, And it seems wise to keep impact to a minimum while training as well.

As for Hardrock where I took it easy, I have never felt better or stronger after a 100 than after HR. I don't believe I could have gone much faster either, the slower descents where countered by strong climbing.

Also I have never felt weaker or worse than after Old Dominion and Massanutten.

Ed Phillips

A successful Chicago area track/marathon coach/race director at a meeting of the Arlington Trotters running club suggested that when going up hill lower the arms (below your "norm") and reduce the arc of arm swing. Going down hill, raise the arms and increase the swing. On severe downhills this can result in the arms being parallel to the shoulders.

This does work for me, at least in shorter races and training runs. Toward the end of a long run and (my) the body is tired, this is a bit extreme and may take too much energy. Then the arms are probably best used to make shadows on the ground to figure out if you're at Karl King's suggested angle of attack!


Personally, I use my arms simply to center my body over the trail; keep them loose and ready to help balance. I find that an occasional "skip" when I'm running downhill on trail helps a lot. I use this method instead of "braking" with my legs, and I'm able to go much faster and with less impact on my legs. Also, it makes me feel like a little girl....

Bob Stein

I've found that lowering the arms and pointing the feet out at 45 degree angles works best for downhills.

Jeff Selinger

Without thinking too much, I began experimenting with some of the techniques on Kevin Sayers site. I took to heart the advice about 'not braking' and plummeted down hills with ever increasing stride length, timing this so that I would still be in control when I reached the bottom. After suffering a few injuries related to this (and only then), I thought about it a little more carefully and reviewed the suggestions again. I think understanding the physics of the situation helped me pick a better technique, one less prone to injury.

The problem hills are ones where you would exceed your maximum speed if you let yourself continue to accelerate. If you do not wish to continue accelerating, then you must balance the accelerating force, which is based upon where your center of gravity is in relation to where your feet are. The external force involved (your weight) is the same no matter what the angle of the slope. Let's take the example of the vertical wall. If your shoes would actually stick to the wall, and you wanted to run at a constant speed (not accelerate) down the wall, I think its obvious that the forces would be huge.

Now wait a minute! I just said the forces are the same. They external forces ARE the same (your weight). But there are internal forces which are added to these. The internal forces have to counter the overturning moment (the tendency of you body to rotate if your center of gravity is not directly above your feet). The internal forces are pretty much zero if you are on a level surface and are huge if you are trying to stand horizontal on a vertical wall. A simple experiment will demonstrate this...

Stand a foot or so from a wall and lean forward against it. Without shoving off with your hands, try to return to standing upright... You will notice a lot of strain in your feet, achilles and quads (interesting, eh?).

Now, the tricky thing about running is that you can only apply forces while you are actually touching the ground. It came as a surprise to me to learn that a person is actually airborne for much of time when running. (By The Way, I learned this is actually the definition of running vs. walking. In walking, one is always in contact with the ground.)

So, while running on level surface, you have to launch your body upwards. While airborne, your body is falling. On landing, you have to halt the downward momentum to prepare for the next takeoff. The upward and downward work would be roughly equal, but it is done by different muscle groups. The quads do most of the downward, decelerating work.

When running downhill, you don't have to do the upward work, but the deceleration work on landing is increased because your stride length has increased.

How this relates to the various threads:

  1. Increase your stride rate to reduce the landing impact. This has the added advantage that feet are more centered beneath you reducing the internal forces I mentioned above. If you don't do this, you had best have done massive conditioning of your muscle groups to be able to handle the increased forces. I admire people who can do this, but when giving advice, one should stress the likelihood of injury if the training isn't there (and maybe even if it is).

  2. I think landing on the forefoot is probably related to a shorter stride/higher stride rate, since it becomes anatomically more difficult with a more extended leg. So I think this falls into the same category as #1. The possibility of additional shock absorption is interesting though. I will try this, although I have never been able to determine where I footstrike (other than the bottom).

  3. Keep your center of gravity above your feet. Actually, I really doubt if anyone could keep 'ones body perpendicular to the running surface'. It had better be a short downhill because you would be constantly accelerating. (Think of how a sprinters body starts in a crouch and straightens as they achieve full speed.) This is probably meant only for short hills where you can handle the acceleration.

  4. Flapping your arms like a chicken (in time with your stride) could also be used to help absorb the impact, but I suspect it is not very efficient energy-wise and might strain your chicken muscles. If it prevents injury though, one can't argue against it. I bet this would be very effective, though, if one made some wings to flap with.

  5. Running with your feet toed out is known to stress different muscles in your body. This had better be trained though, because there is no reason to suspect that these new muscles would better able to handle the impact.

Personally, I adopted the VHSR (very high stride rate) plan and have been much more confident and relatively injury free since then.