Experience From - Dana Roueche, Eric Robinson, Matt Mahoney#1, George Beinhorn, Charles Steele , Matt Mahoney#2 , David Lygre , Blake Wood , Bill Ramsey , Matt Mahoney#3 , Linda Andes-Georges , Stephan Willow , Unknown , Karl King , Norm Yarger , Douglas Spink
Being able to run fast and efficiently downhill can make a major difference in resulting performance. I have observed when climbing hills, everyone obviously slows down. In Colorado, that usually means slows down to a walk. Unless someone is really hurting, there isn't a big discrepancy in pace between those climbing the hill. When everyone gets to the top and starts going downhill, the story is different. There are huge differences in pace between runners. The difference can be due to form, efficiency, stride length, blown quads, etc. What is important is to be able to run downhill at a good clip through the entire run. For those where downhill running comes more natural, they will obviously have an easier time, their performance will be better, possibly with less training.
One of the keys to good downhill running is to not be worn out from the uphill. If you take it easy on the uphill, you really won't loose much time, just watch how little others around you gain on you. The difference is you'll be more rested on the top ready to push the downhill. If you are a good uphill runner/walker, then you'll be even more rested and ready for the downhill. While running downhill, make sure you are relaxed and your stride is not forced. Rather, your legs are just swinging from momentum and you are letting gravity do the work. Try your best not to brake the momentum, it not only slows your hard earned pace down but it is what fries your quads.
When running Hardrock this summer, I found over the course of the run, there was a natural tendency to run this way, easy up and hard down. As I kept climbing the passes, my pace slowed from one pass to the next, after 8 or 9 of them and 25,000 feet or so, I was climbing at a snail's pace along with a lot of other snails. During the run as I was slowing down on the climbs, I noticed my pace picking up on the downhill to make up time and compensate for the "lost time" on the uphill. I was real careful not to brake and kill my quads, I had a long way to go. Between doing that and having slower ascents, my quads where good for the entire run with 33,000 feet of descent.
I'm convinced the downhill "strategy" that just developed naturally during the run was a big help in finishing Hardrock. It took an extreme run like Hardrock for this to surface on its own. In the future, I plan on experimenting with this further, it certainly has my attention.
Subject to certain inherited limits, I believe the ability to run well downhill is largely acquired. I was an average downhill runner until the winter of 1980, when the Wildwood trail in Portland was lightly dusted a couple times with snow, and I happened to absorb a lot of Olympic coverage of bobsled and luge. I had a lot of fun envisioning the obvious analogy (maybe it helped being 12 years old).
Your body is a vehicle which will slide downhill at the best possible speed on its own accord, provided you choose an optimal path and avoid braking as much as possible. Speed is a function of skill, not effort.
Unlike trails, bobsled runs do not normally involve mud, roots, or rocks, but somehow this seemed to enhance rather than destroy the metaphor. The basic idea is still to make the most of gravity despite the course conditions, and the extra obstacles seemed to make up for the fact that I didn't actually own a bobsled.
I think that the area of skill is one in which most people can make dramatic improvements in a very short period of time. It's just a matter of practice. Most of us were complete klutzes when first exposed to rough trail conditions, but learned to manage.
By continuing to push the limits of your coordination, you can learn to handle steeper and steeper grades and rougher and rougher footing. Your cerebellum is the organ undergoing most of the adaptation here, and the only thing it needs is some challenge and a bit of concentration. Remember that learning is most rapid when "motivated" -- the natural fear when speeding downhill is a good thing!
Perhaps the only upper genetic limit is your maximum leg turnover -- i.e. natural speed. And even speed will respond somewhat to training. But the truth is that most people do not even remotely approach the limits implied by their natural speed, and instead run downhills at a level directly determined by their skill, or perhaps just habit (much the same thing as it turns out).
I believe the habit is a ditch-able one. In addition to sessions with challenging footing, I also recommend incorporating downhill speed work on easy surfaces, to help induce specific adaptations in muscles, tendons, fascia, and bones to faster downhill running (as with anything else, these changes to your training should probably be gradual).
By the way, I would hazard that sore quads et al are NOT a consequence of faster downhill running per se, but rather a result of running downhill at speeds that one is unaccustomed to, whether faster or slower. At Baldy Peaks 50k (10700' descent) I tried to trash my quads by running the majority of downs at sub-8 minute pace in preparation for Angeles Crest. It didn't work, probably because of the close resemblance to my training. On the other hand, I did get sore, and subsequently stronger quads from running some hilly 50k's at roughly 50% slower than normal cruising pace (i.e. nine hours as opposed to six).
In a message from Scott Rafferty he writes;
"There seems to be a consensus that people who are talented downhill runners do not need to train as hard. I had a few follow-on questions."
Because you can get away with being slower on the uphills and flats. (I always walk these in 100 milers).
"Is downhill talent associated with some characteristic (e.g., aerobic capacity, quad strength) that substitutes for heavy training?"
Aerobic capacity isn't important on downhills. Even at 14,000 feet I'm not breathing hard, and I live at sea level. You're letting gravity do the work. I estimated my VO2 max at around 52 based on flat running (MPH * 5 for 10-12 minutes), but based on my climbing ability, which is poor, it is probably closer to 42, not much above sedentary. Climbing is a better test because running efficiency doesn't affect the results. My quads are fairly strong, however. Yesterday I lifted 740 pounds for 5 reps on the 45 degree sled leg press. I don't have big legs. They're kind of skinny, in fact. I'm 6 feet, 160 pounds, 41 years old. It's been pointed out that I don't train less, just differently. I do long slow distance (which just teaches you to run long and slow) only about once a month. Most of my running is speed work and racing over short distances: 5K races or runs sprinkled with hard 100-400 yard sprints. I also lift weights. All of this exercises fast twitch muscle, important for downhill running (which I rarely do because of the lack of hills in Florida).
(2) "Is this talent natural or acquired? (Having seen Matt's amazing splits at Pikes Peak, I imagine it has to be somewhat inherent.)"
I wouldn't say they're amazing (4:30 up, 2:00 down), 9:15/mi on the descent. Matt Carpenter's course record in 1993 was 2:01 up and 1:15 down, or 5:45/mile on the descent. That's just his average and included some very difficult terrain in the first 3 miles above tree line. My first 3 mile splits were 13, 11, 11, and my last 4 miles on smooth, fine gravel trail and a steady 16% grade with some switchbacks was 7:30-8:00/mile. If Carpenter's splits had the same ratio as mine, he must have been running about 4:30/mile on this section. When I did see him coming down (in '93) I was amazed at how smoothly he ran while hopping over boulders and logs and dropping 1-2 feet with every step.
(3)" Should those of us without Matt's and Suzi's talent (or the opportunity for heavy training) focus on our downhills?"
Focus on speed work, weights, and trail running to develop strength and coordination.
Scott Rafferty wrote:
"There seems to be a consensus that people who are talented downhill runners do not need to train as hard. I had a few follow-on questions. (1) Why? Is downhill talent associated with some characteristic (e.g., aerobic capacity, quad strength) that substitutes for heavy training? (2) Is this talent natural or acquired? (Having seen Matt's amazing splits at Pikes Peak, I imagine it has to be somewhat inherent.) (3) Should those of us without Matt's and Suzi's talent (or the opportunity for heavy training) focus on our downhills?"
WS100 director Norm Klein has estimated that 80% of the dropouts at Western States are from fried upper quads. The downhills in a long trail ultra can definitely kill you. Even if you find the uphills very easy, you'll be surprised to find your upper quads hurting like blazes. I posted a request for information on training for the downhills about six months ago and got 30+ answers. The advice ranged from training with weights to doing hard intervals on the bike (Dave Scott gave that one) to running the hard downhills sections of the WS100 trail in training (Dave Scott). Other advice: lunges, speed work, squats.
"When you do run downhill, remember that running fast hurts less than running slow. It is the braking that hurts later, so don't. Land on your toes and let your calves absorb the energy (here is where speed work helps, as well as calf lifts in the weight room. Strong calves also protect you from ankle sprains.)"All of Matt's advice on downhill running (and mental toughness) sounds quite good, with one exception. I don't understand the following description of downhill technique; in my experience, the way to run downhills is with 1) fast (as Matt suggests) 2) short steps, landing on the 3) heel. I'm assuming we are talking about steep downhill, perhaps with loose gravel and bad footing. with short fast steps I find I can move down a trail quite rapidly and without tiredness, even if I've already nearly exhausted myself in steep climbing or regular running; the muscles are employed in a different way and appear to be fresh. And as Matt says, there is no braking involved. But I can't see how landing on the toes would help, particularly with loose gravel. When you land momentarily on your heel it doesn't much matter if your foot starts to slide out from under you on the gravel, since with short fast steps the you are already into the next step; you don't need a particularly solid foot plant.
On less steep declines the running form I use is pretty much the same as that for running on the level, but again I don't see the role of the toe landing. A heel-first landing (or something close to it) seems "natural," and if leg speed is kept up, there's not too much shock in landing. (Actually, although these techniques now seem natural to me, I was taught them by other runners.)
If Matt or anyone else has further thoughts on this, I'd be interested. I do a lot of downhill, and am always interested in new, better ideas. Also, any ideas on training for long steep "up"hills?
Charles Steele wrote:
"In my experience, the way to run downhills is with 1) fast (as Matt suggests) 2) short steps, landing on the 3) heel."Have you ever watched the lead runners coming down Pikes Peak or Hope Pass? They are FAST, and they take LONG steps. As for whether you land on the toe or heel, don't worry about it. As you pick up speed, you start running on your toes, though you probably aren't aware of it. At a 5:30-6:00/mi pace, which is what the leaders are doing on these rocky 15-20% grades, I am sure they are landing on their toes.
Since Al Zeller asked if I'm still out here, and said nice things about my downhill running, I'll come out of the closet. I haven't written to this list for awhile because plantar fasciitis kept me from running until recently. Although I enjoy reading the posts, I feel a little disconnected from running when I can't do it. I also feel like I don't really have a right to talk about running when it's just talk instead of doing.
Anyway, here's what (little) I know about downhill running.
"Run speed work once a week. The purpose is to train your legs to move fast. A 5K race is NOT speed work. That is a tempo run, something else you should be doing once a week too. Speed work means several 1/4 mile intervals hard with a walk or jog in between. Save the hardest for last."This year preparing for Hardrock I tried something new: instead of my usual twice-during-the-weekdays 15 mile flat run (to build up the mileage), I did a shorter (12 mile, but still 2 hours) hill run, really pounding the downhills, and an interval workout on the track (typically 3 x 1 mi plus 4 x 400m, plus a 9 mile run to and from the track - also roughly 2 hours worth).
At Hardrock, for the first time in three outings, my quads didn't get hammered. I could still run downhill relatively fast at the end. I think this extra time on the hills and the track really paid off.
"When you run downhill, take big steps and land on your toes. You will go faster and you will save your quads because your calves are absorbing the shock instead."You were kidding, right? I attempted #1 during my first 100 miler. By 52 miles I could walk with a wobble and had no quads left. Now I run down hill with slightly flexed knees (HD suspension stride), short quick turnover, and heel striking- and the quads can go all day and all night.
"You were kidding, right? I attempted #1 during my first 100 miler. By 52 miles I could walk with a wobble and had no quads left. Now I run down hill with slightly flexed knees (HD suspension stride), short quick turnover, and heel striking- and the quads can go all day and all night."I am not kidding. Next time you are slogging up Pikes Peak or Hope Pass and the Big Boys are coming back down, watch how they run. The first thing you will notice is that they are going REAL FAST, like 6-minute miles or better over really crappy terrain. The second thing you will notice is that they are not taking little short shuffling steps. They are bounding down the hill, hurdling rocks, logs, etc. On your next training run, try some strides at a sub-6 pace and look at how your feet are landing. I bet you will be landing on your toes.
As for avoiding quad soreness, I do speak from experience. They should be sore after your first 100 miler, as mine were after Vermont. But this soreness will harden them to further damage, an effect that lasts about 2 months. When I finished Leadville 4 weeks later I was tired at the finish for sure, but my quads were not sore and I was able to run the down hills all the way to the finish.
Your problem may have been your calves, not your quads. If your calves are shot, you won't be able to use them to run fast downhill, and you'll have to shift the braking to your quads. Try strengthening both muscles in training, not only with hard downhill sprints, but with weights as well. I have been lifting weights for 7 years and I am up to 700 lbs. on the 45-degree leg press and 200lb standing calf raises with one foot at a time. Strong calves will also protect you from spraining your ankles, since it is your calf muscle that takes the weight off your heel when you start to twist your foot.
So am I understanding you guys correctly, that the "sitting back" position on downhill runs is what messes up your quads? So one should lean forward and--skillfully keeping dynamic motion and center of gravity in all the right places--go for it? If you confirm, I will try. But have doubts.
So am I understanding correctly, that the "sitting back" position on downhill runs is what messes up your quads? So one should lean forward and--skillfully keeping dynamic motion and center of gravity in all the right places--go for it? If you confirm, I will try. But have doubts.This is my preferred downhill method and it really seems to work and eat up ground. When it's super steep and there are "bounce trees' available I occasionally hit one on purpose to regain control over my descent a little.
It reminds me of a passage in the Dharma Bums by Kerouac and the movie On The Edge where you just put your feet and self out there and just free fall believing that you'll have somewhere to land.
Linda Andes-Georges wrote:
"So am I understanding you guys correctly, that the "sitting back" position on downhill runs is what messes up your quads? So one should lean forward and--skillfully keeping dynamic motion and center of gravity in all the right places--go for it? If you confirm, I will try. But have doubts."I am not a fast runner and I am way big and heavy (215lbs) and I can tell you that sitting back trashes my quads while leaning forward and "going for it" is easier on my legs. It can, however, be rough on tendon/ligaments in the ankles if you trip and twist while going fast down hill.
Yes, it works to lean forward. As noted by others, the trick is to have fast enough leg turn over to run the appropriate speed.
If you run in a vertical position, the extra vertical drop from the downhill will increase the force of impact when the foot hits the ground. If you lean forward, that force is transferred into a horizontal and vertical component. Either via trigonometry or Pythagora's theorem, you can see that the magnitude of the vertical force must be reduced. If you need a more dramatic example, consider "running" down the side of a building. There would be no force on your quads because your legs would be parallel to the ground.
Warning, please don't try this at home - it is just a thought experiment.
At the top of a long hill, start slow. Realize that to minimize your damage from the downhill, you'll have to speed up as you proceed down the hill. Think of what would happen if you coasted on a bicycle while going downhill. Your speed would gradually increase until you'd be flying at the bottom of the hill. Back on the horizontal, your speed would drop off.
Running uphill is intuitive, but running downhill is not. Early in my running career I got some nasty injuries from the downhills. Then the proper technique just came to me through practice. Now I look forward to downhills.
I don't run on my toes on any terrain, but on downhills I like to try and keep my legs and body at right angles to the surface just like on the level. If the hill is too steep, then I agree with the idea of using the heels and/or turning sideways like a downhill skier.
Karl King wrote:
"From my visits to Oregon, you must have some beautiful and fun trails available to you. It is a shame to run only on the roads when you have such great alternatives. Consider some real trail shoes, and hit the trails."Amen to that! We have some terrific trails around here; on some of my favorite runs in the Coast range, I average seeing one person in 8-10 miles of trail. That's ideal for me! If anyone in this neck of the woods would be interested in swapping tips on "out of the way" trails in our beautiful state, I'd be happy to add mine to the stew. While I enjoy Forest Park, I do like to run with my dogs off-lead, and I don't expect that others will always welcome a few happy, muddy Golden Retrievers into their laps as much as my dogs would like. Ergo, I tend to keep to more out-of-the way runs.
On running wet trails I have found a few things. First, try to keep your center of gravity over your feet, which usually requires a shorter stride and less aggressive pace. It can look like a 'shuffle' when done properly, but tends to prevent some of the slippage that an all-out stride would cause. On slippery downhills, more strides in less space generally equals more stability. If room allows, I also sometimes "tack" down slippery hills like a skier would a steep slope; rather than running straight down, I'll make zigs from side to side. This also takes advantage of the fact that the *side* of the trail is often less slippery than the center, where all the water tends to collect.
Finally, I apply my past life as a mountaineer and remember to land heel-first when running downhills in unconsolidated mud. Someone already mentioned this tip in the context of some of the Hardrock descents on snow and scree. It applies equally well to really loose mud. Let your heels take in the momentum of your downhill strides; they will dig into the bottom of the mud and help to slow down and remain stable much more than a toe-first stride on the downhills.