You crest the hill and ease up. The work it took to run up has left your heart pounding and breathing labored. It’s so tempting to coast on the downhill, let gravity work its magic and just hitch a ride. Instead of actively turning your legs over, you lean back and let your heals absorb the impact of each step.
But, instead of coasting down the hill, controlling your descent, you attack it? What if, instead of using them as a time to recover, you could take advantage of them and shave seconds off your pace?
Several years ago at the Baltimore Half Marathon I found myself in a battle with another running on the up-and-down course. I attacked and pulled away on the uphill. He fought back to pass me on the downhill. We went back and forth for the entire second half of the race.
The biggest reason my fellow runner kept passing me on the downhills? I treated them as recovery. My focus lapsed. I should have increased my cadence to actively pick up my feet and land more midfoot. Instead, I passively led with a straight leg, forcing my heals and knees to adsorb the shock of each step.
Since I’ve incorporated a few things into training to become a better downhill runner. These 5 things helped me run 3 hours at Boston, which is has a ton of downhill, and can help you as well become a better downhill runner. They are in order from least to most running-specific.
1. Spin – Even if you’re not a cyclist you can still benefit from incorporating cycling or spinning into your training. Not to mention, with winter here, it’s a great time to up the cross-training. Jump into a spin class or create an interval-based workout holding a high cadence (95+ RPM). Cycling will help improve leg turnover, something that’s essential for controlled running on a downhill.
2. Strength – Running downhill puts significant load on the quads. They eccentrically contract, meaning the muscle elongates while under tension. This causes significant damage, more so than concentric contraction. The muscles need to be able to handle this type of stress, especially if you plan to run well on a hilly course like Boston. Lower body strength exercises, such as squats and lunges, can all help build a solid foundation of strength.
3. Plyometrics – Like strength training, plyometrics can prepare the leg muscles to absorb the load associated with running downhill. Things like depth jumps are perfect for this. Plyometrics, such as hopping drills, can also help reduce ground contact time, something essential for a higher cadence and faster leg turnover.
4. Cadence Drills – In addition to plyometrics, specific drills can help with ground contact time and cadence. Incorporate simple “fast feet” drills into your warm-up. Or, find a track and count the number of steps you take over a given distance and time. Try to slowly bump up the cadence over time.
5. Run on more hills – Nothing beats the specificity of actually running hills. So, if you have access to them, find a few different types of hills, ranging in grade, and practice running intervals down during different sessions. If you’re planning to race on a hill course, devote at least one session per week to specific hill work. If you want to run well down hills, run more down hills.