There's so much focus put on to uphill running and the hype of strength training and hillsprints to prepare you not to fatigue on your way up a solid accent, but rarely do people think about downhills until they hit a decent of 400m+ late in a big run/race. Why is that? It''s only downhill so it's gotta be easy right? Wrong! In fact, I meet more people who prefer to run up than down........... Moreso during Ultras.
I'm certainly no uphill runner! I'm still building strength and attempting to drop a couple of unwanted pounds for that, but an area of skill I seem to hold on the trails is on the downhills. I often lose placings on the steep inclines, but often make these up and sometimes more on the way back down.
Downhill running brings about a whole new form of stress on the legs than what flat or uphill running does. Typically, the muscle tissue is conditioned to working or contract whilst shortening; however this is the opposite when running downhill. During the gait cycle of downhill running the muscles perform an eccentric muscle contraction which essentially means it is under load while lengthening, not shortening. Without good conditioning, this will fatigue the muscles very quickly.
Fatigued muscles and poor form down steep declines can quickly cause damage to not only the muscle tissue, but moreso the joints such as knees and hips with constant harsh pounding upon each step.
Downhill running is essentially about keeping your stride under control whilst gravity is pulling you down. On gentle slopes, this is not too much trouble. As you begin to hit steeper slopes and/or rough terrain underfoot, this becomes a little more strenuous on the quadriceps.
A good downhill runner can use the decents as a 'rest break' from heavy inclines or long flat stretches in a race and increase per/km pacing IF they know how to run a downhill. Poor form running downhill will result in greater fatigue whilst having a negative impact on their per/km pacing.
WHY WASTE ENERGY TO SLOW YOURSELF DOWN?
A common mistake in running downhill is people tend to lengthen their stride resulting in their foot striking infront of their waist. Biggest mistake in downhill running!!!!! Why?:
- A forward foot-strike means an elongated leg position, which results in minimal shock absorbtion through the knee joint. The outcome of this means undue pressure is put on the ankle, knee and hip. Only a couple of km's of this and you'll find significant discomfort and or pain forming throughout the legs. Especially the next day.
- Striking forward of the centre of gravity means you are effectively 'braking' upon landing. Put in other terms, you are expelling energy to slow down! The concept of distance running is supposed to be trying to run as fast as you can whilst using MINIMAL amounts of energy as possible. Therefore this error in form is costing you unneccessarilly.
- The further forward your strike, the more the eccentric contraction the muscles have to perform, which in turn causes greater and greater miniscule damage to the muscle fibres. Even on a short or small slope, this makes a difference to your performance in the later stages of a race.
- A forward strike will also result in the foot 'slapping' the ground upon contact quite hard. This will no doubt cause damage to the foot bones, ankle and achilies tendon in the mid to long term.
Another common mistake I see a lot of people make in downhills is straightening their back and standing more vertical. Firstly, a straight back (with a slight tilt forward) is great, and carries with it loads of benefit for breathing and aligning your posture for the rest of your running action to work from, however, this is often exaggerated by standing too vertical. This is an automatic reaction to the forward forces gravity is placing on the body so we pull up vertical to compensate. This action again costs us........... As we pull further and further back (up), we strike BEHIND the centre of gravity resulting in us 'braking' on each step. You'll also find that your more likely to 'heel-strike' which will place undue stress on the joints again, as well as make traction and control extremely difficult on loose or slippery terrain.
Gravity: Friend or Foe, all depending on how you use it!
LET'S FIX IT:
Correct downhill form will result in you being able to increase your pace whilst reducing your energy expenditure. Why not use gravity to your advantage rather than disadvantage?
It will take a little practice with the following to get comfortable with, but once you do, you'll find downhill running an advantage in your events, gaining places whilst others stuggle. The difficulty here is not in the physical technique, as these changes are actually quite easy to introduce. The challenge I find with most people is actually in trusting themselves and the slope. Many people fear the downhill as they feel they may lose control and slip or fall. However, their actions in changing form to compensate actually increases their risk. Heel landing provides little grip, and forward landing places excessive ground force in a forward motion which increases the chance of sliding forward on loose or slippery surfaces.
The correct foot strike is similar to that of the flat surface, meaing it should land directly underneath the waistline, with mid-foot stike, especially on loose gravel as it provides more surface area of the shoe resulting in more control. Even fore-foot strikers should be aiming to land mid-foot when running down hill.
To correct the change in the centre of gravity when heading down, aim to lean slightly more forward than usual; by straightening your back but tilt forward from the waist. Ideally if conditions allow you to, make the upper body at 90 degrees to the slope. Obviously if you're on a very steep slope this impractical so make it comfortable. Your leg turnover rate should increase according to the steepness and technicality of the surface. The steeper, looser or slipperier the slope, the fast the turnover. This will mean a shorter stride. Don't be afraid to have a slight backward-strike if need be; meaning making contact with the ground slightly behind the waist line or centre of gravity if it helps with control of a faster turnover rate.
A good form will feel as though you are 'falling' down the hill with your legs merely keeping you gliding across the surface. Poor form will make a jolting or rigid feel underfoot.
Be sure to try a few of these out on a few medium grade down slopes with reasonable grippy surfaces to try it out. Be sure to consciously switch between old habits and the new form to feel the obvious difference. Practice this often and make a deliberate inclusion to your training programme and watch the ave pacing improve.....................