Monday, February 19, 2018

Tips on Downhill Running From Top Ultramarathon Coaches

Downhill running is a critical skill for ultramarathons. Although most runners focus their training on the more strenuous uphill sections, it's the downhill that is often the difference between a new PR or collapsing in a quad-crushed blob along the course.

I have some big mountain races this year, and one road marathon that has 5,000' net vertical descent (the Revel Mt. Charleston Marathon), so I reached out to some of the top coaches in our sport to share their secrets on training for big downhill runs. Here is the crew:

Ian Sharman is the Head Coach and founder of Sharman Ultra Endurance Coaching, and has raced mountains all over the world. He is a 4-time winner of the Leadville 100m, the record holder for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (69 hrs, 45 min), and is also the defending champion at the Revel Mt. Charleston Marathon (2:21!).
Dr. Stephanie Howe Violett is a coach and winner of the 2014 Western States 100m Endurance Run and 2015 Lake Sonoma 50m, and is known for her fast descending skills.
Ian Torrence is a Coach for Sundog Running, and a long time ultramarathon competitor. He has competed in over 200 ultras, winning more than 50 of them. I've lost count how many times Ian has blown by me on a descent, so figured he would be a good coach to ask!

Sarah Lavender Smith is a seasoned ultrarunner and coach with a marathon PR of 3:05, and is the author of The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras. I can vouch for her descending skills as well, having joined her the last 20 miles of the 2016 Western States 100m Endurance Run, where she nabbed a silver buckle (sub-24 hour finish).
1. Downhill running should be easy, but it's actually pretty hard. Why is it so hard?

[Stephanie] You’d think running with gravity on your side would be easy, but it can be tough on the legs. One of the biggest challenges is the extra mechanical damage your muscles encounter when running downhill. The eccentric contractions (lengthening of the muscle while under load) lead to greater damage, and that can lead to “blown quads”. It’s also difficult to run downhill because most runners tend to “sit back” and use their stride to break on the hill. Not only does this slow down cadence, but it also places more mechanical load with each heel strike. This requires greater energy and more muscle damage. Instead of using gravity to their advantage, improper down hill running can actually slow a runner down.

[Ian T] Running downhill can be likened to bowling without gutters — you can get away with anything. Proper technique and preparation can be neglected in favor of easy speed. However, for the unprepared, descending recklessly will return to haunt you in the following days. It’s very ballistic and can cause significant muscle damage and/or injury if the body isn’t adequately prepared for the slope, length or pace of the descent.

[Sarah] Downhill running is risky because it increases impact on your lower body, especially if you run with a less-ideal “hammering” form that involves leaning back and over-striding with the front leg fully extended and the foot striking the ground on the heel. Long stretches of downhill hammering can lead to the dreaded “blown quads” or knee pain. A lower-impact form of downhill running involves maintaining a slight forward lean and engaged core, and running as if you’re pedaling a bike with quick cadence. Your front leg should land with the knee slightly bent rather than straight, and your foot should land underneath you instead of way out front.

2. When preparing for a long downhill race, what do you recommend to add/adjust to your marathon training plan?

[Ian S] The main training adjustment I recommend for a downhill race is to include more hills, especially long downhills. Not everyone has this type of terrain locally so another good option is weight vest hiking (see this article I wrote for Ultra Running Magazine about this topic or the updated article I wrote about it for the January 2018 edition of Trail Runner Magazine), which helps to build more leg strength. This was a large part of my preparation for running a big PR [2:21] at Mt Charleston too. Also, watch your form - overstriding is very easy to do downhill, so a very slight forward lean helps to overcome this, plus a high cadence, but generally your running form should look the same as when running flat terrain and your feet should land directly beneath the body (the more practice you can do running gentle downhills, the more natural this will feel).

[Sarah] Downhill practice is important, but should be limited; in training, you should still prioritize flat and uphill work, because it’s most important to develop your cardiovascular fitness. When you run downhill, your heart rate drops, and consequently you don’t build your cardio fitness as well as you do while running on flat or uphill. If your marathon route features a long, steady downhill, then definitely practice a similar decline once a week; but, run the uphill first at a high level of effort, to give your lungs and heart the workout they need.

[Stephanie] Practice makes perfect. To get better at running downhills, one needs to run downhills. I’d probably advise focusing on running some downhill intervals (think 30-60 sec hard) at the end of workouts to prepare the quads. I think that’s one of the ways to get the most bang for your buck “Seasoning the quads” as I call it. I’d also say to not underestimate the effect running downhill will have on your legs. It sounds easy, but if you don’t prepare, death by quad failure is inevitable.

[Ian T] For a big descent like Mt. Charleston, both runners used to flat terrain and trail runners who are used to steep off-road descents must prepare specifically for the pounding they’ll receive over the course of 26 downhill road miles. All participants must practice for the hard street surfaces, unrelenting repetitive foot strike and speeds they’ll accumulate over the length of this net downhill marathon. They can prepare properly by adding incrementally increasing stretches of course-specific downhill road grades to their long runs. If the runner is local to the Vegas valley, they should incorporate a few training runs on the Revel course.

3. Any specific workouts that you would recommend, or have worked for you personally?

[Stephanie] I normally try to get some sustained downhill running in many weeks before a race like WS or UTMB. I usually end up pretty sore after a run with a lot of descent, so I want to give my legs time to recover and adapt. I also do a couple downhill intervals to prepare my legs. During a hill workout or tempo run, I’ll finish with 1-2x running downhill hard. This does two things: 1) forces me to run hard down hill on already fatigued legs, and 2) gives me confidence that I can run downhill fast. I think it’s important to build confidence as well as physically prepare. I also try to prepare my quads by doing some strength training prior to these races. Stronger muscles take more to breakdown, and even though it’s not a direct training stimulus, I believe strength training helps prepare my body for races with lots of descent.

[Ian S] The couple of harder downhill sessions I included [in training for Mt. Charleston] were a 20-mile long run with 10 miles running uphill at about a 4% gradient, then running back down at marathon effort level (this Strava run) and downhill mile reps on a steeper gradient (this Strava run). But it’s important to be in great downhill shape by the time you try these types of work-outs - they’re the top end of the training cycle and are higher risk for injury, so may not be suitable for everyone.

[Ian T] Incorporating course-specific downhill miles to a few long runs and hill repeats (both up and down) will be key in improving race day success. Uphill running is one of the best all-around workouts. It challenges the heart and lungs, strengthens muscles, increases power to leg turnover and, depending on the length of the hill, it improves the ability to tolerate fatigue. These low impact workouts will leave you huffing and puffing, but chances of injury are relatively low. An uphill workout can consist of 6 to 12 times 60 to 90 second hard bursts up a 6-10% grade. Jog easily or walk back to the bottom as your recovery between hill charges. Downhill running also strengthens leg muscles and offers the opportunity to work on form, quicken leg turnover and improve neuromuscular coordination. Early in a training plan, a downhill workout might consist of 3 to 6 times 2 to 3 minutes of controlled running on a gradual downhill slope. As the runner’s legs get used to the pounding they can start to integrate long sessions of downhill running into their long runs — accumulating 3 to 9 downhill miles at their goal race day pace.

[Sarah] Hills generally come in two flavors: “ramps” and “walls.” “Ramps” are runnable, gradual climbs and descents; “walls” are hills so steep that you can’t see the summit under the brim of your hat when you look straight ahead. "Walls” may make your legs burn with lactic acid, and consequently it may be wise to downshift to hiking up them if they fall in the middle of a long run. For a high-intensity workout once a week that improves both speed and strength on hills, warm up on flat terrain at a comfortable pace for 10 to 20 minutes, then do a threshold-pace block of approximately 25 minutes or three miles on a route that features “ramps.” On the uphill of the ramp, push the pace past your ability to talk in complete sentences; your effort level should feel “sustainably hard,” as if you’re racing a 10K to half marathon. When you transition to the downhill, increase your speed and try to maintain an intensity that still keeps your breathing elevated. After this block of higher-intensity running on ramps, let yourself recover with easy running for about 10 minutes, and then find a very steep hill (a “wall”) on which to do repeats. Surge up this hill as hard and fast as you can for 30 seconds, and jog or walk gently back down it to recover, four times. Finally, do downhill repeats: powerhike up the hill, then practice more aggressive, forward-leaning running down it. Do this four times, to get comfortable with running fast on steep downhills.
Stair repeats are excellent for hill practice too, improving both strength and form. Running up stairs encourages the kind of quick-footed, knee-lifting short stride that is most efficient on steep uphills. Running down stairs promotes agility. At a track with stadium stairs, run up and down the steps, then run an easy-pace lap for recovery, and repeat this combination as many times as you can.

Excellent advice, all! Thank you!

- Scott

1 comment:

  1. Some good tidbits in here. When I first started trail running, a friend showed me how to hold my water bottles in front of my body when running downhill to get that feeling of falling forward. It felt awkward for a day or two, but it clearly was easier on my legs. I took minutes off my times instantly!



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