Saturday, May 28, 2011

Train to improve your downhill attack.

Many runners don't give downhill running much thought. It's pretty easy to run fast downhill compared to running uphill, so it's just not generally a training focus. Plus, there is the allure of conquering the hill through brute force that appeals to the human spirit. Regardless, there are some real benefits to focused downhill running, however. After all, many race courses are hilly loops with as much downhill running as uphill, or one-way net downhills, and a great strategy for running these courses is to conserve energy while going up, and attack on the downhill.

During uphill running, the knee comes up, the foot plants, and the quad muscles contract to extend the leg as the glutes drive the the legs down and back.  When running downhill, the contractions are different. unless the hill is exceedingly gradual, the knee swings forward and extends slightly as the foot reaches for the ground, and after foot strike, the leg bends at the knee, causing the quadriceps to lengthen and begin contracting (shorten) simultaneously to serve as a spring that helps the leg bend to decellerate and halt our downward motion after each footfall and

Eccentric contractions place the muscle tissue itself under greater stress than normal contractions, and take a lot out of your quads. This is why most runners don't run long downhill races nearly as fast as they think they should be able to. It's just very strenuous and tiring on the quads. Even worse, once the quads are tired, we often get lazy with our running form, and shift some of the stress off the quads, placing greater stress on the knee joint itself and on other muscle groups, which can lead to injury.

Good downhill training is essentially plyometric and can help accustom the quads to eccentric contractions, increase muscle durability and capacity to return energy through elastic recoil. This can help runners develop a more efficient approach to both downhill running (on steeper terrain), and faster-paced running in general (on less steep or flat terrain). Downhill training can help prepare the runner's body, and form, to "attack" the downhill sections during races without hurting their uphill strength and flatland speed.

Uphill training is great, and should not be neglected, but try to find some runnable downhills you can train on, and focus on staying low, fast, and smooth when you run them. Let your knee swing back fully behind the hip (full hip extension). Avoid extending the lower leg way out on front to pound the ground and break yourself. If you need to slow, or you're getting out of control, try leaning back a little. If you can't run a hill without overextending, to break your descent, find one that's a little less steep, that you can run without all the braking and pounding. As you get faster and stronger, you will find that you can handle steeper dowhills at a more comfortable run, rather than a jarring restrained descent. There are limits to this, of course, but becoming a stronger, more efficient downhill runner can be key to running your best races.

Ways to train for the downhill run
  • Downhill run training
    • Run routes with hills
    • Long downhill routes with lots of 1-5% slope
    • Run faster, shorter downhill repeats (up to around 1/4 mile) on 5-8% slope
  • Body weight training
    • Lunges (forward and side)
    • Pistol squats
    • Core and hip abductor - to support better running form
  • Plyometrics jumping
    • Drop jumping - jump off of step and spring immediately back up
    • Scissor lunge jumping
  • Don't overdo it to start. Work into hill training gradually. Downhill running without can contribute to problems like iliotibial band syndrome and patellofemoral pain, muscle strains/tears, tendinitis/bursitis and ligament sprains. Any hint of theses, and you should back off for awhile to heal and work gradually back into your training again after consulting a trusted health care professional. 
  • Plyometrics also place the muscles and joints under great stress and should be approached cautiously. Keep the repetition number low and your effort slight sub-maximal to start. 
  • Even the body weight exercises come with some amount of risk, but for the most part will only result in some delayed onset muscle soreness. 
  • If you are still markedly sore from a previous workout, it's better to wait another day or two to do the same exercises again. Delayed onset muscle soreness is due to micro-tears in the muscle tissue, further stressing the sore muscles may therefore slow healing/strengthening or increase likelihood of injury.  

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