The next time you’re running down a steep hill, try this mental exercise. Think about each part of your body and the sensations you’re feeling. Your feet? Possibly smacking into the ground, with your specific footstrike varying based on the terrain and grade. Your quads? Contracting and lengthening under load. Your face? Hopefully not actively planting.
Downhill running is like regular running, but with passion and inspiration. Give me a fast track runner, and I bet they could be a champion climber in short order. On the downhills, though? If they’re unprepared, even the fastest runner may get chewed up and spit out, especially as it gets steeper and more technical
All of that happens in the blink of an eye. Footfall to footfall to footfall, a dance that blends power and speed and grace. Shakira and J-Lo would slay it.
Downhill running is like regular running, but with passion and inspiration. Give me a fast track runner, and I bet they could be a champion climber in short order. On the downhills, though? If they’re unprepared, even the fastest runner may get chewed up and spit out, especially as it gets steeper and more technical.
That manifests in race results. My hypothesis is that some of what we consider endurance in trail running is actually individual-specific ability to run downhills fast without excess fatigue, which varies based on training and genetics, including muscle-fiber distribution. In other words, what feels like inadequate fitness or climbing ability may actually inadequate downhill preparation for your individual physiology.
A made-up experiment
You know what time it is? It’s the most speculative time of the week! It’s hypothetical-study design time. As Samuel L. Jackson said in Jurassic Park, hold onto your butts.
Course 1: a steady mix of uphill and flat grades
Course 2: loops that involve uphill and downhill, with some downhills being steeper
Now let’s have two hypothetical athletes do time trials on each course. Yes, we’re not going to be designing a scientifically valid study this week, because even in the imagination that seems like it involves lots of paperwork.
Athlete 1: fast road marathoner who does little vert in training
Athlete 2: vert-focused trail runner who does little speed in training
If you’ve read my writing, you know that I think Athlete 1 will rock the Course 1 time trial. Since running economy on uphills and flats correlates, you can bank on Athlete 1’s speed uphill, outside of very steep gradients where the biomechanics become significantly different (i.e. hiking). Athlete 2 will do fine, but probably well behind Athlete 1 except at very long distances when specific muscular endurance becomes a major factor.
But what about Course 2? Athlete 1 will rock the first uphill, and will probably have a good showing on the downhill too, as long as it’s not too technical. The interesting part would happen on the next uphill. Based on the data I have seen in coaching over time, Athlete 1 would fade a bit on the next climb, more on the climb after that. Meanwhile, Athlete 2 will be the tortoise that runs more even splits and ends up taking the hare’s lunch money eventually.
A small version of that fake experiment happens every other year when the U.S. Mountain Running Championships is run on an up-down loop course. In general, athletes who are more experienced trail runners excel more on up-and-down looped years the more loops there are, more than in the uphill-only years. My guess is that pattern would be more emphatic if the races were longer.
So what are we seeing?
In our hypothetical, as Athlete 1 started to fade, it’d be tempting to think that they’re just not that great at uphill running. That’s what lots of athletes conclude. “Gosh, later uphills are impossibly hard, so I must suck at going uphill.” But what I see in athletes of all levels is that often it’s partly unpracticed downhill running that prevents overall fitness from shining as trail runs get longer.
What I see in athletes of all levels is that often it’s partly unpracticed downhill running that prevents overall fitness from shining as trail runs get longer.
It’s really hard to simulate the repeated-bout effect of sustained downhills in the lab, but we can infer what’s happening from biomechanics studies. As outlined in this 2017 article in Sports Medicine, downhill running at different grades results in varying biomechanical loading patterns—think back to the thought experiment to start the article. Every variable goes through shifts along a spectrum as the grade gets steeper, from cadence to output vectors to power absorption/transfer.
At steeper grades, it may not even look much like flat-ground running at all. Particularly insidious little devils are eccentric muscle contractions, where muscles lengthen under load (see this 1995 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine). That can cause muscle-fiber damage that reduces subsequent power output. In future days, it can lead to delayed onset muscle soreness, when you look like you’re a baby that got high on the good formula and decided to try walking for the first time. That same process happening mid-race can crush performance long before it manifests in debilitating soreness, often presenting as mid-run jello-legs.
Even at less steep grades, impact forces are greater and neuromuscular strain varies. A 2016 review article in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found increased tissue damage and tiredness with sustained downhill running. In the best cases, that can lead to excess fatigue relative to fitness levels. While your heart rate is low, your speed can slow down substantially. At worst, it can cause muscle damage that slows you down to a shuffle even as you have plenty of energy left to burn.
So how can you make sure that doesn’t happen to you?
Here’s the best part for training purposes—it doesn’t take many stimuli for the body to adapt to sustainable, fast downhill running. It’s free speed, you just have to show up at the counter and grab it.
Before we get to the training recommendations, remember the most important things about training philosophy. Focus most of all on improving your aerobic fitness and running economy over time. Give me a super strong athlete, and I’m confident that most can implement downhill training techniques to be ready for vert-filled races relatively quickly. But it takes years of consistent, well-rounded training to develop fitness in the first place. Plus, specific muscular endurance matters for uphills, so don’t neglect that either.
With all that out of the way, here are five tips to seize the free speed on downhills. While these tips matter at the front of the pack, I think they are often even more important at the back where staying ahead of cutoffs makes it important to use the faster miles that are dictated by the course.
1) At least once a month, if possible, try to train specifically for steeper downhills when approaching race season.
Remember those eccentric muscle contractions? Evidence points toward the body adapting to them without a substantial need for repeated training stimuli day after day. That’s probably reflected in your experience. Maybe you do a steeper run for the first time in an early season race, then can’t walk for a few days in particularly extreme circumstances. But the next time, you barely feel it the next day. That’s this principle at work, as muscle fibers adapt to the stress.
There is no exact prescription dictated by studies or training theory, but around once a month as race season approaches, I like athletes to make it the goal to run efficiently down as many steeper downhills as they can.
There is no exact prescription dictated by studies or training theory, but around once a month as race season approaches, I like athletes to make it the goal to run efficiently down as many steeper downhills as they can. Long runs are great for this. A simple way to think about it is to do a run with the terrain and mindset to get sore in the following days. Injury risk is likely elevated on these runs, so make sure you’re prioritizing health above all else.
Morbid aside: it’s tough to test muscle strain directly in humans, because you don’t want to do intrusive tests. With that in mind, a 2007 study in the Journal of Experimental Biology looked at turkey muscle strain with graded running using internal sensors and found a substantial increase on downhills relative to higher speeds on flats.
For athletes in flat areas: try to schedule a trip to trails once every 4-6 weeks if possible.
2) Weekly or biweekly, run downhills in a longer run with purpose and intention.
As opposed to eccentric contractions, the neuromuscular stress and varying biomechanical loading patterns of downhill often take more consistent practice. Every weekly long run is a chance to improve downhill ability and grab onto some of that free speed like you’re Sonic getting all the rings. I like many athletes to run with purpose and intention on downhills in long runs, working toward back-to-back weekend runs a few times in big training cycles. In practice, that just means taking off the brakes—not pushing, but not holding back either.
Another coach told me of an athlete who did this on stairs, taking two at a time, but there are not enough liability release forms in the world to make me recommend that to you.
Physiologically, most athletes will have relatively low heart rate on downhills, even as the effort feels slightly higher at first. Bringing perceived exertion and output closer together can make it so that you can attack every downhill you see on race day.
For athletes in flat areas: do some repeats on whatever slight hills you have, including overpasses or treadmills with a downhill option. Another coach told me of an athlete who did this on stairs, taking two at a time, but there are not enough liability release forms in the world to make me recommend that to you.
3) Use training races or periodic hard workouts to go extra fast on downhills.
I am generally not a huge fan of downhill workouts since the increased impact forces create lots of injury risk. But actually going very fast on downhills can have outsized benefits, even if you just do it once every 6-8 weeks. A good example may be my wife, Megan, who always thought of herself as a bad downhill runner until she was being chased by superstar Magda Boulet at a trail race in 2013. Megan ran so hard that the soles of her feet burned off, and she has been a fast downhill runner ever since.
Training races are the best places to do this, but you can also do hard hill tempos (like Course 2 in the hypothetical) or intervals with downhills included. Doing some of your weekly workouts on variable grades can accomplish the same goal.
For athletes in flat areas: training races are ideal, but if you’re desperate, you can often find a steeper hill on the side of a dirt-covered landfill or similar to do some faster up-and-down action. Based on what I have heard from athletes, I assume Florida is a mix of landfills and strip clubs.
4) Think about form, reducing resistance and letting your body flow.
All of this downhill training is meaningless if you don’t practice biomechanics that let you use it efficiently. The most important thing is to relax, flowing with quick strides and good posture. Check out this 2017 article and video for an illustration.
5) Strength train.
Simple strength training can improve resilience and effective power absorption/transfer. I recommend 3-minute mountain legs 3-5 times per week and the 2-minute band routine each day. If you’re feeling fancy, deadlifts and squats are amazing all-around exercises that can improve downhill ability, but work with a professional to ensure you’re using good form.
For athletes in flat areas: this element is extra important, with squats and deadlifts a couple times per week being one of the best additions you can make to your training. Plyometrics are great options as well.
As you train downhills, remember that the impact is greater, so you will likely want to do less overall volume, particularly if you’re an injury prone or master’s athlete.
Remember to eat lots, because when you’re bombing down a steep downhill, you don’t want your connective system to be held together just with leafy greens.
And, perhaps most importantly, remember that even if you can’t dance like J-Lo, shaking it with enthusiasm can get you a lot of the way there.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.