Downhill running

“Are you sure this is worth it?” That is the question I hear runners say in the days following a serious trail run that forced them to fly down the mountain at dangerously high speeds. Usually, the question is a results of the fact that they can no longer walk normally, or turn over in bed without discomfort, or (heaven forbid) go down down stairs. Yeah, those quads take a Humungous beating when you spend any decent length of time running downhill. But, the question still remains, “Is this going to help me?”

Why so sore?
Well, let’s address the reason why you can get so unbelievably show stopping sore following a downhill run. There are three reasons for this.
  1. The first is pretty obvious. You are hitting the ground a lot harder than normal and therefore causing more shock to travel through the muscle tissue. This shock wave will break blood cells in your feet and legs (footstrike and compression hemolysis,) as well as cause more microtearing of the muscle tissue than your are used to.
  2. You are using stabilizing muscles and connective tissues that you don’t normally use any other way. Therefore, the small stabilizers in your ankles, adductors, abductors and hips can really feel beat up since they have to work harder than normal.
  3. You are putting yourself through the most destructive form of natural weight training. Eccentric contraction. That means that you are forcing a heavy load on your legs when it is in the proccess of elongating. So each time you land on your weight bearing foot, your quad is going through full extension and fighting your bodyweight and gravity at the same time. The happens on a flat road too when you run, but it is pretty obvious that you are putting a much heavier load on your landing leg when going downhill so again, more damage.
Is it good for you?
How could it not be? No really serious here, I know that at first it seems like there is no way this much soreness could help a person. But, like anything else, if you work into gradually and then do it consistently, you will benefit. I have run some of my fastest run times just off of running long and hard mountain trails and working the not only the uphill, but the down too. Such a great break from structured workouts.
  1. Downhill running will help you change your rhythm to a faster stride rate. Most runners need constant reminders through speedwork on the track and/or downhill running to keep their cadence up. People who run fast have fast turnover rate at about 90-95 footstrikes(per right leg) per minute. So going down hill is a great way to program yourself to do this without having to give the harder interval effort on the track/road to get it done.
  2. Downhill(and trail running in general) is excellent to help strengthen your stabilizer muscles. There are quite a few injuries that result from overtraining of large muscle groups combined with undertraining of the small stabilizers and connective tissues. Running on road does solve this problem. Running on trails and especially down hill sections on the trails goes a long ways towards targeting many more complementary muscle fibers.
  3. You will develop strong and fabulous calves. Because your calves are undergoing the eccentric contraction(elongation) under heavy load they will become very strong ;over time and look great! There is no calve machine…in any weight room…ON.THE. PLANET. that will make your calves as strong as downhill running. That is because you just can’t put enough weight on the machine while your calve is in eccentric movement to match the force of running downhill. The most well developed calves that a sports scientist will see will be attached to a mountain trail runner. And in Utah we have plenty of those mountains.
  4. What goes down must have come up first. I am sure I don’t need to explain that part of the principle accept to say that if you choose the right trails to do your downhill running on, then you have to give a good effort to get to the top. The best trails I know are the ones that have epic uphills(elevation gains of 1000-3000 feet) that force great strength work and, at times, threshold heart rates. A good hard climb makes the downhill speed training that much better. You will get a very well rounded workout this way.
  5. It’s mentally refreshing, always changing and beautiful. How much better can it get!
Words of caution

  1. Like any new or neglected form of training, work your way into this. The most sore you will EVER be from a run workout will be from doing a huge down hill day when you are not used to it. So, do shorter versions and choose hills that are more runner friendly at first. After a couple of break in sessions, you will be able to run some very difficult and long down hill routes with out needing a wheelchair for the next week.
  2. Keep some downhill running in your normal routine weekly. With the above statement and other tips in mind, it is a good idea to do some good downhill time each week even if it is on the roads.
  3. Do the difficult mountain downhill trail runs no sooner that 2 weeks out from your key event. Even if you are used to running down, there is still plenty of muscular damage that lingers. Therefore, place the great mountain peak runs far enough away for you to recover. Usually, that is at least 2 weeks.
Late summer and, most especially, fall are some fabulous times to take advantage of the Utah mountains. You will get some great training benefits and have a blast doing it!

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