Monday, September 23, 2013

Downhill Running for Flatlanders

Downhill running can be the most demanding component to running a big mountain ultra. Although running (or hiking) uphill requires more time and energy for the same distance, it's the eccentric muscle contraction of running downhill that can be the most strenuous. It's also the primary cause of DOMS, or post-run muscle soreness. What I'm refering to with downhill running are, generally, slopes of a sustained 8% grade or greater. Often, much greater.

I have some downhill running techniques I wanted to share (and need to constantly relearn) based on running a lot of mountain ultras, living in Telluride, CO for several years, and having trained with and observed some exceptional mountain runners. I realize that there are varying opinions on downhill running technique, so what you read here can be taken as one runner's opinion. Also, running on a trail requires adaptation to different surfaces and varying technique.

First, try to use your normal running form whenever possible. Don't "swivel" your hips, stiffen your legs, or do anything other than natural, fluid running.

Don't try to lean forward, as I've read many articles on the subject of downhill running suggest (unless bombing something super steep with loose footing). Keep your body mostly "upright." Your torso should feel balanced over your hips. This may feel like you're slightly leaning back on very steep terrain, but you're not. Actually leaning back, or moving your center of gravity back, impedes stride and leads to "braking", which is fatiguing.

Use your normal flat-surfaced or a shorter stride length (don't stretch-out your stride length). However, it should be longer than what you use going uphill. If you've got it in you, keep cadence high (160+). If it's very steep (25% or more), or highly technical, step quickly like you're on hot coals. The higher cadence will unload your leg, which reduces the "braking effect" that trashes quads. A shorter stride can enable you to make quick foot placement corrections. Over-striding and landing forward of your center of gravity can lead to a multitude of problems.

Point your feet slightly downward (plantarflexion) before landing to maximize shoe contact with the ground when possible. This is important in areas where there's is loose footing. In very loose gravel, you may have to land sharply on your heals to "dig-in." Again, adaptation is key. Your foot should land mostly under your body - under your center of gravity if your using good posture. This aids in balance and reduces "braking."

Try to glide and let the ground just pass under you - don't "push off" to stride, use gravity. Step lightly. There should be little to no upper body bouncing (unless you're bounding over large rocks) and you shouldn't feel as if you're crashing down on landing.

Run the shortest, most direct line along the course. Try to run over (not around) small obstacles. Do this because a) it's the shortest distance, and b) the "grass isn't always greener" on the other side of the trail. In other words, generally avoid weaving along the trail as this rarely pays off.

Signs you're doing it wrong:

  • You're sliding foward in your shoes/get black toenails (braking).
  • You need to over-tighten your shoes to keep your toes from banging against the front of the toe-box (braking).
  • You're using a drastically different running style than normal, flat-surface running.
  • You're hunched over.
  • You twist your ankles, trip or stumble (leaning too far forward).
  • Your cadence drops below about 140.
  • You feel afraid of falling down (be fearless and keep your eyes on the trail).
  • Everyone's passing you on the downhills ;-)

Training for downhills when you're a flatlander can be a challenge and requires some improvisation. Keep in mind that downhill running requires a lot of eccentric muscle strength. This can't be developed by flat-surface running alone, or by lifting weights (concentric exercise), or even by running the "rollers" and small hills you may find in mostly flat areas like where I live in Dallas. Certainly not to the extent needed to perform well at a mountainous ultra.

The only way to adequately train your quads for downhills is by sustained (and sufficiently steep) downhill running. This sounds obvious and it is. So what's a flat-lander to do if getting to the mountains isn't an option? Build a mountain. Rather, configure a treadmill for a significant downhill slope (>10%).

(Some disclaimers. Don't do the following 1) with a low quality treadmill, 2) unless you're taking complete responsibility if you get hurt or break a treadmill, 3) at a health club if they don't want you to! I assume no liability whatsoever if things go wrong.)

The following training technique helped me to finish in the men's top 5 twice at the Hardrock Hundred, the most mountainous 100 miler in the US. If you don't own a good treadmill, it involves going to the gym, which is on the I-won't-do list for most trailrunners. But if you signed up to run a mountain ultra, it's time to suck it up.

Raise the back of a treadmill.

There are various ways to do this. I take a composite fencepost (Lowe's, Home Depot, etc) and saw off two 4"x4" blocks. I use these because they're light and strong. Tilt up one side of the treadmill and slide the block under one of the rear legs. Then do the same to the other side. If the treadmill "incline" can be selected for downhill, do that too. The resulting downhill slope can be measured using a smartphone app with the ability to read an incline. Don't confuse "degrees" with "percent" - they're totally different scales. Use percent, which is the most common for roads and trails. You can go here to calculate the vertical change based on slope percent and distance.

As you get better at running downhill, you can increase the amount you raise the back of the treadmill.

As you train, constantly focus on running form. You can also wear some weights or a hydration pack to load your quads even more. Be carefull as you progress - build up gradually. These techniques can be highly effective, but you can hurt yourself if not performed safely.

So, fellow flatlanders, I've seen you at ultras - tenuously creeping down those steep declines and getting passed by other runners who train in the mountains. I've felt your pain and it doesn't need to be this way. Embrace your inner downhill god (or goddess), suck it up and get on a treadmill. And kick butt at your next mountain race!

One treadmill is not like the others...
3 weights and a piece of fencepost
result in -20% slope

Excuse my heel whip. (I've tried to fix it!)
It may look like I'm heel-striking in the video,
but it's actually a mid/forefoot strike