More and more races are incorporating downhill sections into their events. In fact, if you live in Utah, which I did for four years, good luck finding a marathon or half that doesn’t have some quad busting long stretches in it. I learned a long time ago that if I am good at one thing in running, it is running downhill. As with most running gifts, some of it is genetics. But you can also work on ways to take what you have and use it to your advantage.
First, some science: Muscles contract in two ways—concentrically (muscle shortens: think about picking something up) and eccentrically (muscle lengthens while contracting: think about putting that something back down). From an energy and wear and tear perspective, eccentric contractions are much more costly. Running downhill requires a great deal of eccentric contraction, especially in the quadriceps. Hence super sore quads after your local Parachute 10k. Now, here are some secrets to lessen the stress on your legs and can help you make up time in your next race.
* You want to go with gravity and lean with the hill. But make sure you do some from the hips, not your head and shoulders. You don’t want to tip over on the way down the hill. Many try to lean back to fight the feeling of toppling over. However keeping your body perpendicular to the ground is the best thing you can do.
* Splay out your arms. Downhill running does not require a runner to use their arms like on a flat section or in uphill running. Picture yourself on a tightrope and imagine how you would keep your arms out for balance. Now, don’t go that far but somewhere between there and what you are currently doing is ideal. The arms out will give you balance and control which you will need since you will be going much faster than normal.
*It might be tiring but you also want to really think about engaging your core. The reason many runners have great abs and a nice ass is not because they spend time in the gym working on those muscles. It is because they are flexing them in runs all the time and making them part of their exercise. Get a strong core, be a better runner, especially in the downhill.
* One of the most important things to remember when running downhill is to shorten your stride. In race after race I will see someone beating the heck out of their legs by over-striding. When the course flattens (or even if it continues downhill) after a while their legs are shot. Doesn’t matter how strong your engine is if you have flat tires. Long loping strides not only are slower because of physics (more time with both feet off the ground means wind resistance and gravity are both working against you) it is also going to wreak havoc on your quads with each pounding stride. Lessen that impact by taking shorter steps. This will also help keep your body in that perfect perpendicular lean mentioned above.
* With this quicker stride you will need to spend less time with each foot on the ground. Almost like walking over hot coals you will have a faster turnover in your legs which will help your speed even more. I always think of my feet making a pitter-patter type sound. At first it feels like you are using more energy but when all I said and done the energy saved from the pounding is far greater.
* Keep your head up. This works well in uphill running as well. When you look down you bring your body down. You induce neck flexion and actually facilitate your flexor muscles, which turn off the hip extensor muscles (glutes, hamstrings, back muscles). Those muscles are the ones which help keep you upright and neutral. By looking at the ground you actually are increasing your chances of kissing it when you pitch forward.
If you follow these steps, you will make me regret having told you my secrets when you fly down me on the downhill. That’s when I trip you.