Downhill Running.

After 20 or so years of running, I’m pretty sure my weakness is running downhill. I do okay on flat sections and I run well uphill, but I still seem to struggle going downhill. Particularly in ultras, my quads are shot after 30 miles or so, and I have trouble staying on my feet.

To remedy this, I’ve been studying and practicing. I picked up a copy of Relentless Forward Progress (by Bryon Powell) because there is a section on downhill running. I’ve also been watching tape – athletes in other sports watch tons of tape – so why not runners?!

Sure, these are some of the best descenders there are. Certainly, I don’t expect to prance down the side of a mountain like Kilian Jornet anytime soon. However, I think there are lessons to be learned. Balance. Body position. Arm positions. Turnover. Footstrike angles. There is lots of info.

Ultrarunner Dave Mackey suggests looking about ten to fifteen feet ahead, taking short strides, leaning forward and keeping your elbows wide (for balance).

Of course, practice is also required. Bryon Powell suggests running three or four “focused sessions” in the two months before a race. He suggests starting with 30 minutes of combined descent time and working up to an hour.

I’ve been practicing and I’m hoping it is reflected in my next race!

What are your running strengths and weaknesses?

Are you doing anything to improve your weak areas?

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14 Responses to Downhill Running.

  1. Bryan says:

    Good job practicing a difficult aspect of running! My biggest issue is patience (pacing). I usually come out too fast and lose steam. I need to get comfortable running conservatively. Getting a GPS watch certainly helped with that but I still need work.

    • WalkToRio says:

      I have the same “issue”, pacing on my long/easy workouts drives me nuts. I find myself going too fast because I just wanna get done with it. I’ve stopped wearing a watch so I don’t know for sure how fast/slow I’m going. Just listen to my body, often fools me, but I still trust it lol

      • Bryan says:

        Yeah. I think mine comes from feeling so good and then, suddenly, I have no gas left. It’s like rationing my energy.

  2. marykseaman says:

    I’ve never thought of this being a difficult part of a race, but damn does it make sense (and look really hard!). Emelie Forsberg is my new idol, that’s how I’ll look when I’m running in my dreams now. It feels like every part of running is a weakness for me right now since I’m such a newbie, but I’m working on it! Nice job getting out there and practicing, I’m sure it will show in your next race!! Good luck!

  3. I’m running a marathon in six weeks that is all downhill. It’s only 1-2% grade but I’m sure I’ll be feeling it. I’ve been running downhill as much as possible (tough when you live in the flattest part of the state), as well as doing certain strength and Plyo moves to try to prep as best as possible. I might have to grab that book you mentioned, too!

    • Jason says:

      The course for your race definitely sounds challenging – that much downhill will be work! It looks like a very cool race though. And it sounds like you will be ready for it! 🙂

  4. Lucas says:

    I LOVE downhills. I guess it’s part of living in CO, get to enjoy the downs after some long climbs. One thing to watch is how they use their hip flexors to absorb the shock on the downhills. It’s not being absorbed in the quads which is what leads to the aches later in races. On stretches where it’s not as technical, practice moving fast but using more of a “cycle” motion with your legs instead of a normal running stride. If you can shift that pounding to the hip flexors, you’ll leave your quads for the climbs and flats!

    • Jason says:

      A very good point! That is definitely what I need to work on. I’ve been able to get away with my crappy form for 50k but on my last 50-miler I was walking almost all the descents after 40 miles – a very humbling experience!

  5. I think my strength is uphills. I’m not particularly great at them, but during marathons I always pass people on the hills. I never have to do a lot of down hill so I’m definately weak in that area. When I am running down hill I try to focus on my form and make sure nothing is out of whack so I don’t hurt my self. That is pretty much the extent of my efforts to improve in this area.

  6. Dan Button says:

    I love downhill running! I’ve worked in some good practice at it this summer with quick hikes/runs up and all out runs back down. I like what Dave Mackey has to say as that is how I position myself coming down, I take short staccato strides and try to keep my feet as low as possible, just high enough to clear whatever obstacles are in the trail. I try to put as little a load on each stride as possible in case my foot isn’t planted that securely, that way I can quickly throw the other foot down and transition without face planting. The wide arms for balance is key for me, I think my arms get an equal workout when flying down, always moving and swinging. Emelie is a beast on those downhills! My weakness is uphills… quite literally need to get stronger, core work and lots of hiking have been helping.

    My ultra/mountain hero is Tony Krupicka, got to meet him and watch his movie earlier this year and hear all about how he switched to mountains and hiking them before running them to get back after injury. There are some great clips on youtube:

  7. piratebobcat says:

    I have a much tougher time running uphill. When I run downhill I think of my childhood and I have a very clear memory of running down a hill in an open field and just letting go and let gravity carry me. Yeah.

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