Benefits of downhill training.

Down hills. Ugh. They pound the quads and stress the knees. Most runners seem to dislike down hills (even many of my trail running friends). However, downhill running can build strength and endurance, and make you more efficient, even if you only race flat roads.

Dirt road downhill

Steep downhill

Another piece of The Wall
The wall, late race fatigue, traditionally is blamed on low glycogen (blood sugar). That idea came about before the advent of easily portable calories and fully stocked aid stations every mile. Sometimes forgotten is that muscle fatigue is another big cause of the wall, late race slowing. Eccentric contractions, the type prominent with downhill running, are a big cause of that fatigue.

Muscles are at their strongest when they are shortening. For example, when you do a leg press or extension, the bulge and definition you might see is from the shortening of your quads. Eccentric contractions are when your muscles work while lengthening. This happens when you land. Your quads work to stabilize and absorb impact while your knees bend, while your quads are lengthening. Even the most efficient runners have some eccentric contractions on flat roads. This is a major factor in late race muscle fatigue, and why, for example, it hurts to walk down stairs after a big race.

Downhill running exaggerates the impact of landing, the eccentric stress. Thus, training downhill is a great way to build eccentric strength and condition your legs to handle the impact in longer races, and to reduce late race fatigue.

Downhill running also magnifies flaws in your stride. Inefficiencies that you may not notice on flats or up hills are brought out when running downhill. Improving your downhill stride will make you more efficient all around.

Another benefit of downhill training is to improve your leg speed. A faster leg turnover can be easier to do on downhills.

Downhill Training
For most runners, downhill training should be added fairly early in the training cycle, after you have a few weeks of running on your legs, but before start adding a lot of intensity and other stress. The stress, the resulting soreness, so is likely to disrupt a rigid training schedule. You might want to consider adding a few weeks to your training plan for this.

To start, try training downhill every 1-2 weeks. It doesn’t take a lot of downhill training to adapt. It’s likely you’ll be extremely sore after the first downhill session, but this will lessen and then go away with subsequent sessions. Once you no longer have significant soreness after a downhill session, change to a maintenance mode where you train downhill every 2-3 weeks. This can continue until you start your taper

Downhill training is best done where you can get a good pace going. I like to do this on moderate to very steep, dirt or paved roads, or smooth trails, with good footing. This allows me to open up my pace and get some good quad pounding. If it’s too steep and/or technical, where you have to slow down and alter your stride, you lose some of the eccentric stress.

You want to get 10-20 minutes of cumulative downhill. One of my favorite nearby places to do this is on Lookout Mountain Road, Golden. There, I’ll run up the Chimney Gulch trail, ~1.5mi (700’, 9%) from the lower road crossing to Windy Saddle, then down the road, ~2.5mi (5%).

If you can’t find a long hill, you can do repeats on a shorter hill. Here are some Denver area hills that are good for downhill training:

  • I70 frontage road, Genesee – Golden.
  • Kerr Gulch, Evergreen.
  • Grapevine Rd, between Genesee and Idledale.
  • Oh My God/Two Brothers Road, Idaho Springs.
  • I-70 bike path: Loveland Ski – Bakerville, Silverplume – Georgetown.
  • Witter Gulch, Evergreen.
  • Magnolia Road, Boulder.
  • Sunshine Canyon, Boulder.
  • Repeats of the service road at Lakewood’s Green Mtn
  • Repeats at Bluffs Regional Park in Lone Tree. From the lot, stay left, clockwise. Jog up the long hill to the top. Continuing W, run the long (~1km) downhill. Jog back up the way you came. Repeat the same hill, or run hard down to the start (~0.45mi).
  • Repeats of dam roads at Bear Creek Lake Park, Cherry Creek, Chatfield.

How to run downhill efficiently
This is not a how-to article, and it’s hard to teach in writing, but here are some tips:

  • Focus on lifting your feet, not putting them down (they’ll come down on their own). Imagine you’re running on hot coals to keep your foot strike light and quick.
  • Lift your heals behind you, like butt kickers. Where it’s not too steep, you want to paw back against the ground. The steeper and more technical it gets, the less the amplitude of the paw back and butt kick.
  • Keep your body in alignment, heals, hips, chest/shoulders. Don’t lean back.

Here are some tips and drills to help with your downhill form:

  • Downhill butt kickers. Do this on a gradual hill. Exaggerate your heel lift in back up to your butt. This will help with your paw back, which reduces braking.
  • Run downhill with loose shoes, first with a normal stride, then doing butt kickers. Pay attention to whether your feet are pulling back into the heel of the shoe or you’re jamming your toes. The goal is to pull back.
  • Downhill striders – short, quick strides, paw back.
  • Run with a pack loose around your shoulders, with some amount of weight (e.g., a filled bladder). Practice leaning back to feel the pack pull away from you, and forward to feel it pushing you. You want it to rest lightly on your back, not pulling away from you, and only lightly pushing.

In 2004 (?), I did a snowshoe race that  finished with a 5mi, 2,500’ descent, mostly on a packed ski run with good footing. I was in a fierce battle for the lead, so I went all out, averaging 5:00/mi for the downhill. The tails of my snowshoes hit my butt with almost every stride. While my butt ended up black & blue, my quads did not get that sore.

Stories and interviews of champion runners on downhill training:
Camille Herron (world record 12:42 at the 2017 Tunnel Hill 100)

Nick Clark (15:44 at Western States)