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Downhill Running (Part 1)


It probably happens to you as well. Someone asks me about my running and immediately after I have started explaining they immediately protest about how my knees must be destroyed, that my ligaments and tendons must have the consistency of scraggy ropes, my ankles permanently twisted and swollen, that my back must be in constant pain (actually that last one is quite often true but that’s due to years of carrying huge packs up and down mountains during my Himalayan and Andean adventures). ”All that running downhill, the force of gravity, the uneven terrain, it must be hell”.

Actually during the longer ultras that last sentence can begin to sound true. Ever been at the 100th kilometer of a race and found yourself wishing that the descent will end, and you can begin climbing again for a bit of “relaxation”? But leaving apart such extreme cases, downhill running can be painful if not handled properly, and by handled properly what I really mean is you have to specifically train in order to have good downhill skills.

There are a number of areas that need attention in order to run downhill fast, efficiently and without hurting yourself. These can be broadly divided into 1.Muscular Strategies - Eccentric Muscle Contraction and Strengthening the Core and 2. Neuromuscular Strategies - Proprioception, Spatial Awareness, Foot/Eye Coordination, Rapid Turnover and Downhill Technique.

Eccentric Muscle Contractions

Working muscles are able to produce 3 different types of force, concentric contractions in which the muscle shortens, eccentric contractions in which the muscle lengthens and isometric contractions in which the muscle remains in tension but is essentially stationary (abdominal planks would be a good example of this).

When running on a flat surface or uphill the work of the muscle is in concentric contractions: part of the muscle’s fibres shorten due to their protein sub-units pulling, or better put, ‘sliding’ across one another to draw closer together. This shortening creates enough tension to overcome the load that’s being lifted or, in the case of running, the step being taken.

Eccentric contractions take place when instead of lifting a load we lower it. The muscle’s fibres lengthen by again “sliding” across each other but in this case increasing the distance between them.When running downhill the muscle fibres simulate an eccentric contraction in that rather than causing the muscle to lengthen, they provide a resisting force to decelerate the lengthening movement, providing an important breaking force. By opposing the downward force, a joint is safely repositioned and tissue is protected. However when this action is produced for a prolonged period of time, such as a long downhill run, this constant braking force will eventually cause micro tears within the muscle fibres. And so we wake up the next morning with an acute case of DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) in the best-case, short race scenario, or we have to face the remainder of the race, including maybe a few more down hills, with increasingly sore and protesting leg muscles in the worst case.

The good news is of course that muscles become stronger with use, so the introduction of reasonably frequent and progressively longer downhill training sessions is a positive strategy. So instead of just doing uphill repeats and walking or jogging back down to the start, you can take a breather at the top of the hill and actually run hard down the hill. Distances should start out fairly short, 200/300 metres but can progressively increase to 800/1000 metres or even longer. These are intense and potentially muscle damaging sessions so sufficient recovery should be given in the following days after this kind of training. Once every two weeks is a good timing strategy at the beginning.

Other training protocols such as weight lifting – squats, lunges – in which the eccentric (lowering) phase of the movement is emphasised can also play an important role. In this case, with or without extra weight, the lowering phase (eccentric contraction) of the lift should be carried out in a slow and controlled fashion – a timing of two to three seconds is ideal – whereas the return to the starting position will be more rapid.

Strengthening the Core.

What we refer to when we use the word “core” is a system of muscles that links the upper part of the body with the lower part, and enables them to work and move in synchronicity. These muscles are the rectus abdominus (the famous six pack ones), the external and internal obliques and transverse abdominus. These muscles are connected to the pelvic floor from where our leg muscles begin and to the hip area including the gluteus maximus and gluteus minimus that play an essential part in running force production.

These muscles play an important role in maintaining stability during human locomotion. The greater the forces in play – speed, imbalance, irregular terrain, ground impact – the more these muscles need to work in order to maintain the necessary stability for forward movement. If these muscles are not working properly or inefficiently, other muscles have to be recruited so that stability can be guaranteed.

The large Quadriceps muscles in the legs are brought into play together with other leg muscles such as the Sartorius and Adductor muscles. At the same time the upper body must contribute with the Latissimus Dorsi in order to keep the body upright and in alignment. Ever wondered why your leg and back muscles ache so much after a hard run trail race? A weak core and an over reliance on other muscles to get us down hills is an injury waiting to happen.

The lesson here is that time spent strengthening the core muscles (not just the six pack) is time well spent and will pay dividends in improving your downhill performance. If you are looking for suggestions on core exercises I can suggest two excellent Instagram feeds to look at – elisesbodyshop and tanyapoppett .

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