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Downhill Running (Part 2)

In the first part of this article we have looked at what we can do to improve our muscular resistance to the difficulties of running downhill. In this second part we shall look at more neuromuscular training techniques.

Proprioception (feeling the trail)

Our feet have 26 bones, 33 joints, a network of more than 100 tendons, muscles and ligaments as well as more than 7,000 nerve endings. These are serious pieces of engineering! What is more they are, or should be, highly attuned to variances in the terrain and our sense of equilibrium.

Humans are quite unique in that we are almost totally bipedal, although, contrary to other mammals, it requires many months before we conquer the difficult task of “standing on our own two feet”. Through the wonders of evolution man has carved himself an ecological niche as the only being capable of fluid and rapid movement in an upright position. This conferred a great advantage to our primordial ancestors but it has a drawback in that as we take a step (leap, jump, bound) forward we are left balanced on just one leg and only one foot on the ground. We are pretty good at this balancing act but as the terrain becomes more varied and difficult, as our steps become faster and more uneven, as we move alternately from forward to lateral movement, our feet and ankles have to sustain an enormous amount of work and they have to do it rapidly, without hesitation and in perfect balance. Otherwise we shall soon be rolling down the trail rather than running down it.

Unsurprisingly it is our sense of vision that plays an important role in balance, enabling us to maintain a constant equilibrium in relation to the objects around us. A good place to start in improving our sense of balance therefore is closing our eyes and trying to remain balanced, firstly with two feet and as we gain confidence standing on just one foot at a time.

From there we can progress to one-foot balances while performing other movements. For example while balanced on one foot we can place an object on the floor in front of us, stand back upright, and then bend over to pick up the object again. While performing these movements we will feel our foot moving and reacting to the different pressures and angles being placed upon it.

More advanced proprioception work can be done with a Balance (Wobble) Board or Slant Board. If we really want to get serious about refining our sense of balance, while strengthening our ankles at the same time, there is nothing better than the use of a BOSU (Both Sides Up) Ball.

Eye/Feet Coordination

In sports that utilize balls – tennis, football, basketball – there is a great deal of emphasis on coordination within the training program. The importance of a perfect synchronicity between hand and eye or feet and eye is not only obvious but is seen as a vital factor in the skill development of both individuals and teams, and much emphasis is given to the acquisition of these skills both in quality and quantity of total training time.

In running attention is given to the acquisition of good running form through the use of “running form” or “running coordination” exercises. However the emphasis on this case is the acquisition of good running form on flat surfaces – mid foot strike rather than heel strike, avoidance of over-striding, correct leg swing etc.

In the case of downhill running the emphasis should no longer be on perfecting “form” but rather the acquisition of coordination that implies knowing exactly where our feet are, planning out where they will be in the next few steps while contemporarily looking a further few meters down the trail to map out the upcoming obstacles. This is a skill that can only be acquired while actually running downhill on technical terrain but you certainly don’t want to wait till race day to try this out.

Dedicating 30’ every now and then, maybe in the middle of a weekend training run, is a good way of practicing this skill. Choose a suitably technical downhill section and run it a number of times. Firstly slowly to get used to the terrain, while you practice alternating your vision between looking down the trail and mapping out where your feet are going to be placed next. Then try to do it more quickly on each repetition. You could also competitively time trial the section with friends or get someone to film you so you can see where you may be making mistakes – observe how your head moves as you alternatively look a few meters down the trail and then just in front of you where your feet are.

Rapidity and Dynamics

This is not really a separate issue from the previous two (proprioception and coordination). In order to develop rapid foot movements and create dynamic movements while running downhill it is also essential to have excellent proprioception and precise coordination. The process of running efficiently on technical downhill terrain requires each foot strike to be precise, in balance and extremely rapid. To this we may add that each pace will be slightly different from the other in both length and direction.

One of the best methods for developing rapidity in foot movement combined with changes in direction is the use of a “Speed Ladder” with its innumerable exercise possibilities. If you have never used this I suggest that a simple search on You Tube will turn up enough material to keep you occupied for quite a while. A once a week session of 10-15’ will so have you moving your feet quicker than you would have thought possible.

Rapid changes in direction can be quite traumatic for the muscular apparatus and so it is clear that some form of training adaptations should be encouraged before taking on rapid descents on technical terrain. An excellent way of preparing the body for this kind of stress is the use of dynamic jumping, hopping and bounding – these can be done as forward, lateral or even backwards or maybe even a combination of all three. The emphasis should be on rapid balanced movements from one foot to the other rather than on obtaining distance.

Caution should be used at first since these are movements that, as adults, we are not used to. Gradually build up from a few minutes of dynamic exercise to longer prolonged sessions as your muscles, tendons and ligaments become accustomed to the strain.

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