Friday, February 17, 2017

It's all downhill from here

My running has really been going downhill lately, but it's helping me to get faster and more resilient.

Everyone knows that running up hills will make you fitter and stronger, but for this particular installment of Seems Like Science I'm going to make a case for focusing some of your training on downhill running - preferably as a point-to-point downhill run.

This was my 10km Wednesday evening run from my office.

Because of some circumstances of where I live and work (and because Tanker the Wonder Sherpa is amazing), I often have the opportunity to do point-to-point runs. I go see Tank on his afternoon break and ditch the car with him, then I'll either run back to my office (small net downhill) or walk to my office and do a longer run after work. Since we visit my Mum (who lives in the town where Tank and I both work) on Wednesday evenings, I've got in the habit of running some or all of the way down to her house from the office on Wednesdays - it's a sizeable elevation drop with some lovely bits of trail along the way.

I'd run this whether I got any training benefit from it or not.

I've also been known to set off from the house or get Tanker to drop me off somewhere, then meet him at another spot - we live on top of a big hill, so almost anywhere in Cambridge will be a net downhill for me, and I frequently used to run from our house to meet him down at the grocery store while he'd go fill the car with gas, just so we could get my run, fuel and groceries done in the least amount of time.

And sometimes he just drops me off so I can run somewhere beautiful

While finishing a run in a different place than I started can serve a few different purposes, there are two main benefits to planning a course with a sizeable elevation drop...and both of them can help with running performance!

1) A Little Eccentric

Running downhill places unique stresses on the leg muscles, as it requires eccentric rather than concentric contractions. If you're unfamiliar with those terms, think of doing a bicep curl: the action that brings the weight upward as you bend your elbow is concentric, and is typically the way a muscle is strongest. The action that lowers the weight, allowing your arm to extend, is the eccentric movement - you control the descent of the weight through an eccentric contraction, during which the muscle is active while lengthening.

A recent French study on downhill running concluded that the damaging effects of a short (4 mile) steep downhill run were almost equivalent to the muscle fatigue observed after much longer events, like the 100 mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Downhills simply trash your quads like nothing else, and since most trail and ultra races combine distance with significant elevation change, your poor legs end up with the worst of both worlds when it comes to muscular fatigue and damage.

We've all had those "I can't face a staircase right now" days..

You can, however, train those eccentric movements just like you do with concentric muscle contractions. By running downhills in training, you'll do a small amount of damage to the muscle fibres, which will stimulate your body to rebuild them stronger. With consistent downhill training, you'll notice much less fatigue and damage to your legs when race day comes around. I have definitely seen the effects of my downhill running in some recent events, even when running up and down a bloody ski hill!

Any guess as to which muscles are contracting here?

2) Speed Demon

When I run the downhill route to my Mum's on Wednesdays, I don't just dawdle along - I push the pace a bit, and have clocked some of my fastest non-racing kilometers along the way. The reason I do this is simple: by using the assistance of the downhill to put in mileage at higher speed, I force my body to become acquainted with the mechanics of moving at that pace, and therefore improve my running economy. A friend of mine (and thoroughly badass ultrarunner) kindly commented after a recent race that I looked much more comfortable moving at higher paces than she'd ever seen me before. I attribute that almost entirely to the time I have spent running downhills at speeds that simply would not be sustainable for me on level ground.

Of course, not everyone has a wonderful chauffeur to enable point-to-point running, but I'd suggest that there are ways to make it work regardless. If you're going running with a friend, you can meet at one spot, drop off one of your vehicles, then carpool to somewhere at higher elevation and run back to where the first vehicle is parked. If you're going solo, perhaps use public transit or ask a friend if they can drop you somewhere uphill from home, then run back, or even call a cab/ride share to take you to your start or back from your finish destination. If you really cannot manage a point-to-point, you can do downhill repeats by simply running up and down a slope, or hiking up and running back down again.

The bonus of all of this is that running downhill is FUN! Not only are you getting an excellent training stimulus, you get to feel like a speedster as you float along with minimal effort!


So, why not give some downhill training a shot? It may help you get faster and stave off crippling muscle fatigue in longer races, but as far as I'm concerned it's worth it even if it just makes it a little easier to get up off the damn toilet the day after a hilly 50k.

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