Training for Downhills When You Don’t Live Near Mountains

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Uphills are easy.

Some of you probably just spit out your coffee and started drafting angry letters to the editor: FAKE NEWS I DEMAND A REFUND.

Trust me, I get it. Uphills can truly suck—that’s some real news. But while uphills are hard, they are pretty easy to train for. Take a strong runner: go fast on the flats, add just a bit of specific prep and you’ll have an uphill crusher. See…easy!

Downhills, meanwhile, are hard as heck. While they may feel joyful and carefree, downhills present a unique stress on the body. Higher impact forces? Check. Eccentric muscle contractions that can turn your quads into jello? Double check. Neuromuscular demands that require practice for proficiency? A hat trick of checks!

Here’s the rub—all of those things are exceedingly difficult to train for if you live in a place without mountainous or hilly terrain. On the uphills, it’s basically your running speed with a little bit of a vertical vector. A track star will almost always be an uphill monster as long as they aren’t allergic to rocks. On the downs, though, speed (along with coordination) matter some…on the first downhill. On the second downhill, strength and practice matter more. On the third, you better have prepared for them or you will be left with a gelatinous tub of goo where your quads used to be.

So if you live a flatter life and have races or adventures in the hills, you need to think about how to optimize your training to avoid a human Jello impression. Here are four strategies to use in training.

On the downs, let the deity of your choice take the wheel. In other words, don’t hold back—part of the workout comes from the impact absorption. Just be careful because these workouts come with much higher injury risk.

Aim for a major eccentric muscle contraction stimulus at least once a month

As the name suggests, eccentric muscle contractions are wacky physiological quirks. They happen when a muscle lengthens under load, often causing micro-tears in muscle fibers as outlined in this seminal 1995 article in the “British Journal of Sports Medicine.” Picture your leg striking the ground on a steep downhill grade. Your leg will be extended, and as your body absorbs the load, the knee will bend a few degrees. As the knee bends, your quadriceps muscle stretches out while withstanding impact forces far greater than your bodyweight. Due to the effect of gravity and forward motion, at nine percent grade, those forces can be over 50 percent more, according to this 2005 article in the “Journal of Biomechanics.”

What happens to a body that isn’t prepared for this wacky stress? You probably have experienced it at some point—the dreaded delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS peaks 48-72 hours after an event, so you might feel good for a bit before you start doing a zombie impression just to get the milk from the fridge. And going down stairs? Impossible task!

Even before DOMS strikes, your performance will take a hit. Unprepared muscles will weaken after the first big bout of eccentric contractions. That is why you might control your effort in the first part of a steep run, not going too hard, only to turn back uphill after a descent and realize your quads booked a first-class ticket to Honolulu without telling you.

Some evidence indicates that eccentric muscle contractions don’t require constant reinforcement to sustain the beneficial adaptations (as outlined in this 2001 article in the “Journal of Physiology”). While there is no exact timeframe, based on anecdotal evidence, it seems that a major eccentric muscle contraction stimulus every three to six weeks is plenty (depending on physiology, background and goals). Ideally, if you live without mountains, that means doing some extra driving for a big day of steeper downhills every month or so, where you do a long run with harder downhills. If that’s impossible, use the steepest downhill you have and do harder intervals on it for 30 to 60 minutes (in a major pinch, stairs or parking garages could work, but if you go that route, make sure you have an updated life insurance policy first).

On the downs, let the deity of your choice take the wheel. In other words, don’t hold back—part of the workout comes from the impact absorption. Just be careful because these workouts come with much higher injury risk.

Strength train to target eccentric muscle contractions and power up your biomechanical chain from your feet to your back

Eccentric muscle contractions aren’t just from running downhills. You can lengthen your quads under load with strength work, too. While the movements aren’t the same, targeted strength work will let you optimally use the downhill running you can do.

Most of the athletes I coach do tons of lunges and one-legged step-ups, as outlined here. The off-loading period (like going down during a rearward lunge or step-up) is an eccentric muscle contraction. Do that in a controlled way, and you’ll initiate some of those delightful micro-tears. Warning: if you haven’t done rear lunges in a while, you may be sore for a few days. DOMS strikes again!

You can also do squats and deadlifts, but make sure you do them at the discretion of an expert to avoid having your L3 vertebrae decide it’s actually a frisbee that desperately needs to be on the other end of the weight room. Body-weight strength work three or four times a week after runs is plenty, concentrating the stress on harder running days if possible. Concentrated stress lets the body adapt to big stimuli, while the easy days give you time to recover.

Work on top-end speed throughout the year

Done right, downhills are fast. In general, a 10 percent grade will speed a runner up by more than 30 seconds per mile at least (assuming non-technical terrain). If you aren’t used to going faster, the neuromuscular strain could be too much to use the free speed.

So work on your speed almost year-round. While the exact strategy varies, most athletes will get big benefits from short intervals with ample rest where they go 5K pace or faster. Something as simple as 8 x 1 minute fast with 90 seconds easy recovery is plenty to get the go-fast stimulus. Focus on that early in a training cycle, then do strides to maintain it, and you’ll be faster and more ready for downhills. Do the intervals and strides on a slight downhill occasionally for extra speed and impact forces.

Run with purpose on the downhills you do have

The biggest key is using your geography strategically. Prior to the 2017 White River 50 Miler, a race with big mountain descents, Zach Ornelas knew he’d have to master the downhills. Only there was a catch…he lived in Michigan, where one of the tallest points was just off a highway, marked by golden arches, smelling vaguely of hamburger. Yes, there were only a few hills in the immediate vicinity that were higher than the top of the McDonalds sign.

A few times a week, Zach would seek out the hills he did have. On most weekend runs, he’d do 20 to 30 minutes of purposeful running up and down the steepest climb. Every couple weeks, he’d do hard intervals there. Every month or so, he’d travel to train or race on steeper terrain. All that was mixed with enough strength work to use the stimuli when he got them.

That general approach powered Zach to a 2nd place finish at White River, which eventually earned him a spot on Team USA for the Trail World Championships. In your own training, be like Zach (a good general rule) and view every downhill as an opportunity.

If you don’t have mountains in your backyard, don’t fret! Mix some strategy with a set of stairs (for step-ups), a highway overpass (for some weekly practice) and a car (for a bigger monthly stimulus), and you can be a mountain runner no matter where you live.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play

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