Ultrarunners inherently understand there’s a difference between the mechanics of running uphill and running downhill. When you look deeper into the biomechanics of ultrarunning, it is apparent there are really four distinct disciplines within the sport: uphill running, downhill running, flat running, and powerhiking. And just like swimmers train a variety of strokes, ultrarunners are best served by training the individual disciplines within the sport. Of the four, downhill running is the most exciting and gets the lion’s share of the attention, so let’s look at how you can train to be a more effective downhill runner.
Effective vs. Fast
It’s important to recognize that being a more effective downhill runner means finding a balance between velocity and damage control. It doesn’t necessarily mean training to run downhill faster. In fact, I will only very rarely have my athletes do specific fast downhill training. Rather, I will employ training strategies that are aimed at making them a more effective downhill runner first. As a byproduct, they can run downhill faster, but more importantly, they will be able to run downhill and incur less fatigue. With that as prelude, I use two activities with athletes to help them become more effective at going downhill.
Activity #1: Downhill Vision
To descend a trail more smoothly you need to plan your line and anticipate your footfalls. When I run with athletes at our camps, I’ve noticed that the athletes with a background in higher speed sports such as mountain biking or skiing have better downhill running skills because they are trained to look further down the trail ahead of them. With the increased speed in those sports, athletes have to recognize obstacles and pick a line well before they get there. Many ultrarunners without this background have a tendency to simply look at their feet, or only a few steps ahead of themselves. At higher downhill velocities this results in unanticipated braking and sudden changes in direction, which is inefficient and will cause unnecessary wear and tear on the legs.
To extend a runner’s downhill vision I place landscaping flags of three different colors every 30-40 feet along a downhill segment of trail. The runner’s goal is to be able to identify the colors of three flags at a time at all times, which means they not only have to be looking for a flag about 90 feet ahead of them, but constantly scanning the entire terrain. The result is they have better vision of the twists, turns and obstacles before they arrive and therefore can more smoothly run down the trail rather than braking down the trail.
Activity #2: Quiet Running
I love the Salomon videos featuring runners bombing down trails at breakneck speeds, even though that style of running has very few applications for real people in actual competitions. In fact, the only people who benefit from barreling downhill at the edge of control are racers trying to win sky running races. For everyone else, the goal should be to run as quietly as possible as you go downhill.
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How do you run quietly? Move less stuff. If you are excavating your way down the trail and making a racket, you’re not running downhill as effectively as you could be. To help runners experience the difference at the camps I run, we do short descending repeats on moderately technical trails. We’re not doing downhill intervals to “season the quads” or with the express purpose of training eccentricly, but rather as a skills exercise to make them more aware of the sound and sensation of quieter running. With more advanced runners I increase the difficulty factor by having them wear less aggressive trail shoes. This increases the required skill as a less aggressive outsole will require more precise and softer foot placement when trying to run more quietly.
Almost without fail, athletes run quieter by increasing step frequency, which also has the effect of reducing the intensity of eccentric muscle contractions. The work of running downhill is the same whether you break it into 500 steps or 1000 steps, but 1000 steps will be easier on your quads.
If being a more effective downhill runner doesn’t necessarily make you a faster downhill runner (although it likely will), how do you know if you’re making progress? As with a lot of areas within ultrarunning, perceived exertion is really the most effective gauge you have. When you’re more effective you can sustain a downhill run for more time or distance, you can run more downhills during a race or training session before reaching a given sensation of fatigue.
The goal of training is to improve fitness and performance, and becoming a more effective downhill runner is a way you can improve your performance independent of improvement in your cardiovascular fitness. If you can extend your vision down trail and run quieter you’ll have the legs to run faster later in the race.
Jason Koop is the author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” and Coaching Director for CTS. Over his 15-year career as a coach he has worked with novice, age-group, and elite ultrarunners, including Kaci Lickteig, Timothy Olsen, and Dylan Bowman. As Coaching Director, Jason oversees the performance and continuing education of more than 50 coaches. For information on CTS coaching and training camps, visit trainright.com.
Originally published in Ultrarunning Magazine, May/June 2018.