Try These Eccentric Strength Training Exercises for Improved Downhill Running Performance
Many ultrarunning events and races are held on courses that feature lots of elevation change. However, plenty of runners live where there is little or no access to hilly terrain. Although developing superior aerobic fitness is the highest training priority before any trail race or ultramarathon, preparing for a mountainous event without access to hills poses unique challenges. Fortunately, athletes can prepare for the demands of uphill and downhill running with specific training strategies that can be executed anywhere. In the following discussion, we present options ultrarunners can use in the gym to prepare for downhill running. Specifically, these exercises develop eccentric muscle strength and endurance.
About Eccentric Muscle Contractions
In simple terms, during an eccentric muscular contraction a muscle is elongated when it is activated and under tension. A prime example is a runner traveling downhill. Envision the quadriceps of the lead leg during a downhill running stride. From an extended position it actively slows the runner. As a runner lands and the knee bends to absorb the weight of the runner, the quadriceps muscles are under peak tension as they elongate. Training on this terrain is the best way to improve muscle strength and endurance for long descents. However, not all runners have this option. For those athletes, integrating strength training in a manner that stresses and strengthens muscles eccentrically can be a good secondary means of preparing for races that feature more downhill running than an athlete trains on regularly.
Eccentric Loading Through Strength Training
The exercises included below generally require targeted muscle groups to be elongated or in the process of lengthening while simultaneously experiencing tension, or peak force. The purpose is to increase the eccentric strength and endurance of the muscle group. The long-term goal is to transfer strength gains to enhanced performance for downhill running.
If strength training is new to you or if you are not currently integrating strength training into your program, introduce the following suggestions cautiously. We recommend completing one to two sets of 5-8 reps per set (5-8 reps per side/leg where applicable) of one to three different exercises listed below. Limit strength training sessions to once or twice per week to start with. The recommended weight should be no more than 70% of your single rep maximum (1RM). If you are not sure what your 1 rep maximum is, you can estimate it using this training load chart from the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
If strength training has been a part of your regiment for several months or longer, at a frequency of at least twice weekly, you should still introduce any new exercise conservatively. However, your body may be prepared for a more challenging rep/set/weight combination, such as 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps at 70-90% of 1RM, two or three times per week.
The details of how to integrate strength training can be very nuanced and consideration for your running goals and cardiovascular training sessions must be taken. Therefore, keeping strength workouts relatively easy when you introduce new exercises is always recommended.
Depth box jumps
There are several variations to depth box jumps and we recommend beginning with a simple approach with an eye toward safety. This is especially true for athletes who may be unfamiliar with plyometric movements. Begin by standing with two feet shoulder width apart on a box (height approximately 8-20 inches). Bend your knees slightly and keep your chest upright. Then, jump slightly forward off the box to land evenly on both feet. Bend your knees as you land, but only as far as needed to support yourself. You do not need to go deeper into a squat position.
This is a depth jump in its most basic form. The difficulty level can be increased by adding an upward and explosive two-footed jump upward immediately after the jump off of the box. An even more advanced movement replaces the two-footed hop with a one-footed hop forward after landing.
Once you master the hop forward after the landing, another layer of challenge could include replacing the forward hop with a lateral jump (or several jumps) after the initial landing. If you get to this level, begin with two-footed lateral hops and progress to single foot bounds laterally when and only if strength and balance are adequate for this to be a safe movement.
Lateral skaters, commonly known simply as ‘skaters’ are another excellent option for developing eccentric strength in the lower body. To complete a basic skater, start in an athletic stance, chest upright, with your hips, knees and ankles slightly flexed. From this position move directly to the left or right by pushing off the opposite leg and landing on the other. For example, for a left skater, push off the right leg and land on the left leg. Then, bring the right foot to your left foot while absorbing the landing. Repeat the sequence moving to the right.
Basic skaters can be made more difficult by holding a weight (a dumbbell, kettlebell, or medicine ball) or by pausing on the single foot and holding the other leg off the ground. This latter modification adds force and requires more balance for a longer time period. Just be sure to establish muscle tension by beginning in the athletic position with knees, hips and ankles flexed. Move in a quick, explosive manner to the left or right. This ensures the hamstring complex begins in a lengthened position and that tension increases when it is in this stretched position, very similar what occurs during downhill running.
Bulgarian split squats
Bulgarian split squats begin with one foot in front of the athlete while the other is elevated and placed directly behind, resting on an elevated platform such as a box or a bench. The elevated foot should rest at a height between the knee and hip of the grounded leg. For most athletes, that’s approximately 12-36’ above level ground. Place your front foot so the knee does not move ahead of the big toe when you lower into a squat. This keeps the knee in a safe position at the lowest point of the squat when tension will be highest. The chest should be in an upright position throughout the movement.
Begin in the position explained above, then slowly lower into a squat. The knee and hip of the forward leg should stop at approximately 90 degree angles when you are at the lowest point. Drive through the heel of the forward leg to return to the upright position. The elevated foot behind the athlete remains static.
Progressions for the Bulgarian split squat include adding weight (dumbbell, kettlebell, medicine ball, or resistance band) and/or altering the tempo. You can increase the strain and eccentric demands by lowering to the squat position slowly and returning to the upright position quickly. Lastly, you can add tension and difficulty by pulsing at the lowest position of the movement and/or integrating a hop off the grounded foot as you return to the upright position.
A pistol squat, also known as a single leg squat, can increase eccentric strength. These are generally considered an advanced level exercise and therefore we recommend starting with a supported version and progressing to a less or unsupported version of this movement. Begin by standing on one leg, holding the other leg straight out and off the ground. Lower hips down and back in unison, lift your chin and allow chest to move slightly forward. Do not allow the suspended forward leg to touch the floor. From the lowered position, push through your heel to rise back up to an upright, standing position. In the accompanying videos, Sarah demonstrates variations of this exercise using a box to work on the single leg squat movement, and a TRX to show an assisted Pistol Squat.
Single leg skater squats
Begin by standing upright with your knees slightly bent. It is good to have a pad, block or bosu ball behind you for this movement. Lift one leg and move it directly behind you, foot slightly off the floor. Reach your arms forward to act as a counterbalance. Lower toward the floor by dropping your hips and sitting back, allowing your chest to move slightly forward as the knee of the rear leg gently taps the pad, block or ball. More advanced athletes may lower their knee to the floor. Return to a standing position by pushing through the heel of your grounded foot. You can make this more difficult by adding weight (dumbbell, kettlebell, medicine ball or resistance band). You can also pulse at the lowest position, and/or add a hop at the extended, upright position.
Don’t expect strength exercises to entirely replace the stress and accompanying adaptations that occur through regular downhill running. However, the exercises above can be reasonable tools to supplement effective programming for trail runners. It is important to understand the specific demands of your events. Preparing for events with moderate to high levels of elevation changes requires specific training. By using exercises and equipment you can access in a well-planned manner, you should be equipped to handle what the trail delivers on race day.
By CTS Ultrarunning Senior Coach Darcie Murphy with exercises by Sarah Scozzaro, CTS Pro Coach, NSCA-PT, NASM PES
Suggestions for sets and reps? 2-3 of these exercises as a circuit? all of them? same day as running or off days? I’ve been trying to do some strength work like this before medium length endurance runs (not speed work, not long runs, not rest days)…
The set/rep combination is very dependent upon your recent strength training history. However, if we generalize and assume you’ve been in the gym completing strength sessions 2-3 times a week completing exercises similar to those in the article at between 70-90% of your 1RM, then adding 2-4 of the exercises above to your regiment at about the same % of 1RM at 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps is a reasonable and likely safe place to begin. On the other hand, if you have not been strength training consistently over the past several months, introduce 1-2 of the exercises at 1-2 sets of 8-10 reps at no more than 70% of 1RM twice weekly. Again, this is very individual and it’s nearly impossible to give an individualized answer without more context. But, great question! – Darcie Murphy, CTS Senior Ultrarunning Coach
This is great stuff! When you’re in your running season how often should you do these exercises?
If you have been doing these or similar exercises consistently (2-3x/week for 2-4 months) and you’re shifting into a specialized/race preparation block of training, then 1-2x/week at 60-70% of 1RM is adequate for most athletes to maintain the strength gains that have been established. – Darcie Murphy, CTS Senior Ultrarunning Coach