This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Running Downhill”, please leave it below in the comments section…
There are quite a few ultramarathon events that involve hills. When faced with such an obstacle the natural tendency is to run going up and take a slower pace going down. We are usually inclined to put the greater effort at the bigger challenge and climbing up a hill compared to going down one seems to be the harder task. Those who have the incredible capacity to accomplish it, go high throttle both ways. But if you’re like most participants who need to conserve energy and therefore carefully choose when to step on the gas, the recommendation is to go easy on the climb and run downhill instead.
Most people find this approach counter-intuitive. Most veteran ultrarunners however suggest this as the more effective way to conquer a hill, make good time, and still have enough strength to reach the finish line. Among the reasons they give, the most compelling ones have to do with gravity and your quadriceps.
Work with gravity not against it
Try to observe the other runners during the ascent. The stronger ones may be moving faster but the difference isn’t really all that significant. When going up a hill, everyone slows down so there may not be any real point in worrying about keeping up the pace. On the descent however, you’re likely to see bigger discrepancies in speed. Those who were able to conserve their energy on the climb will probably be able to push the downhill and gain some advantage.
Why fight gravity when you can you let it help you? Most experienced ultrarunners advise that you lean forward when running downhill. This positions your body at a more perpendicular angle to the inclined surface. When you lean back, the tendency is to land on your heels and brake. The effect you should try to achieve instead is to smoothly roll down the hill and let gravity do some of the work.
Save your quadriceps from further damage
Intermittently braking on the descent is hard on your leg muscles. With every step you’re actually coming down from a height which essentially means you’re hitting the ground with more force or weight. You can just imagine how much punishment your quadriceps are taking. As you may know, blown quads are one of the more common injuries that often cause a DNF.
By leaning forward and running downhill, you can lessen the naturally increased impact of every step. Cross-training through cycling and weight training can strengthen your leg muscles and prepare them for this ordeal. Work on your quads but don’t forget other muscle groups such as your calves. Strong calves can save you from sprained ankles, a likely tragedy when running downhill.
Of course nothing beats the specificity of actually running down a hill during your training period. Besides strengthening your legs, you also have to develop the coordination. You’re going to be running down a sloping obstacle course which can possibly include loose soil, bushes, trees, roots and rocks. Running downhill is also a matter of knowing how and where to land your feet.
Do you have questions about running downhill in an ultramarathon, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.