Saturday, August 25, 2012

Downhill Training

Jannine Myers

Many of you ladies are currently training for various events: the Monster Mash half marathon, the Shouhashi half marathon, and the Naha full marathon. Some of you will begin training for the Okinawa marathon in a couple of months, and possibly other local races in the early new year. A lot of the races in Okinawa are quite hilly, and while some of you may be making sure to add hills into your training runs, I suspect most of your hill training is focused on "up"hill running. Training to run downhill however, is just as important yet often overlooked.

Downhill running is generally not the focus in a training plan, simply because most runners take it for granted that gravity will pull them down the hill and no exertion is required. But some of you may have discovered that downhill running, while seemingly easy, can also cause considerable pain in the thigh muscles. Have you ever suffered from burning quads after running too fast down a hill, or a set of hills? Or even from running downhill, period? I can attest to experiencing such pain after running the San Francisco marathon a few years ago, and again when I ran the Tarawera Ultramarathon in 2010. I also remember my right IT band taking quite a beating when I ran the Okinawa marathon earlier this year. All of these courses included several uphill sections, but also some relatively steep downhill sections.

So what causes the muscles to feel so much more painful after running downhill, versus running uphill or on flat ground? Basically, downhill running forces a wider stride, causing the affected muscles to lengthen, or contract eccentrically. When the muscles are stretched beyond what they can typically tolerate, small microscopic tears can result; these tears are the cause of inflammation and subsequently, what is known as "delayed onset muscle soreness," or what you might better recognize as the pain you sometimes feel after a hard workout. In addition to the muscles lengthening, some runners also tend to run faster downhill, but a faster pace on a downhill slope also means greater impact and more stress on the muscles.

Why then, should we train on downhill slopes if the end result is pain? Well, just as our bodies have the ability to adapt to gradual progressions in running intensity and/or distance, so too can our bodies adapt to training progressions in downhill running. The more we "practice" our downhill runs, the less resistant we become to muscle damage, and, the more likely we are to increase our overall speed.

Here's a few downhill training tips that I gathered from a couple of sites:

From the May 2009 issue of Runners World Magazine - an article by Jason Karp, PhD.

  • Start small - add downhills to your routine a little at a time.....Start with a short, gradual slope, with a two-to three-percent grade, and move on to steeper and longer descents as you get more comfortable. Treat downhill workouts as hard sessions, and follow them with two or three days of easy running. And be sure to back off of downhills in the two weeks or so before a target race, he adds.
From the September 2009 issue of Running Times Magazine - an article by Brian Metzler

  • Bobby McGee, a Boulder, Colorado, coach who has trained numerous world-class athletes, recommends developing good core strength, as well as specific training to strengthen the quads, hamstrings and lower leg muscles. He suggests doing a variety of drills such as mild lunges, negative or reverse squats, light plyometric work (in which you absorb eccentric shock), hopping and bounding, so your muscles get used to the eccentric contractions.

  • Work on your form - as a surface slopes downward, you need to adjust your body position with a forward lean to keep you from hard heel striking, McGee says. "Think about trying to quickly cycle your legs under your pelvis.....the duration of each footstrike should be very short and very light. With higher turnover and shorter, more frequent steps, you're absorbing less shock per footstrike."

  • For downhill marathons (or half marathons), consider running in a shoe that has ample forefoot cushioning, more padding than your normal marathon flats and definitely not a minimalist racing flat.

Finally, here's a good video clip that demonstrates good uphill and downhill running form:

Happy hill running ladies!


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