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QUESTION:

Should I go faster on early race downhills?

I have a half marathon coming up that includes a mostly downhill section early in the race. Should I hold back and maintain even pace, or should I let my pace naturally increase by maintaining perceived effort? – Anthony

ANSWER:

No.

At age 48, I entered a hilly, 3-mile cross country race at nearby College of the Canyons. Cresting the course’s steepest climb at mile 2, I was 20 yards behind the race leader, the defending California high school state cross country champion. He glanced over his shoulder, saw bald, old me on his tail, and accelerated downhill. In that instant, I knew I’d win the race. I caught him after the downhill, on the flats, then put 13 seconds on him over the final 400 meters. As I explained to him afterward, You should never push the downhill.

Specifically Eccentric

But that’s only the second half of the answer to your question. The first half occurs before you toe the race start line. That’s because to race downhill you need to train downhill. When you run downhill, you increase the force absorbed and produced by your quadriceps (front thigh) muscles. More importantly, your quadriceps manage this by utilizing eccentric contractions. In an eccentric contraction, your muscle contracts and lengthens at the same time—think of stretching a rubber band, which both tightens and lengthens as you pull its ends in opposite directions—versus a concentric contraction, like flexing your biceps, in which a muscle contracts and shortens. An eccentric contraction also uses fewer muscle fibers than a concentric contraction, increasing the strain on your muscles even more!

Untrained quadriceps will wilt under this strain, leading to a flat race performance and post-race DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Instead, you should introduce 4-5 weekly sessions of downhill strides into your training, capped off, if possible, with 5-10 minutes of continuous downhill tempo.

Pacing Patience

On race day, you’ll be prepared for the downhill. But that still doesn’t mean you should sprint it. For the reasons mentioned above, increasing your pace significantly on the downhill will lead to damaged, fatigued, and unresponsive quadriceps during the remainder of the race.

So how fast should you run it? If the downhill is gradual, you can probably maintain normal stride length with modestly increased cadence. If it’s steep, you’ll want to shorten your strides to lessen impact force. It’s not as much about your downhill pace as it is about controlling the force demand on your quadriceps. Remember: You aren’t a bicycle, coasting downhill with gravity as your engine; you’re a bipedal pogo stick, absorbing the force of each collision between foot and ground.

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