In order to run faster downhill, incorporate some weightlifting into your training regimen.
In this article, we will discuss the importance of downhill running and how we can improve it. Any runner who has run marquee races such as the Boston Marathon, the Dipsea, Western States, or faced the steep hills at the Wildflower Triathlon know that being able to run down is as important as running up.
I learned this lesson painfully in my first ultra marathon.
I was running in the chill and salty Cape Town air, facing three miles of upward, unrelenting pavement with a in view of the Indian Ocean. I was about to plunge down a three-mile descent of equally unrelenting pavement along the Atlantic. I was about 15-18 miles into the Two Oceans Marathon — my first (and let the record show) only ultra marathon.
I trained well, chugging by runners on this steady ascent. With 20 miles still to run, this strong feeling gave me that much needed confidence in my plan and preparation to keep going.
Midway down the descent, however, it was me who got passed. While my heart rate was low, I just couldn’t run faster. I was maxed, and my hips and knees ached with the effort. I resigned myself to watching the same runners I previously passed retake the lead. I started to ask myself: what does it take to be a good downhill runner? And why am I a bad one? I suffered through, finished the race, and went back to the drawing board.
As I learned, our ability to carry speed down hill is not governed by the standard running regimen, i.e. the tempo, track, and long runs that train our physiological limitations. Instead, it’s beholden to our physical and mechanical limitations.
We all have a given comfort zone of speed. If we let a downhill carry us too fast, we lose control, our body tenses up and we start to slam the ground harder, resulting in greater impact both on our joints and on our musculature. So the key lies in expanding this comfort zone to get more of that free speed on the descents.
As I have learned from coaching at San Francisco CrossFit, the ability to handle this speed and impact of each foot strike goes hand in hand with the ability to jump and land in a powerful and safe position. If these jumping and landing mechanics are wobbly (as was my case), we sense this instability and slow ourselves down.
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Runners jump and land all the time with each step. Cranking up the speed, distance per stride, steepness, and technicality of the terrain increases the demands on every foot strike. If our hips, knees, and ankles are unstable we cannot keep up. Further, we risk “fast” injury in the form of ligament damage, broken bones, or cuts and scrapes from acute stress, or “slow” injury in the form of runners knee, shin splints, and stress fractures from repetitive stress.
Our strength and conditioning program should exaggerate these athletic realities so we can handle the speed and impact of downhill running. That way we can push out our comfort zone and minimize the potential short and long term damage.
The clean (an Olympic lift), the box jump, and the double under in the gym together teach us how to jump and land in a way that will expand our speed comfort zone. The clean teaches us how to jump and land under a heavier load and full range of motion, the box jump teaches us how to jump and land quickly with our body weight, and finally the double under teaches us how to handle jumping and landing at speed with a high cadence. It goes without saying that the prelude to these dynamic exercises is a solid squatting foundation.
There are a lot of excellent resources on Olympic lifting. One resource I particularly like is fubarbell.com.
Start in a dead lift shape, jump the weight upwards, and receive in a front squat shape.
In other words, start in a dead lift position with your feet at hip width, back flat, hips loaded, knees out, and shoulders pulled back together to create a strong connection with the bar (note: athletes must learn to dead lift and front squat before progressing to the clean). Drive the bar straight up with a big chest. Start slow and accelerate the hip drive once the bar passes the knee.
Finally, at the top of the pull (when hips, knees, and ankles are fully extended), slide your elbows quickly underneath the bar and jump your feet out shoulder width to receive in a front squat position — elbows up, belly tight, and knees out. The clean is tricky so return to the basic dead lift and front squat positions.
Some common faults are knees collapsing inwards on the pull (jump phase), and knees sliding too far forwards and collapsing inwards while receiving (the landing).
Start in a shallow squat by pushing your hips back and knees out. Extend your hips powerfully while swinging your arms forward. This creates the upward and forward momentum (the “jump”) to get up on the box. To land, finish in a shallow squat: with the feet forward, the belly tight, and the knees out for stability. Stand up tall to finish and either step down or jump down. See gymnasticswod.com for excellent box jump progressions.
Some common faults are the knees caving in while jumping, the knees driving forward and collapsing inwards while landing, or the athlete not finishing by standing tall on top of the box.
Begin with regular skipping jump rope, one revolution of the rope per skip. To perform a double under, there are two revolutions of the rope per skip. Athletes must jump higher and simultaneously spin the rope faster to hit it. See gymnasticswod.com for more on this exercise.
The double under more closely simulates the rapid jumping and landing seen in running under greater cardiovascular demand. In other words, can an athlete breathe hard, move fast, and still maintain stable ankle, knee, hip, and lower back mechanics?
Some common faults are the athlete landing too hard, disrupting their rhythm; the knees collapsing in while jumping and landing; the lower back excessively arching while jumping and landing.
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Warm up for 10 minutes before touching the barbell. Include dynamic range of motion exercises to prime your hips, knees, ankles, and shoulders. Refer to mobilitywod.com for ideas.
The Clean: Before the workout, practice 10 dead lifts, 10 overhead presses, 10 front squats, and 10 power cleans.
Perform one clean every minute for fifteen minutes. The first five are at about 70 percent effort, the next five are at 75 percent effort, and the third five are at 80 percent effort.
Box Jumps: Warm up with 5-10 box jumps on a comfortably low box or bench. When you’re ready perform 7-10 sets of three box jumps. Increase the height of the box as you feel comfortable and to increase the challenge.
Double Unders: Warm up with one minute of regular jump rope and one minute of double under practice. The main set is a five-minute double under accuracy test. Perform a ladder of double unders: 5-10-15-20-25-30-25-20-15-10-5. You cannot progress to the next ladder rung until you have accurately completed the double unders in the current rung. If this workout is too much for your current fitness level, start with a smaller ladder: 5-10-15-20-15-10-5.
Efficient downhill running requires a few skills outside of the normally discussed energy systems. To name a few, it requires the ability to handle the greater speed and impact while maintaining stability in the hips, knees, and ankles with a sense of flow.
While my ultra marathon run training improved my aerobic endurance, muscular endurance, and some run specific stamina and strength, it did not go far enough to train my physical and mechanical limitations.
I learned that I needed to develop my jumping and landing mechanics to improve my descents. And while there is no substitute for running downhill for practice, it was clear I needed to revisit my basic athletic foundation. To feel safer, stronger, and handle faster down hill speeds, I worked on my clean, box jumps, and double unders.
Let’s go back to the Wildflower Triathlon in 2010 and 2011. It was me who was able to pass others on the punishing downhills and finish a few more places ahead. It even allowed me to break into the top 10 overall in the Olympic distance race with a 10K personal best off the bike.
So if you are a hater of the down hills like I was, it might be time to revisit your jumping and landing mechanics in the gym. Who knows … maybe you too have some untapped running potential left in the tank!
About The Author:
Nate Helming, based in San Francisco, coaches Olympic level road cyclists, professional triathletes, junior elite mountain bikers, and national-level ultra runners on their strength and mobility in the weight room in addition to coaching elite-amateur runners and triathletes outside the gym. Follow him @natehelming on Instagram/Twitter and visit his website: www.helmingathletics.com for more information or visit him personally at San Francisco CrossFit.