Downhill running – Key to success


Image: Trofeo Kima - one of the most brutal races you've ever seen !

All mountain trail running races are won downhill !

This is fact ! When running a simple sky running race, where one up and one down section is present, with small technical changes we can improve a lot on our overall time. With fitness, slowly we can carve down 5 to 10 seconds per kilometer on our climbing time and can be improved very consistently. We won’t have big immediate jumps and as very often scrambling is involved, our speed and fitness is greatly limited by the terrain. However, on the downhills for instance a 5:00/km pace can be feeling blazing fast, while others are capable of hammering down 3:30/km pace on quiet technical terrain and some Walmsley type of runners give an effort of 3:00/km on moderate downhill fire roads. 30 seconds to up to 2minute improvements are enormous. On a 10km downhill you can win 10minutes ! Yes !

Mental Fortitude

There is another factor what comes in. That is concentration, focus, alertness and determination. These mental states all together. When really present, no falls and injuries occur. Once we derail, despite the flow like state, we twist and ankle, we slip on roots and dislodge rocks, hit our head in branches and so. Getting your mind into this sharp elevated state for prolonged periods of time can be difficult for someone. Especially if you had more than 20minutes of descent. Some races offer the mixture of 5 to 6% fire roads and over 20% technical creeks for well over an hour ! Loosing 2000m of elevation. This can be daunting and very difficult to digest !

There are meditation techniques and breathing methods what can definitely help you to be a better and more present person. I find that it is necessary time to time to sit or lay down, close our eyes, concentrate on certain aspects of our life and training and just breathe !

Repeats

However, what you would surely need is downhill repeats. Firstly maybe starting out on an easy 40 to 50meter section. While you walk back up, you analyse the terrain, checking footing and places where you can put your feet, places where you have to slow down and speed up. Like a downhill mountain biker go through his DH course, before the actual race. In this fashion, if your body was ready, you can go up to 30 and 40 section repeats. Sometimes fast, sometimes slower to test out theories.

Strength Training

Yes, that is just necessary. Some of you might be total endurance junkies doing rock climbing, enduro mountain biking and ski mountaineering or regular backpacking. That is all good and if intense and regular enough, can totally replace strength and conditioning. Technical mountain biking is a full body sport. That includes a lot of glut and quad work, your calves are smashed, the constant static contractions are smoking your core muscles and your arms and upper body is shaken into pieces. In addition, your attention is 10 fold elevated as the risk of not getting a corner right will not only result in  a lightly twisted ankle, but more severe !
If you were not into regular and vigorous other type of varied outdoor activities, muscular training is going to be your friend.

There are tons of exercises what will help you. Only 10 days of core training will already reap visible/feelable benefits. Body weight squats and lunges can develop into jump squats, burpees, jump lunges. Skipping roping can advance to one legged drills and double-unders. Most upper body exercises can be practiced while standing on a balance board. I don’t do any strength training during summer. However I am very active and every time I pass under the pull up bar I do some chin ups, leg raises. When I see my kettlebell, I go for some turkish-get-ups and swings, one legged deadlift routines.

Generally if you were getting stronger in your whole body, your downhill speed and downhill resistance will be better. While practicing running there are certain body parts what would need more attention than others. Core and lower leg. Protecting the spine and absorbing al the shocks ! Skipping roping and core training can be part of your warming up and without extra time invested, you can improve your descenind resistance.

Resistance

There is vibration, shock, impact, concentric, eccentric and static contractions in your muscles. Muscular oscillation as some compression companies say.

I recommend to get into training your downhills slowly and gradually to smooth in your whole body into a regular regime ! No point of starting with a 4 x 1mile downhill set if you have to take 1 week off from running with an inflamed knee and ITB syndrome !

The human body is a cock roach. It adapts very fast. Unfortunately it forgets very fast too. Regardless that you did 1 year of mountain running and that you have no actual doms from any downhills, if you train for a month only on the track, roads and flats, your body will get detrained on the downhill aspect. Next time you go out for a light 10km tempo downhill, your quads get newly smoked !
This is why maintenance downhill focus sets are very crucial. If your regular routine contains downhill running, a trigger session every 10 days is largely enough. You’ll benefit from the speed aspect too !
Once you stepped over the beginner status and entered the keep-it-up phase, I do not find short repeats too beneficial. Mile repeats at least, but longer 5 to 10km descent training is way more efficient. I ran last time a 3:35/km pace for 7km downhill. Advantage ? Low heart rate, very high speed and high leg turnover. As it was a muscular reminder, not a shock to the system, the recovery was quiet fast too !

Build up your system in like 2months for focused downhill sets and then keep on repeating a trigger session every 10th days !

Very regular short 7 to 10sec downhill accelerations can be done like every 3rd day with no ill effects ! Perfect form is needed of course.

Up and down

This has enormous importance to. You do multiple up and downs. This will teach your body how to climb back up after you destroyed your quads, then run down again, then climb back up.

Even in that, mixed sets of different kind of climbs followed by quad-bangers is the best way to do this. For instance 10 x 4minutes of climbing, where some sets are very steep power hiking, others are gradual uphill jogs. The only common is that after each set you run down hard for 2 to 3 minutes.
I use a small 4 minute hilly loop for this. I scramble up using a straight technical  line, then tempo down on the fire road. For the next two sets I run up on the fire road and come back down on it.

Mix and match as you want it. You can benefit from doing hard efforts on the ups too or get it only on the descents. You can have a rest interval in-between each set, or after each second repeat, or have no rest at all. You can totally fartlek it on a 2 km incline road stretch, running up and down for 30minutes or more. On a well measured course doing up and down repeats is called kenyan hills. They especially use it for hilly courses, trail running, cross-country racing and actually to build power and resistance in the mean time, while working on speed imprinting !

Get technical sometimes

It is necessary to learn how to handle technical terrain. I am not really recommending doing stopwatch driven descents on super sketchy life threatening boulders. However, choosing a shorter section where thinking, anticipating and serious ankle work is involved is necessary for further development. Elongating these sections and slowly getting into more and more will come with time. Sometimes we go out with friends for 15hour plus mountain adventures and I can tell you, that when fatigue sets in, these imprinted moves will help you avoid falling and smashing your face on rocks.

I have many downhill strava records and recently I got some new ones on a local mountain bike downhill path. I have great confidence in my abilities. Still, I just had a bad fall and broke a rib and hair-line fractured a wrist. Nothing serious, I am healing very fast and after only 3 days of light rest, I am already running, but it can happen. During long ultra events, despite the slow speed, it can happen multiple times ! You have to be certain in your skills and slow down if have to ! Probably your slow will be still way faster than other’s fast !

Technique

The only time you should be heel striking is on super steep non-technical straight line downhills. Probably in some sand, screefield or on grass plains.
Every other time looking for the optimal grip and most stable surface should be done with your fore foot ! Relaxing and light heel striking might occur time to time, but 70 to 90% of all our foot strides should be done with the fore foot ! You can see the speed difference and the number of lifetime ankle twists in-between good and bad descenders ! If shit happens while you heal strike, what can you do outside of twisting an ankle and shattering a knee ?
However on the bottom of your feet there are tons of sensory endings and  there are also 5 toes ending on your limb. Use them to feel, control, correct and propel. As landing, with an immediate action you can decide the direction of force transfer. When attacking with the heel, you must roll over first , then think about the push off. One phase too much and that split second can cost you a ligament, not mentioning the full body damaging impacts, shocks and vibration caused by landing on that bone !

Floating over objects while lifting your heels behind you is also superbly important. Toe catching happens when we over stride and use our knee raise as a mean of progression. While running uphill we lift our heels to underneath us, to the gluts. When downhill running just slightly behind us ! Float over objects like they were not there without really changing the height of your centre of gravity ! Do not try to elongate your stride forward and step behind them. This can end in big surprises and unknown hidden stuff can dislodge underneath you.

So this whole posture thing is one circle. When upright or slightly forward, with core contracted and head aligned, our shorter stride is more likely swinging backwards and we are looking for that optimal next step with our stable fore foot while our eyes are searching and analysing 4-5-10 meters in advance . This is all how it should be. Our body is neutral, ready and properly aligned !

While leaning backwards, our feet and leg will be reaching forwards, toes pointing in the air, landing heel first with elongated legs, arms all over the place, chest breathing, getting a lot of impact, glut-muscles underneath us while being butt-winked, eyes looking for the next 1-2 meters and head tilted forward. Of course core muscles off, stability off and impact goes all the way up to our cervical spine, shoulders and brain ! 

 

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