The Art of Downhill Running

OK… hands up, who honestly and regularly does downhill running training? I mean, what’s the point? Surely any monkey can run downhill and you don’t exactly need to train to do it, do you?

More often than not, you can find ultra-runners practicing our uphill running. But as we’re doing our hill repeats with the infamous Six Foot Track Marathon just around the corner, how many of us are giving consideration to the downhill aspect? If you’re looking to see how the best in the business does it, take a look at this video.

This morning I partook in my regular ‘recovery’ stairs session and each week I’m getting quicker and quicker… but why? The answer lies in the fact that recovery times had shortened and the ability to run much harder downhill than the previous week because of an increased level of fitness is very much evident. Quite simply, my downhill running capability has increased hugely because of greater and greater conditioning on the quads.

Smash them quads!

Some may say that where hills and stairs are concerned, it may lie not in your ability to run up said hill or stairs much quicker than you already do (although it is factor for sure and there are gains to be had), but more so in your ability to be able to turnaround and hit the downhill much harder week in week out.  The more you can condition your legs to downhill running, the quicker you get, and thus make gains on race day – well so says the gospel according to me!

If you think about it some more, why do we see so many spectacular blow-ups at Six Foot Track each year? I would put a case forward that while the hills after Cox’s play a part in destroying some people, I would venture to say that for many, it begins with the descent down to Cox’s River and that their little legs were simply not conditioned for it. So many people go out way too hard in that first 15km stretch, and by the time they reach Mini Mini Saddle, they’re gone and shot to pieces. Downhill while fun, is also very deceptive on the legs and it will come back and pay you a visit if you treated it badly.

Training for the downhill

So how exactly do you train for the downhills? One thing we wouldn’t advise is going all out and sprinting down a hill as fast as you can in your first session – that’s a sure-fire way to destroy your quads. One thing we would advise is to take a look at the rather excellent blog run by Andy DuBois at Mile 27. In this Andy details all sorts of things you can do to train for the downhills, but the single biggest reason why you should be seriously considering this as part of your training plan is that it will ultimately help you in being able to run more in the latter stages of an ultra-marathon e.g. 100kms upwards.

Training makes you run faster downhill… not your shoes

We spoke to Andy to get his opinion on how to start and the key is to build slowly, “Downhill running places a far greater load on the joints so must be built up gradually. Start with incorporating hills in your normal runs until your legs can handle the increased load without any extra post run soreness.

“While hill repeats are a great way to increase fitness, what goes up must come down and the downhill section can also be used for a training effect. Instead of walking or jogging back down take a short recovery at the top of the hill then run back down. Focus on running easily and taking short strides. Try and land softly and lightly with each stride rather than over striding and thumping your heel into the ground. At this stage you are not running fast downhill just running comfortably.”

Once your legs and joints are well adapted to running downhill, its treat the downhill section as the effort and uphill as the recovery says Andy.

“Find a hill that takes 2-4 minutes to run down. Run the downhill hard and slowly jog back uphill. Repeat 3-5 times. Running fast downhill involves a high degree of muscular co-ordination that takes time to develop. Having the confidence to just let go and fly downhill comes with practice so have patience . Crashing face first into the ground at speed is not fun!”

The final piece of the jigsaw is combining both a hard uphill with a hard downhill. The ability to run a hard consistent pace uphill, but smash the downhill is where you’ll hopefully build towards as your race day draws closer.

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13 thoughts on “The Art of Downhill Running

  1. pure class! watching Kilian last night in the Unbreakable dvd where he suddenly decides to break away from Anton and Geoff down hill. He just run rounds the side then he is gone like a flash. awesome.

    Interesting to note that Anton catches him back up on the ascent. When Anton is fully fit he is going to be scary!

  2. Good article. Lillian does more damage to the environment than a 4WD. Write to your politicians to remove him……

    As you all know by doing those comms tower climbs on the GNW and then return back down, the legs get a nice hammering on that return journey. But good for the endurance.

  3. There is a massive downhill on the Maroondah Dam 50km course from almost the 37km mark to the finish. It is truly quad busting material with the first couple of kms being sheer toenail crushers. I was sweeping but was well back on the field so could unwind a little on the descent and I put the new Hoka Evos to the sword and they definitely add a new dimension to downhilling.

    Oh, and I can guarantee there were a few sore quads hobbling around for a few days after that race who would have benefited from your advice pre-race.

    1. I was 1 of those & I only did the 30k. Up until that point was in pretty good shape, but was well & truly destroyed by the time I hit the bottom. It certainly taught me a thing or 2 about the need for downhill ability as much as uphill

  4. A really good article this. Back in the day we DID used to practice downhill running for early NZ mountain races like the Trampers Marathon and Holdsworth-Jumbo. Top exponents like Dan O Connell, Tony Gazely, Mike Sheridan, Colin Rolfe and (later on) Phil Wood I know were as quick (if not quicker in Dan’s case) as Killian is today, but the races were not nearly as long so Killian’s ability to run fast downhill all day is somewhat unique. The fact remains that you DO NEED ENERGY to run downhill fast – e.g. it does take it out of you. Just try running really hard down a steep hill and then maintain your pace at the bottom – not easy! Mike Sheridan used to call very fast downhill running a “controlled fall”, and it is a good description.

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