The Art of Running Downhill
Dr Matt Long spends time with two-time 'national' winner Eamonn Martin in examining how to run downhill efficiently in races.
It is that time of year for many endurance athletes when the spanner comes out to remove the tracks spikes to replace them with the longer studs in preparation for the new cross-country season. The allure of the country conjures up irrepressible images of Vaseline on legs and, of course, the challenge of trekking up muddied hills. According to national cross-country team manager Eamonn Martin, this is downhill running over the country, which needs to be taken just as seriously as uphill drags.
The man who shattered Brendan Foster's long-standing British record over 10,000m in 1988 (27m23s) and who took Commonwealth gold over the same distance two years later in Auckland tells me, "It is entirely different from track running and requires a forward lean. Leaning forward requires less energy. Most runners lean backwards and arch their backs, which puts the brakes on. By increasing the loading through the legs, they slow down. Some of it is psychological as athletes are scared they will fall over, but it is rare to do so". In echoing these sentiments, Newham et al. research (1988) is often cited to encourage athletes to avoid over-striding and keeping foot plants directly under one's centre of gravity to 'glide' down the hill with a shorter stride and higher cadence. Athletes are encouraged to land in the centre of the foot rather than favour the heel or toe.
Fitzgerald (2010) notes that downhill running involves eccentric loading, especially on the quadriceps, which contract to prevent the knees from buckling. When leaning back, the simultaneous flexing of the knee and stretching of the quads causes microscopic trauma to the muscle fibres. This trauma can ultimately lead to the delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS). Running downhill incorrectly can also magnify existing biomechanical problems such as pronation and supination (see Archer, 2011).
One has to differentiate downhill running in racing and undertaken deliberately in training. For the latter, the good news is that practising downhill running significantly increases eccentric loading tolerance in subsequent runs of a similar nature. Byrnes (1985) found that a single session of downhill running offered protection from muscle damage from a similar downhill session for up to six weeks.
Muscle cells are barrel-shaped structures filled with cylindrical structures called myofibrils. These myofibrils are composed of compartments called sarcomeres, which contain proteins (filaments) that facilitate the lengthening and shortening of muscles. The results of laboratory experimentation on rats by scientists at Monash University (1998) in Australia, found that the quadriceps muscle cells of the decline-trained rats contained almost 10% more sarcomeres per cell, compared to the quads of the rodents who ran uphill only thus providing evidence that downhill running could induce the muscle cells to add more sarcomeres to their myofibrils. In terms of aiding performance in races, more sarcomeres make for a more efficient athlete in that muscle contractions can take place more quickly. In terms of the benefits of downhill running in training, increased sarcomere production reduces stress on the myofibrils, protecting the athlete against physiological damage incurred in future workouts.
Sarcomere production goes a considerable way towards explaining the success of some of the all-time greats over the country. A biopsy on the leg muscles of five-time world cross country champion Paul Tergat, for instance, would reveal the presence of a significant number of sarcomeres. It is no coincidence that many of the Kenyan national team have been nurtured on the testing inclines and declines of the Rift Valley (Tergat was born in Riwo, Baringo District) or the unforgiving slopes of the Aberdares for those who inhabit central Kenya. (See Anderson, 2003).
According to internationally respected coach and exercise physiologist Jack Daniels, the cardinal sin of running downhill is not taken seriously enough by the athlete. "Everyone underestimates downhills, generally because they don't present much of a challenge to negotiate", he warns. Complacency was a danger that Eamonn studiously avoided throughout his illustrious career which saw him run in three Olympic Games. He tells me, "I used to practice regularly on the Langdon hills. I tried to engender a relaxed but fast technique not dissimilar to freewheeling on a bike. I encourage my athletes to integrate the perfecting of this technique during winter training over the country". Downhill running is, therefore, a skill to be learned. According to Archer (2011), downhill-running repetitions can be practiced on a preferably soft, smooth, flat, gradual grass hill of between 50 and 200 meters in length.
Aside from the country, it is worth remembering that some of the most prestigious races in the world feature challenging downhill sections. Notably, the Boston marathon, famed for the aptly named 'Heartbreak Hill', includes a 150-foot descent in the very first mile. More than a quarter-century ago, Mervyn Davies conducted treadmill tests and found that descents don't compensate the athlete to the same extent that ascents inhibit performance. In simple terms, it was found that descents only speed the athlete up by about 55% as much as the corresponding upgrades slow them down (see Lovett, 2007). This being said, tactical precision is paramount in racing on the road or country. This is something that the 1995 Chicago Marathon winner worked on extensively in his early career. "I can remember running in league matches at Parliament Hill as a youngster. I struggled up the hills but made sure I was aggressive in attacking the downhill sections. I used to be able to recover while running away from athletes of the calibre of Colin Reitz". It is impossible to completely disaggregate downhill running from uphill running because of the latter impacts on the former.
In making the pace/effort distinction, Hadfield (2007) notes that "Most runners make the mistake of trying to conquer the uphill by maintaining pace rather than effort and in the process get so tired they are too fatigued to push the downhill". Indeed, it was legendary four-time Boston and New York marathon winner Bill Rodgers who maintained that the top of a hill was the best place to attack psychologically weakened opponents who were looking to catch the proverbial momentary 'breather'. While the 53-year-old Eamonn took his two national titles in 1984 and 1992 on the relatively flat terrain at Newark his fondest memory of racing over the downhills was that of the 1986 'National' at Newcastle, won by two-time world silver medallist Tim Hutchings. "I finished 3rd that day but was pleased with the way the downhill sections went in going head to head with the likes of Mike McLeod and Dave Clarke", he recalls with affection.
As chairman of Basildon AC, Eamonn now divides his time between his native Essex and Nuneaton in managing an engineering company. He is convinced that Sergey Lebid offers the athlete the best practice in terms of the art of downhill running. The last British man to win the London marathon back in 1993 is convinced that the Ukranian's unprecedented nine gold medals in the European cross-country championships between 1998 and 2010, plus a silver in the world championships in Ostend in 2001, were in no small measure due to his efficiency on downhill sections of championship courses.
This article has first articulated the biomechanics and physiology of downhill running for the endurance athlete facing a winter over the country. Secondly, through an exploration of the technical training and tactical aspects of descent running, the endurance athlete is encouraged to perfect the art of this skill. Finally, through the increased use of mediated communication, both athlete and coach can observe world-class exponents of the art such as Lebid and Tergat model an efficient technique.
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About the Author
Dr Matt Long is a volunteer endurance coach at Birmingham University. Eamonn Martin is senior men's English Cross-Country Team Manager. He was the national cross-country champion in 1984 and 1992. The assistance of Jamie French is acknowledged.