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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mastering downhill running

Been in Tucson helping with run mechanics & sport psychology for age group triathletes & doing some sagging up Mount Lemmon – now that’s a cool ride & probably a monster run. Camps are the way to go if you come from colder winter climes to jumpstart your season. Tucson is literally swamped with athletes of every kind at this time of year & besides opportunities to train swim, bike & run, there’s tons to do & GREAT places to eat. This year the weather has not played ball – cold & wet, but after what’s been going on weather-wise in Boulder & back east, there are no complaints.
Then we have a new world champion! Simon Martin, a friend & regular who attends drills & with whom I work on some scheduling & advice, won the world masters cross country title in Canada recently & made the final in both the 3000m & the 1500m – indoors. Congrats Simon!
Then we have another client/friend, who dived into BFR sans boots-and-all & then owned up to getting a stress fracture shortly afterwards! There were however some extenuating circumstances, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt…; speedy recovery Simon (another Simon).
This week I am delving into downhill running. There’s so much to say about this topic & so many struggle to gain the full advantage of gravity in races. 1stly I used to agree that “letting go” was a good idea in short races, but now I think down hills need to be “run” to gain full advantage. It helps to push the arms out a little wider during descents for balance & stability & also to open the elbow angle somewhat, lengthening the arm lever to keep the kinetic chain intact while taking longer strides. BUT I THINK A HIGHER STRIDE RATE IS THE ANSWER – this provides more control & less fatigue.
Lean off the line of gravity as the vertical, rather than off 90* being vertical on the level.
Mid foot strikers are able to brake with the foot & shoe, while heel strikers have to control descents with the shin (decelerating the lowering of the forefoot) & quad. This accelerated eccentric contraction massively fatigues the legs & does micro damage as well. Some studies have shown for example that some 70% of quad power is lost in the 1st 6 miles of the Boston Marathon due to the extreme nature of that descent. Heel strikers tend to step out from a slope & therefore “fall” much further to impact, while a good mid foot runner (still putting the heel down after the mid foot or at the same time), steps down the hill, a more kinesthetic move, with far less quad demand & dissipation requirements.
I remember in the 90s when I was running altitude camps for Olympic hopefuls in South Africa how we used to encourage the athletes to keep their heart rates up on descents by running down as hard as they could. Just this weekend some top long course triathlon pros were telling me how high they got their heart rates when descending on the bike – working against resistance down the hills to attain maximum speed.
Now, unlike the bike, bad form/lack of skill when running down can be ruinous to back, knees, shins & quads. To become a master runner on the downs requires an assessment of your current ability – do others kick your butt on the downs & are you really uncomfortable when running down & are you really beat up afterwards? If so assess your foot strike, body alignment & the other factors I have mentioned. Then practice in a number of ways – strengthen your legs through progressively building eccentric strength with lunges, squats, static & then linear plyometrics like hops & bounds. Then gradually, with short duration, shallow, well-cushioned (read grass) hills slowly develop both your technique & functional strength. Add one progressively longer run per week on a course that goes predominantly up on the way out & down on the way back. Eventually run some unidirectional runs; some faster & others longer, downhill. Progression rates with this skill & conditioning will be slower than for normal running as is indicated by the fact that a taper for a race with a lot of downhill running requires about a week longer to taper effectively.
So learn to actually run downhill rather than hang on & survive – turn descents into a weapon in your arsenal.
Till next time.
Bobby McGee
PS: My new DVD on running form & run drills (with plenty of extras) is now available, either order from my website ( or from Endurance Films at


  1. Bobby - thanks for the mention and a BIG Yay thank you for your masterful advice and planning: for the FIRST time in three years I got to the start line of my Big Goal Race healthy, superbly prepared and raring to go. Let's do it again!!!

    "video" slide show and gory race details online here:

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