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How To Downhill Train For Upcoming Distance Challenge Races

If you are running the Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge series or any of the races in the series, be advised that that one of the keys to running well in any of the remaining races in the series, including this Sunday’s Run for the Water 10-Miler, will be your ability to to get up and down the formidable series of hills in good shape.

Most runners training for the two biggies on Austin’s running calendar—either the 3M Half Marathon in January and/or the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon in February, will almost certainly be putting plenty of time on some of the huge hills Austin has to offer. Great. Running up some of the monsters will help you develop great strength, endurance and mental tenacity which you will need for the upcoming races, including the marathon. Clearly, that’s key.

But being able to run the downhills of the 10-Miler, Decker Challenge, 3M and the Austin Marathon effectively may be just as important as running the ups.

Running downhills effectively is an art which few of us spend much time practicing. As a result, many of us run the downhills with our brakes on, slamming our quads with each stride. When it comes to the ups, we foolishly try to bull our way up. But, it’s the sucker who pushes the uphills only to apply the brakes on the downhills. Without a shadow of doubt, you can make up much more time on the downhills than the flats and uphills.

Unlike training on the ups, downhill training has—well—it has a downside. Train too much or too fast on the downhills and you’re likely to be awfully sore for a few days. The problem is the natural tendency to brake and that brake is your quadriceps (the huge muscles on the upper part of the front of your legs). As a result, all the jarring can injure your back, hips or quadriceps. Especially if the downhills are especially steep and your technique is sloppy.

What you need to find in your training program is a middle ground: A balance of hills—both ups and downs.

Here’s how to train for the downhills:

1. Run downhills weekly. You’ll need to train on the downhills on a regular basis to get accustomed to the pounding. But one or two runs a week on a formidable downhill is plenty. Some good, long, downhills to train on in Austin include Exposition (which is part of the 10-mile and marathon course), Balcones, parts of Duval, Far West, Ladera Norte and Mount Bonnell.

2. Warm up first. Don’t begin any run by flying down a steep hill. Your muscles simply won’t be ready for the stress. Run for at least 15 minutes and tackle the uphills before your first major downhill. If you are doing a series of hills, run progressively faster on each downhill with the fastest one being the last.

3. Start with an easy hill. Pick a gently sloping hill—not some monster like Jester—and run up slowly and then push the pace on the downside. Allow yourself to go with the flow of gravity. But don’t pinwheel (i.e., run too fast). Control your speed. Use your arms like outriggers for balance.

4. Shorten your stride. Just like on the uphills on which you have to shorten your normal stride, you should do the same on the downhills. The tendency is to open up your stride too much–this leads to over striding and running out of control. Better to keep your stride relatively short and increase your leg turnover. If you find that your turnover feels too fast, shorten the stride even more until you feel comfortable—comfortably fast.

5. Don’t bounce. You should attempt to flow down a hill without allowing yourself bounce up and down. It’s inefficient and stressful on your lower legs.

6. Don’t slap your feet. When running downhill, your feet tend to slap the ground. Slapping your feet can be a sign of weak shin muscles so you might need to strengthen them with leg extensions. You can reduce the slapping by–again–shortening your stride which reduces the chances of your feet “reaching” too far forward. Your knees should come forward first before the feet. The feet should follow the knees.

7. Maintain an upright body posture. The tendency on steep downhills is to lean backward. This is the number one sin. Try to keep your torso perpendicular to the horizon and your head still.

8. Step lightly and keep feet close to the ground. Since you’ll be running so much faster on the downhills, there is the natural tendency to want to “get air” with each stride. But this is inefficient and simply increases the pounding your legs take.

9. Let gravity work for you. On a downhill, you won’t have to overcome as much gravity to run faster. Visualize gravity pulling you steadily downhill and across the flat section or up the next hill.

10. Use your momentum. Once you can see the next flat section (or uphill) on the course coming up, try to extend the speed you have built from the downhill into that next section for maybe a minute or so before slowing your leg turnover and getting into your normal cadence.

Most good long runs and hill workouts incorporate both uphills and downhills. But rather than trying both the uphills and downhills hard, emphasize one over the other on different runs. That is, either push hard on the uphills and coast easily down the other side (working on good downhill technique) or ease up on the tough uphill sections (don’t push it) and try to fly down the other side.

Again, don’t try to run both the ups and downs hard. It’s too hard and carries with it a high risk of injury.

One final tip: If you are planning on running either the 3M Half or Austin Marathon (or both), make absolutely certain you check out the course maps and do some training on the hills on each course to hone your skills for the race.