In ultras, the downhillers have itMarch 11, 2012
By Simon Donato
My first race of the year is coming up next weekend. It’s the Chuckanut 50 km in Bellingham, Washington run by ultra-legend Krissy Moehl. It’s the 20th anniversary and the largest field to date, with nearly 700 entrants. There is a star-studded field coming out for this one, with most of North America’s big guns signed up. I’m not going to win this race, nor come anywhere near making the podium. The men’s race will be won by either Adam Campbell or Max King, although Mike Wolfe and Jason Loutitt will be in the mix for sure, but then again Geoff Roes owns the course record and is back again this year. But hey, it’s an ultra-race so you never know. (There’s no doubt that Ellie will win the womens!)
My goal at the beginning of this year was to run this race in sub-4 hours. I don’t see that happening any more. It would have been a herculean effort to begin with but a lingering hip injury has minimized my training volume and although I’m on the mend, I will now be stoked to crack 4:20:00.
During the two years that I’ve been competing in mountain races, I’ve learned to identify my strengths and weaknesses. Not a strong climber, I focused on descending quickly. From my experience, being able to downhill fast can open gaps in a race that can be hard to close. My strategy has always been to climb steadily, downhill fast, and cruise/recover on the flats. Last weekend, I had an epiphany about downhill running while I was laying down some fresh tracks at Moose Mountain. I had to double-back on a trail and noticed that my strides climbing were about a 2:1 ratio to those going down. Seeing the tracks in the snow drove home the point that we are taking half the number of steps to cover the same ground when descending. While descending can shred quads (if not properly conditioned) or invite crashes, I see the benefits far outweighing the risks. We ultimately gain speed and save energy (fewer steps plus gravity aided). Curious about what some of Canada’s top ultra-runners had to say on the topic, I asked Adam Campbell, Ellie Greenwood, Phil Villeneuve, and the freshly healed Gary Robbins to comment on downhilling vs. climbing:
Adam: “They (downhills) are an excellent time to take in nutrition and relax, but if you want to be competitive, you also have to push them. You really have to know your abilities and you absolutely have to train your body to be able to handle the extra abuse that sustained descents put on your quads and back.”
Ellie: “I think downhill vs climbing is based on personal strengths. If you are weaker at one then you have to use the other to your advantage. I definitely don’t use downhills for rest. If you are confident downhilling fast and have prepared the quads in training it is a great opportunity move up the field. I would not use flats as recovery either really, my attempt in an ultra is even effort throughout so flats are just a time to click away the miles and possibly used more for refueling as it is easier to fuel on flat running than when breathing hard on an uphill or when blasting a technical downhill!”
Phil: “Many runners think that the biggest gains against your rivals can be made on the climbs…But in reality, you can gain much more time (with less effort) on descents! Personally, I like to limit the damage on the climbs, keeping a steady pace that I can sustain, and then let it rip on the down to either close a gap, or break away from the pack.”
Gary: “Being an average climber, if not for downhilling I honestly wouldn’t be a competitive mountain runner. I’m surprised that many racers don’t realize just how much time can be gained by having conditioned quads that are ready to incur a beating. Downhilling, especially on technical terrain, is my bread and butter. It’s of the utmost importance to me and I beat the hell outta my quads in training.”
Four of Canada’s best ultra runners advocate faster downhilling in races, but only when the body has been properly conditioned. As Phil likes to say, “you are what you run”, so while most coaches add hill work to training plans, perhaps you should find a way to add some downhill work to really improve your game.