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Going Down?

If you’re racing on significant downhills, don’t forget to do some decline training.

I had run this far – 76 hard-won kilometres had passed under my treads-and the idea of stopping now was simply heart-breaking. But the previous day’s two-hour downhill stretch had done something to my knee. It had swollen overnight, and this morning I could barely walk. My race was over.

Fellow racer Jean Pommier, currently in second place, gave me a sympathetic smile as he quietly prepared his gear in the semi-dark. “I trained so hard for the uphills,” I told him. “I never thought about training for the downhills.” He gave me a quizzical look. “How can you train uphill without training downhill?” I sighed. I had trained for my uphills mainly on a treadmill.

That was on the 2008 Coastal Challenge, a six-day expedition stage race in Costa Rica.  Now, with 12 months of knee rehabilitation behind me and six months of downhill training under my belt, I am back for more. The 2009 route includes 234K of dirt tracks and technical trails through remote jungles and countless river crossings. The cumulative elevation gain is 10,400 metres – greater than the height of Mount Everest, but the race ends at sea level, meaning that over the next six days, I have over 10 vertical kilometres of downhill ahead of me. This time, though, as I rub shoulders with the other competitors trying to find a bit of shade under the palm trees at the start line, I am prepared for them. This year, I sought advice from some of the world’s top runners, adventure racers and triathletes.

Downhill Form

Last year in Costa Rica, when faced with that fateful 10K vertical descent, I just went for it, striding out and making good speed down the slope.  When my knee started to swell, I suspected that it had something to do with the impact from those long strides. So, I went to one of the experts – not directly, but through a video that six-time Ironman World Champion, Californian Dave Scott has articleed on YouTube. As I suspected, poor running form likely contributed to my injury.  Dave’s video provided me with three main points I could use in my training to improve my technique:

Resist the temptation to overstride. This causes more stress on your joints. Instead, take shorter strides and try to land lightly.

Keep your pelvis tucked slightly forward. This will keep your momentum forward.

Don’t lean back. Instead, lean forward slightly, so you minimize the braking force as your heel makes contact.

Training Drills

Americans Karen Lundgren and Paul Romero, co-captains of one of the world’s most successful adventure racing teams, Team Sole, travel around the globe almost constantly, competing in multi-day races. They gave me some drills to work at strengthening both my muscles and my joints in preparation for the long downhills.

Lundgren outlined exercises to prepare both my quads and my knees to withstand the pounding of downhill running.

  • Find a short uphill trail section, ideally a yielding surface such as packed dirt.  Don’t do this exercise on pavement.
  • Do 20 bunny-hops up the hill on both legs.
  • Do 10 hops up on one leg, followed by ten on the other leg (you may need a short rest between each set).
  • Do the whole routine four or five times over the course of a one-hour trail run.

Romero, meanwhile, set me up to run hill repeats. While many runners include uphill repeats in their training programs, Paul advocates also running downhill intervals.

– Find a hill 200m or 300m long
– Run both the uphills and the downhills
– Pay attention to your running form on both the uphills and the downhills
– If you’ll be wearing a pack during the event you’re training for, run your hills with the pack as well.
– Romero’s choice for a pack is one that sits on the hips, keeping your centre of gravity low.

Technique on Technical Terrain

Antonio de la Rosa, one of Spain’s most awarded adventure racers, gave me advice on how to handle highly technical terrain. I knew, from last year’s experience, to expect steep and narrow jungle paths laced with tree roots and vines set like tripwires, as well as deep jungle mud, rocky slopes and river crossings. This is what de la Rosa advises:

Take advantage of the surface: In rocky areas, pay attention to the ground surface, trying to place your feet on rocks that are fixed in place so you don’t skid out on loose ones.  However, in areas of sand or loose gravel, take advantage of this surface by “sliding along with it.” In this type of terrain, the braking motion caused by trying to move slowly can cause you to skid. With practice, you’ll be able to fly down loose slopes very quickly.

Use your arms: The arms should generally be just a bit higher than your usual running position, so they can be used to help maintain balance as you descend over precarious sections.

Avoid injury: De la Rosa prevents scrapes on his ankles by first applying protective tape. A common problem on downhills is injuries to the toes and toenails from the foot sliding forward in the shoe.  De la Rosa recommends learning to lace shoes appropriately for downhills, as well as keeping toenails trimmed very short.

Consider using poles: Poles help to take the load off the legs and, if you know how to use them properly, they can really assist in maintaining balance through the roughest parts.

Vancouver Island freelance journalist Jacqueline Windh’s downhill preparation paid off.  She was one of 34 competitors who completed the Coastal Challenge 2009’s full 234K course – and this time without any knee problems.