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Downhill Struggle

When it comes to running, especially over long distances, it's universally accepted that hills are the hard part. Running uphill sucks! But for how long? Typically, as long as the hill lasts, and then a short while for your breathing and heart rate to return to their pre-hill levels. When we run uphill, gravity provides less assistance than it does on level ground, or especially downhill, and we have to produce more force with each stride just to keep moving. Add to that the fact the speed is relative to the flat ground distance you have covered, and doesn't account for the added distance created by the incline, and it's easy to see why people rank hills as the worst bit of any run.

I have a suggestion though; we consider downhill sections as the worst. Wait a minute, where gravity assists most with forward travel, force production required is lowest, and heart and breathing rates stay down is where I want to focus? Yes.

Muscles can contract in 3 ways; concentrically - when they exert force as they shorten, isometrically, when no change in length exists, or eccentrically - when the muscle lengthens under tension. One way to think of eccentrics during a run is when the body absorbs the force of landing. This force is largely dictated by your body weight, and much of it can be retained and used to contribute to the next stride through elastic energy known as the stretch-shortening cycle. This action becomes increasingly more demanding when we run downhill. Gradient is critical here - the steeper the decline, the more we have to work to absorb and reuse forces generated on landing. Typically, we see longer ground contact times, and less efficient use of stored energy with each stride. This is somewhat masked by the contribution of gravity pulling us forwards, but the critical feature of eccentric muscle contractions is their ability to induce soreness, especially Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS.

Have you ever done hill sprints or hill reps? Sure they suck at the time, but because they are predominantly concentric in nature, there's often little soreness the next day. Run a lot of downhills though, and the quadriceps, especially the part just above the knee known as the Vastus Medialis Oblique, or VMO, can be really tender for days. Walking upstairs afterwards is okay, downstairs can be agony!

So do we just have to accept this, or can we work to ease the suffering? I believe we can do a great deal both in the gym and on the trails to make life a little easier. I've picked 3 things I believe make the most difference that you can add into your routine.

Increase ankle range of motion

Through a gradual process, we can increase dorsiflexion - the ability to pull the foot upwards. Strengthening the shin muscles - the tibialis anterior, along with loaded stretching of the calf muscles, using a slantboard for example, means that we have more freedom at the joint to absorb more force. This allows the calf muscles to length more, which in turn makes them a more efficient contributor to the stretch-shortening cycle, allowing us to reuse more of our ground contact forces each stride.

Increase VMO strength

Exercises such as the ATG split squat, and VMO squats are great for this, and help to take the knee through full flexion too! This has the added benefit of increasing strength through length, again critical for the ability to reuse absorbed forces!

Increase cadence

Most runners seem to be aware of the increased efficiency that comes with a higher cadence when running on the flat, but seem to neglect the theory when bounding downhill. The longer we spend on the floor each stride, and the more heavily we land, the more of the force we create on landing bleeds into the ground. Making a conscious effort to land more lightly, consequently picking feet up more quickly each step, will do wonders for efficiency as a whole, but will also reduce the requirements of the muscles to absorb and then create force.

While there are many more factors that contribute, hopefully, these suggestions will help you find your path to less soreness after big downhills, and allow you to train more efficiently!

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