(Note: I AM NOT A RUNNING EXPERT. This blog is merely a compilation of research and the personal experience of a sluggish runner.)
My running mates and I spent the spring and summer training for a downhill half marathon. Over 13 miles of decline. As much I adore running downhill, even I knew that I would need to train up for something this huge.
With research and experimentation, I quickly learned that my downhill form was abominable. I leaned into the gravity and ran hard, allowing all the impact and my weight to jam down on my joints. While this made it fast (and easy), there was no way my knees, hips, and ankles would be on board with such form for so many relentless miles. Especially at mountain pass grade.
We started with research, like this Runner’s World article we found on the Revel training page. Our research summary seemed to indicate that three things were paramount: form, strength training, and the change in cardio level.
Form. I think form was probably the most important element. I tried multiple approaches gleaned from articles and other runners. One suggestion was to slightly bend the knee with each stride, a miniature plie each time your foot struck the pavement. Another recommendation was to keep the legs bent and cycling under the pelvis like wheels. It was also important to maintain mid-foot striking rather than leaning forward into the toes or back into the heel.
I found my form in somewhat of an amalgamation of my original, flawed practice and selections from all the research. I continued to lean into the grade and allow the gravity to really do the work; However, I engaged both my quads and my calves to keep my knees soft at each impact and to keep my foot falling correctly. As the grade increased, I would begin cycling my legs, moving them circularly under a stable pelvis. It required more exertion, but my skeleton, ligaments, everything thanked me wholeheartedly for it.
Strength Training. In order to make these form corrections, I needed stronger muscles. Stronger muscles run better; stronger muscles protect joints. I loathe strength training, but in the interest of safeguarding my running, I was willing to suck it up. Between our group (and the internet), we pooled our collective knowledge of personal trainers, classes taken, sports played. We crafted a strength training workout that focused on the core and lower body and included doing most exercises to fatigue.
Cardio Change. For me especially, downhill running was an extreme cardio change. As we ran downhill during our half and our practice runs beforehand, I felt barely an exertion. My breathing, my body temperature, everything but my muscles felt like I was just walking along. This cardiac shift was deceptive. It made it feel like we were not really working; it made us feel like we could press harder. Until muscle fatigue and running aches crept up to overtake us. Maintaining pace became dire, refusing to be seduced by steady breath and calm temperature.
All three of these elements were honed in necessary practice. We ran downhill to cement our form and learn our pace, stretch our distance. We ran uphill to build our muscles (and, in my case, remember to appreciate the downhill). We found the best downhill stretch to develop a rhythm in the adapted form, the building muscles, and the shifted level of exertion.
I also employed the breathing technique I learned earlier, which helps in every situation so far.
Ultimately, these methods were successful. I completed my downhill half marathon without taking a break or incident, and to my utter shock, I was minimally sore afterward. I managed to protect my joints with my form and muscles; I managed to keep control over my pace (with some gentle reminders from my running mate).
These changes in my running have also improved my experience overall. I find that my knees and hips ache far less often post run. I definitely have tamed my downhill running to be both productive and beneficial.
Now, training shifts with the seasons. With Cripple Creek around the corner, it becomes all uphill, all the time!
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