I was asked the other day what my thoughts were on making up time in the Leadville 100 run since the course is 2-3 miles longer. There are also those few that believe that in 2012, when they used the now “new course” that it kept people form earning their buckle. First and foremost, the course is what it is, and there is not much we can do about it except train for it! Now that that the LT100 Run is truly 100 miles, how do we make up that extra time? I believe that we all train for running on the flats. It’s the easiest and most of everyone’s training has some aspects of flat roads. Since we know that there is a lot of vertical feet in climbing, we listen to our coach or own intuition, find some hills and work on hill repeats. We focus on power hiking and the best most efficient way to get to the top. We try using poles to take the burden off our legs while we focus on getting to the top. One of the biggest and most important things that we tend to leave out is the downhill running. I hear that many trail runners giving advice to take it easy on the descents so you don’t blow out your quads. I see this advice in action many times over during a race. I pass these runners on what might seem crazy fast on the descents. Some might also believe that I am running out of control with my arms flying around at time to maintain balance. I agree that I can use more work on my form, but the point is, I try and not hold back on the downhills. There is so much time to be made up on the downhills--if you run them efficiently. Think about it, how many time have you see your fellow trail runners fly by you on the downhills, sometimes what might seem like they are going twice as fast? I also believe that this happens more often than seeing them passing you up on the climbs, going twice as fast. Yes, there is something to be said about climbing efficiently and fast to make up time as well, but why not put some focus on the downhill running as well? So, what make someone a good to great downhill runner? Practice and specific focused training on the task at hand.
Things to work on and focus while you are training to become a better downhill runner.
1. Fast and light feet: Runners biggest fear of running downhill is that it will destroy your Quads. It is a very valid fear. Keeping your feet faster and lighter will limit the impact on your quads. Focus on a fast turnover and landing as light as you can. If you try and stride it out you, will tend to land on your heal. This will create a breaking effect, forcing your quad to work hard in order for your legs to not buckle under the force of your bodyweight. Heavy feet will also leave you unbalanced and force you to be very aware of every step. Quick and light feet will allow you to just run and not have to worry as much about foot placement. If you tend to slip or step on an uneven rock or root you have your other leg quickly replacing the off balanced one to catch you. Quick light feet might feel like you are dancing and wasting energy at first, but as you become more comfortable, you will find yourself running with less energy and force coming impacting your quads.
2. Lean forward: We have all been told that good running form consists of a forward body lean. We want to continue this good form on the downhills as well. Running involves a continued controlled fall effect to propel us forward using gravity to aid in our efforts of moving most efficiently. Our gut and go to body position is to lean back and save ourselves from falling on our face. This leaning back will create a strong heal strike with an equally strong breaking effect. Having the goal to not hit the brakes, leads to the idea to run with the same form as if it was flat ground. Your forward lean should come from your ankles, not your waist, and is determined by the steepness of the hill. The steeper the hill, the more forward position you will need to be. Think of it as slightly forward position relating to the ground you are running on. This tends to scare many, as the feeling is not natural, leading many to believe that they are falling. This, although scary, is the correct feeling! You are using gravity as energy to move you forward.
3. Eyes forward: The faster you move down the hill, the less time you will have to look at every placement of your feet. You have to learn to believe in your body and its ability to make the right decision for your feet. Think of this in the same way when you walk in your front door with your arms full of bags. You somehow pick up your foot to shut the door with it without even thinking about it! Your body and foot know exactly what to do and how to do it without even thinking. The same simple principal goes into the foot placement while running. Our brains will process and decide where to place our feet, we just have to believe in ourselves. Eyes forward and look ahead where you want to go, not where you are.
4. Relax: The more relaxed you, are the less energy you will use. Allow your arms to move free to aid in your balance. It might look like and feel at times that you are running out of control because your arms are out of control which are trying to keep your body under control! There are times that this might be the case, but with practice your balance will become better and running will start to become more graceful. Focus on allowing your upper body to relax while keeping your arms close to your body, allowing them to move freely up and down for balance.
5. Be Confident: You will get better and better as your confidence builds. The best downhill runners know that they are great and believe downhill running is a strength. This allows them to attack the downhills and run fast and efficiently.
Downhill running can become your strength as well. This will lead to making up time on the descents and saving your legs for the climbs. This will equate to a faster time in your next trail race. Run with confidence and reach for your next PR with extra training and focus on your downhill running!