The art of de­scent

Canadian Running - - BODY WORK -

For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, run­ners tack­ling a hilly course tend to fret most about the up­hills. But you spend nearly as much time de­scend­ing as you do as­cend­ing (un­less you’re fin­ish­ing on a moun­tain­top and t ak­ing a heli­copter down), so it’s also im­por­tant to make sure you’re ef­fi­cient on the way down – oth­er­wise, you’ll lose time to com­peti­tors, and pay the price later in the race (or the next day) with sore, dead­ened legs. That’s be­cause down­hill run­ning causes your leg mus­cles to con­tract “ec­cen­tri­cally” since you’re brak­ing with each stride, which pro­duces mi­cro­scopic dam­age to your mus­cle fi­bres.

In a re­cent re­view in the Euro­pean Jour­nal of Ap­plied Phys­i­ol­ogy, Univer­sity of Cal­gary re­searcher Guil­laume Mil­let – an ac­com­plished ul­tra-trail run­ner him­self – and his col­leagues out­lined sev­eral re­search­backed strate­gies to min­i­mize mus­cle dam­age while run­ning down­hill. One op­tion is to in­crease your ca­dence, so you’re tak­ing shorter, quicker strides, which re­duces the im­pact of each stride. An­other is to vary your foot strike, so that you’re land­ing on dif­fer­ent parts of your sole rather than al­ways the heels or al­ways the toes. To some ex­tent, that may hap­pen nat­u­rally on un­even trails; but by mak­ing a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort to mix up how you land, you’ll dis­trib­ute the load to dif­fer­ent mus­cles in your legs.

Most im­por­tantly, Mil­let and his col­leagues sug­gest that the best way to pre­pare for run­ning down­hill is to, well, run down­hill. That’s be­cause of a phe­nom­e­non called the “re­peated bout ef­fect”: do­ing any ex­er­cise that leaves you sore af­ter­wards will make you less sore the next time you re­peat a sim­i­lar work­out. That’s in part be­cause the ini­tial ex­er­cise weeds out the weak­est mus­cle fi­bres and stim­u­lates the growth of stronger ones, and also be­cause of changes in how your whole body re­sponds to dam­age (ex­er­cise in one leg can even make the other leg less sus­cep­ti­ble to fu­ture dam­age). There’s no sim­ple recipe for how much down­hill train­ing you need, but the best plan is to train on down­hills that mimic any­thing you’ll en­counter in a race.

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