"I couldn't even walk afterward," says Gailey, 31. He went to Chicago hoping to qualify for the Olympic Trials, but his 2:37 finishing time was too slow by 15 minutes. "The downhills definitely took a toll," he says. "I just didn't have the strength that I should have."
Gailey learned the hard way: As fun as it can be to fly down a hill with the help of gravity's pull, steep descents can zap the power you need to take on flat stretches and uphill climbs, and leave your quads feeling trashed for days afterward. "Everyone underestimates downhills, generally because they don't present much of a challenge to negotiate," says coach and exercise physiologist Jack Daniels, Ph. D. "But they can leave your running muscles pretty stressed out."
Why is that? Running downhill requires the muscles to lengthen, or make eccentric muscle contractions, which can cause microscopic tears in the muscle fibers and generate more force than when you're running uphill or on flat ground. To make matters worse: It's easy to hit top speed on a steep descent—and the faster you move, the harder each foot strikes the ground, and the more pounding the muscles endure.
That doesn't mean you should avoid all downward slopes. In fact, research has shown that running downhills can give your pace a lift. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that when sprinters trained on uphills and downhills, they improved speed and foot turnover more than running uphills or flat surfaces alone. By incorporating downhills into your training, you can weather them better and bounce back from them sooner.
Add downhills to your routine a little at a time, says Daniels. Start with a short, gradual slope, with a two-to three-percent grade, and move on to steeper and longer descents as you get more comfortable. At first, run on a gentler surface, such as grass, then move on to roads. Treat downhill workouts as hard sessions, and follow them with two or three days of easy running. And be sure to back off of downhills in the two weeks or so before a target race, he adds. Because your body absorbs a bigger impact with each footstrike, you could be at risk for IT band syndrome and other injuries, cautions Irene Davis, Ph. D, director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware. "If you're running on a more compliant surface and a less steep grade, that will help lessen the impact," she says.
It's easy to overstride when running downhill, which makes you land harder, wears you out sooner, and makes you more vulnerable to injury, says Joe McConkey, head coach at the Boston Running Center in Brookline, Massachusetts. To prevent that, shorten your stride, focus on quicker foot turnover, and try to keep your shoulders, hips, and feet aligned, he suggests. It should almost feel like controlled falling. "This allows for a more natural foot placement and sustains your forward momentum," McConkey says.
Rehearse Your Pace
Practice your goal race pace on downhills, and develop an awareness of what that pace feels like compared to flat terrain or uphills. That will help you keep an even pace throughout the race—regardless of the grade. "The best downhill running skill to develop is the ability to run with different exertion levels," McConkey says. After his disappointing finish in the Chicago Marathon, Gailey propped the back of his treadmill on stacks of copy paper, and started doing downhill workouts twice a week. "Now, I don't get as fatigued as much on downhills," he says. "And in races I can run more comfortably."
Making the Grade
To build your downhill skills, try one of these workouts every other week in place of an intervals session, says running coach Joe mcconkey. Start out on a gentler surface, like grass, the treadmill, or a short, gentle grade of two to three percent.
Four by Fours
Run 4 x 2 minutes on flat terrain, then run for 2 minutes downhill about 20 seconds faster than goal race pace. Increase the flat and downhill portions to 4 minutes each. Recover between repeats with 2 minutes of easy jogging.
Up and Downs
Run uphill for 45 to 120 seconds at one-mile race pace, then run easy for 30 seconds. Run downhill for 30 to 90 seconds at race pace, then one minute on flat ground at race pace. Do this cycle 3 times, taking 2 to 4 minutes to recover.
Turn a 10-mile tempo run into a hill workout. Trying to maintain your tempo pace, run 6 miles slightly downhill, then run 2 miles that incorporate four 400-to 600-meter uphills. Follow that with 2 miles on flat terrain.