Every triathlete wants to run faster.
Even if running is your strength, you probably would like to make it even more of a weapon. If the run is your weakness, then you're probably keen to reverse this and learn to prevent the dreaded pass in the waning miles of a race.
There are many ways to boost your run, from simply running more, to incorporating intervals, to specific strength training. However, there's another training tool that you should add to your arsenal: downhill running.
Once an athlete signs up for a hilly race, such as Wildflower or Ironman USA Lake Placid, he or she will inevitably add several weeks of hill repeats to the training schedule. While developing climbing strength is important, it's also necessary to consider the downhills. Pounding downhill in a race—even a short-course event—and the resistive muscle contractions that this produces, often leads to cramping, blisters, lost toenails and the inevitable can't-walk-the-next-day soreness.
Including downhill running in your training and learning proper downhill-running technique will help you improve your leg speed, increase efficiency and prevent injury.
Getting It Right
Often when an athlete runs downhill, he or she will lean back, into the hill, and brake heavily on the heels. Over-striding and landing very far back on the heel and then rolling quickly onto the toe produces the familiar "slap, slap, slap" sound. This never looks comfortable. Plus, it sounds, and often is, painful, and it is inefficient and slow.
Further, fighting gravity by leaning back puts a tremendous load on the joints and large muscles of your legs, increasing the risk of cramping and magnifying any biomechanical problems such as pronation or supination. Lastly, this is a good way to develop blisters or lose a few toenails as the foot slides within the shoe as you brake with each foot plant.
Instead, once the downhill section starts, you should lean slightly forward, shifting your center of gravity toward the bottom of the hill. This will change your momentum from fighting the slope of the hill to moving with gravity, allowing you to be pulled down the hill—like running with a tailwind on the flats.
In addition to shifting your weight, you will need to shorten your stride a bit to stay in control. To do this, visualize landing on the center of your foot: not the heel and not the toe. You will still strike a bit with your heel, but you should not hear the slapping sound of your forefoot smacking the road.
Finally, let yourself roll with the hill rather than fighting the decent. Let the hill pull you down. Don't go nuts and bust into a full-on sprint, but try not to fight the increase in speed. Resisting the downhill will be more taxing on you than the increased pace. If you do need to control your speed, do so by shortening your stride. Take more, shorter steps, but stay off your heels and don't brake. And always remember to relax your arms and shoulders.
The best location to practice downhill-running repeats is on a soft surface, preferably a smooth, flat, gradual grass hill of between 50 and 200 meters in length. Golf courses and parks are ideal. Dirt can also work well, but often the footing is not as reliable.
Begin with a warm-up run of at least 10 minutes, then work into a few downhill repeats. Begin with three to four downhill runs (later you can build up to a max of 10). Start off slowly, and build your speed toward the bottom of the hill; don't sprint the entire distance, and be sure to focus on the technique described above.
Proper technique is more important than speed, so don't time yourself; just try to find a smooth, comfortable stride. Once you find your stride, gradually add a bit of speed, focusing on leg turnover.
After each downhill, jog easily back to the top and repeat. Follow this with an easy cooldown. This workout can also be done as a warm-up or cooldown for a track session or any type of running workout. This workout will help you develop quick legs and will help prevent the muscle soreness that typically occurs after long or hard events.
Adding Hills to Your Runs
Another option for improving your downhill running is to focus on proper technique during your training runs. Try to do a hilly run at least once or twice a week. During this run, focus on what you're doing when you come to the downhills. Think about proper technique, and be conscious of what your legs are doing.
Don't just cover the distance on this run; be aware of your foot plant and body position. Eventually, you will teach yourself to automatically fall into the proper form when you come to a downhill.
A Word of Caution
Due to the resistive muscle contraction (fighting gravity) associated with downhill running, it is possible to become very sore or even injure yourself if you attempt to do too much too soon. Further, since downhill running will not be as aerobically taxing as going up, it can be easy to get tempted into doing too much.
Treat your downhill running as a form drill. You can do it every once in a while, maybe even once a week, but it doesn't need to be a huge focus of your training.
Downhill running is not difficult, but it can be beneficial to your training and racing if done properly. Proper downhill running technique will make you faster, more efficient and more comfortable. But most of all, it can help all triathletes find what they are looking for: a better run split.
Jimmy Archer is a pro triathlete, coach, and freelance writer. During his career Jimmy has raced at all distances and formats of triathlon, competing for the U.S.A. on four national teams and finishing top 10 at five XTERRA world championships. You can visit his website at jimmyarcher.com.