When you’re moving in the mountains, tackling downhill terrain hurts more than uphill climbs. Why is that?
Imagine stepping down onto a weigh scale from a high stool. As you lower yourself, gravity’s added forces will accelerate your fall, resulting in a spike in the weight recorded on the scale. On the other hand, if you were stepping up from the scale onto a stool, it would only register your bodyweight.
The rate (speed) at which your muscles contract when arriving on the ground with momentum is far higher that the rate at takeoff. Combined with the negative slope of downhill terrain creates for higher impact forces when you’re descending—especially if you’re running.
These high impact forces increase the potential for muscle and tendon damage, which is just one reason why it’s so important to train for downhill terrain.
Get Started Downhill Training
Here at Samsara, we develop our training plans based on this physiological knowledge. We believe training based on an understanding of our evolutionary biology is key for optimizing performance.
Recently, we partnered with Cirque Series to create a training plan specifically to prepare athletes for the Cirque Series races. Because these events involve navigating steep, loose alpine terrain, our plan focuses on how to train for rugged climbs and descents.
Downhill Training Tip #1
The first thing you need to focus on is building tissue capacity. Muscles adapt quickly; when we train them they get stronger, fast! Often just a few days of strength training results in visible changes.
Tendons, on the other hand, take a while to come around. Training can induce material and thickness changes, but these changes take months.
As a result, mountain runners will find that their aerobic and muscular adaptations will outpace their fascia & tendon changes. That’s where injury happens!
By training your collagen-based fibers first, you can begin to build capacity in anticipation of the stress that high volume running will create. Slow loaded movements lasting 10-30seconds are the best way to improve both strength and tendon changes.
In our Cirque Series Plan, we lay out an 8-week block of tissue capacity exercises that will build bomber joints, tendons and ligaments right out of the gate.
Downhill Training Tip #2
While long, slow loaded movement is key to building thick, stiff, and healthy tendons, we need more than that to meet the demands of most mountain activities.
Sports like running aren’t slow and loaded; they’re fast and springy! Our training needs to mimic that speed and pattern in order to prepare our system for the rate of loading associated with high performance athleticism.
Fast, explosive training should follow 4-8weeks of low and loaded movement. One thing to note is that only athletes who aren’t injured should participate.
The bottom line: Humans are built with incredible elasticity. In fact, our foot is more capable of storing and releasing elastic energy than almost any living creature.
Our long, elastic tendons and pre-tensioned ankle joints are part of the evolutionary adaptations that we’ve made to become the extraordinary runners that we are. Therefore, training to enhance the Stretch Shorting Cycle (the spring!) can be incredibly effective, especially when you’re unaccustomed to this kind of training.
Downhill Training Tip #3
Dial in your movement practice. Running downhill is highly technical athletic task.
When you watch the world’s most elite mountain runners blast down loose and technical terrain, you realize that they aren’t just stronger and fitter—they move differently. Their brain is better able to anticipate the terrain ahead and pattern movement to match it.
Practice running downhill in neutral shoes. Avoid the marshmallow and pillow shoes that are all the rage (and no good for humans) and start running in a simple, neutral shoe.
A good shoe will have minimal heel/toe drop and have enough room for your toes to work independently. You can also dramatically improve your overall locomotive (running & walking) patterning by implementing our Athlete IQ video series, included in all our training plans.