I ran an 18 minutes PR and my first Boston Qualifier at the California International Marathon in December. One thing I read in the numerous race recaps I surveyed during training was to train for the hills – both the uphills and the downhills – since the net downhill can make or break your race.
My quads certainly felt the effects of Sacramento’s hills after the race, but thanks to deliberate training for a downhill marathon, I was able to negative split and punch my ticket to Boston. In addition to a customized and adaptive training plan, I employed the following actions in my marathon training to prepare for a net downhill race.
Why does training specifically for a downhill course matter? According to Tim Noakes, MD in his Lore of Running, each step you take when running downhill forces your quads to stretch into an eccentric contraction and bear a significant amount of impact. Your muscles aren’t designed to handle prolonged repetition of eccentric contractions, so your muscles are damaged and fatigue more quickly than with flat or uphill running. This means that if you are not properly trained to run long and hard on a significant amount of downhill.
How to Train for a Downhill Marathon or Half Marathon
Know Your Course
There are two primary elevation profiles for net downhill races: completely downhill with a drastic drop in elevation (as with Tuscon or Phoenix marathons) or net downhill with rolling hills (like the California International Marathon or the Boston Marathon). CIM loses about 700 feet of elevation total (net downhill of almost 400 feet), which is a fraction of the 2200 feet that Tuscon loses over the same distance.
Therefore, your training and racing strategies will differ slightly for a marathon or half marathon with a moderate net downhill versus a steep net downhill race. At the races with rolling hills, you have to train for running uphill and pace appropriately up the hills, but you also receive the benefit of using different muscle groups.
Regardless of whether you are training for the 2000 feet downhill of the Phoenix marathon or the rolling hills of the Boston Marathon, these principles for training for a net downhill marathon or half marathon will help you run a fast and enjoyable race.
Train Specifically on the Downhills
Downhill repeats will train you to run fast and with proper form, but running fast downhill can increase your risk of injury due to the impact. Besides, if you are training for a net downhill marathon or half marathon, you will not be running at a pace as hard as you do during hill repeats. Training is about preparing you mentally and physically for the specific demands of the race.
Instead, run on hills (especially downhills) as part of long runs, goal pace runs, and tempo runs will benefit you the most for your race. When I trained for CIM, I did hilly long runs (including hard long runs with miles at goal marathon pace), marathon pace runs, fartleks, and easy runs along rolling hills. Every runner responds to workouts differently, so how often you do these downhill runs depends on your fitness level and injury risk.
Training on rolling hills will provide you with the benefits of downhill training but also the reduced injury risk and improved strength that comes from uphill running.
What about if you live in a flat area and can’t easily train on downhills. There are alternatives to hill training, including bridges and parking garages (please just be safe).
Improve your Downhill Running Form
The mistake many runners make is subconsciously leaning backwards when running downhill. Leaning backwards actively works against gravity, rather than using gravity to help you run faster. Lean forward slightly from the hips and look forward down the hill (rather than down at your feet).
A quick cadence will increase your speed downhill (without increasing your perceived effort) and reduce your risk of injury on the downhill. Many runners overstride when running downhill, which increases your risk of injury because of prolonged ground contact. By taking quicker steps when running downhill, you ensure that your feet land beneath your body and minimize your ground contact time.
Strengthen Your Quads
Stronger muscles are more resistant to fatigue, so strong quads will resist the fatigue of downhill running better than untrained muscles. Hill running will strengthen those muscles, as will a strength training routine. Just another reason to strength train during marathon training!
Exercises such squats, lunges, step ups, and wall sits will improve the strength and durability of your quad muscles. Add these exercises in a couple times per week during marathon or half marathon training and be prepared to feel strong on the hills on race day.
You can also tailor your cross-training exercises towards quad strength. During training for CIM, I hiked a few times per month. Hiking includes long downhill portions, which did wonders for the ability of my quad muscles to resist fatigue and endure a high amount of repeated impact.
Activate Your Glutes
Lazy glutes means a lack of power and poor hill running – whether you are going uphill or downhill. No matter how strong your glutes are, they will not power you over 26.2 or 13.1 miles of downhill running if you are unable to activate them.
It’s not difficult to activate your glutes – it really only takes a few small but vital tweaks to your training. Perform glute activation drills before your runs and then actively think about powering out of your glutes when running up and down hills. If you don’t feel like you are firing from your glute muscles, tap on each glute with your finger to cue your mind to focus on using that muscle.
Have a Smart and Specific Race Plan
Banking time never works in the marathon. If a race starts out on the downhill, running too hard will not only increase your chances of hitting the wall – your quads will also feel the effects of the downhill pounding later in the race.
In his master’s thesis, Olympic marathoner Jared Ward concluded that elite runners and BQ marathoners run their fastest (and most evenly paced) marathons when they start conservatively and take advantage of the downhill. This statistically-derived conclusion should be the basis of every race plan, but especially your pacing strategy for running a net downhill marathon or half marathon.
In a race that begins with a net downhill, such as the Boston Marathon or California International Marathon, you want to avoid the temptation of starting out too fast. Use the downhill to start at an easy effort and ease into your goal pace gradually over the first mile or two. This will probably feel slow, thanks to gravity, but that’s the point – you want to start conservatively.
From there, use the downhills to your advantage. This doesn’t mean sprinting each downhill you approach – especially in a long distance race, that would just wear your quads out faster and NOT being using the elevation loss to your advantage. Pace by even effort over the uphills and downhills, which means you will pick up the pace on the downhill and use it to your advantage.
If this all seems overwhelming, especially finding your right balance of training hard and avoiding injury, you may want to consider hiring a knowledgeable running coach. You can learn more about my coaching services here!
Linking up with Coaches’ Corner!
Have you ever run a net downhill race? How did you train for it?
Do you prefer flat or hilly races?
What tips would you add?