Cross-Country Running: Downhill Running Research & Technique

Dick Moss, Editor, PE

Many cross-country runners use the downhill sections of a race for brief rest periods—a chance to catch their breath and recover.

Unfortunately, they often reduce their pace as they negotiate these downward grades, not realizing they're missing an opportunity to gain ground on the rest of the field. You see, physiologically, they could blast their way from top to bottom…while still getting some recovery time!

Research on Downhills
Research has shown that runners can increase their pace by 10-15% on downhills without increasing their heart rate or oxygen consumption.

How fast is this? Well, another study showed that accomplished athletes in a 30 minute race who thought they'd been running extremely fast on downhills were actually running only 12% faster. And these runners used 10% less oxygen on downgrades than when running on level ground.

The fact is, you can probably instruct your runners to take downhills at breakneck speed—while they may initially feel they are running too fast, they'll become comfortable with “putting the hammer down” once they realize they're actually recovering as they blow past their competitors.

How to Learn Downhill Running
Fast downhill running is a skill your team should practice. Most runners tend to lean backwards and dig their heels into the ground as they descend. This slows them down, increases impact stress on their joints and produces early fatigue in the thigh muscles.

Instruct your runners to lean slightly forward, and just let their legs “spin,” allowing gravity to do all the work. Their foot plant should be springy as they descend.

Begin on slight grades and gradually move to steeper hills as your runners become more adept at negotiating downhills.

1. Owen Anderson, “Things your mother forgot to tell you about hill training.” Running Research News, January-February 1996.
2. Owen Anderson, “Initial inclines can be heinous hillocks; Early elevations require smart summit strategies.” Running Research News, July-August 1989.
3. Jeff Galloway, Cross Country Running and Racing, Meyer & Meyer Fachverlag und Buchhandel GmbH, 2010.
4. Jefferey S. Staab & S.F. Siconolfi, “The influence of up and downhills during simulated racing.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Volume 21(2), 210, 1989.

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© 2012, Physical Education,

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