As stated in previous articles, not much focus is put on running technique by runners and triathletes alike. One area this lack of attention is detrimental to performance is downhill running.
Running downhill requires an eccentric contraction of the quadriceps and lower leg muscles. In simple terms, your muscles are lengthening while running downhill. Uphill may feel more demanding, but downhill segments will tire your legs (specifically quadriceps) for later stages of the race, or the next day. One great example of this experience is the Boston Marathon. Early miles showcase a drop in elevation which results in a quick early pace and quadriceps fatigue. The pace feels easy and quadriceps discomfort is often not realized until the later stages of the race.
The best resolution to this polemic is improved awareness, technique and therefore running efficiency. Watch the video below which explains the foot strike phase.
Now that you know how your foot should strike the ground, there are a few things to complement that.
Body Lean: This is the primary focus area. A normal reaction/habit to downhill running is to lean backwards, as to slow the body down. However, this backwards lean creates an undesirable braking force in the form of an overemphasized heel strike. (As we discussed in the video, this is not an ideal strike) Your center of gravity is moved backwards, and forward momentum is decreased. In short, avoid the backward lean which correlates to the heel strike. With this in mind, it is important to avoid leaning too far forward that you lose form and are out of control. Lean forward from your hips and not your shoulders.
Arm Swing: Downhill running does not require the driving force from your arm swing like flats. Once an optimal speed is reached, you may decrease arm swing to prevent going out of control. (Rotation of the spine and twisting of shoulders, with regards to arm swing may also be decreased)
Cadence: Stride length does not need to be so long. Increase your cadence to make sure you do not over stride and therefore heel strike. You want to make sure that your strike is landing right underneath your center of gravity and not in front of it. This will also decrease pressure on your quadriceps. Contact time with the ground should be short. Put your foot down and get it off quickly. One method to doing this is to focus on simply lifting your leg backwards off the ground as fast as possible. (Like the infamous butt kick drill)
Eye Focus: Like typical running form, remember to look forward and not down at your feet as doing so deactivates the hip extensor muscles which help keep your balance.
Downhill running is an art. A lack of proper technique takes away free speed gains that don’t require energy and cause increased wear on your quadriceps which can come back to bite you later in the race. On the other hand, perfecting this technique will give you energy reduced speed gains and preserve your quadriceps for later stages of the race. Avoid the backwards lean, keep cadence high, and nail that foot strike!