Downhill Race Training

By Dr. Steve Smith, Pacers Founder and Team Doc

Revel Big Bear is on our race calendar and it’s time to start training. It’s a big downhill race, big for the altitude loss of nearly 5,000 feet. I don’t know of another race with that big of a loss anywhere else in the country. 

It would seem that running downhill would give you a lot of help from gravity with an easy cruise into the finish line in record time. The reality is that downhill races often end with disappointment and very sore legs. 

It’s a downhill race, and you just might run the race of your life and get that PR you have been chasing for the last several years. Chances are just as good that you will burn up your knees in the first 13 miles and end up limping to the finish line. Then it’s patellar tendonitis for the next 8 weeks, and a bunch of visits to the sports Doc, getting a lot of therapy.

Though your cardiovascular system will work a lot less on a downhill race, your shock absorbing mechanics will be working overtime to absorb all the impact forces. 

Let’s go over three strategies to get you to the finish line with a P.R. and a smile on your face.


Put miles under your feet. The more you run, the more adaptive stress you place on your gait muscles. The more your muscles adapt, the stronger you get. Simple concept stress your muscles and they react by adding more myoglobin, more mitochondria (the little organelles that produce energy) and stronger cross linkages. We have seen good results with runners getting a minimum of 30 miles per week, and there is some science to back up this magic number. There are other studies that indicate that more mileage is even better, with another big breakthrough at 70 miles per week. The famous Kenyan runners put in somewhere between 150 to 174 miles per week!

You will have to account for your age, general fitness level, natural ability, work schedule, family situation and stress levels in determining your optimum training mileage. But 30 miles is a minimum if you want to perform well in the Marathon. Though you need long runs, consistent mileage in constant dosage is better than tearing down your muscles from a single long run. It is better to be consistent with shorter mileage to avoid muscle damage.

If you need to parse out your energy, consider running two short runs in a day. Twenty mid-week miles plus your Saturday long run is a rule of thumb even for an amateur marathoner, more if you want to run the race of your life.

Downhill Runs

There is an old maxim of athletic training: “Training should always be sports specific.” So, if you want to be a runner, then run. If you want to race downhill, train downhill.

Your quadriceps are the main shock absorbing muscles and downhill training runs will cause them to engage like nothing else. But there is a particular problem with quad activation when running downhill. While the quads are being shock contracted, they are at the same time being stretched as the knee bends, exerting tremendous loading on the Patellar tendons. When you run downhill, high impact forces cause muscle damage to the quads. Your body will repair the damage with stronger tissue, resulting stronger muscles and better shock absorption. What is important to know here is the healing time required to repair that muscle damage. That number is two to three weeks. Knowing the muscle healing time should set your training agenda for about 14 days between downhill training runs. There isn’t any guess work here, the numbers were determined by muscle biopsies on runners who did downhill training runs.

There are wide variations for appropriate training mileages and speeds, so how much mileage, at what exertion level should you train depends on your current level of conditioning. Here are some simple guidelines you can use as a gage that will keep you from risking injury while applying enough training stress to accomplish your goals.

If you are running the Revel marathon, the grade on the upper course is very steep, so use the racecourse or Azusa Canyon as a training route. You need two weeks recovery for each downhill run. If you do 4 to 6 downhill runs without getting injured, you’ll be in great condition to run a great race.

Start with a 45-minute run and keep your pace to about 60 or 70 percent of your maximum effort. At 60 percent effort you will be running at conversation pace, but you will be going significantly faster and with less cardiovascular exertion than your pace on a flat road. This will exert an adaptive strain on your quads that may leave you sore over the next couple of days. If you are not sore, or tired then the training stress is too low, and you can run again in a week. If you are very sore, then you will need a couple of weeks to recover. Your next run should be adjusted accordingly. If you were very sore after your run, it will take a couple of weeks to recover. If this is the case, then use the same time and effort on your next run. If you feel that the strain was too much, back off a bit.

If you had little reaction to the first run, then increase the time and pace accordingly. Even though you didn’t feel much from the previous run, the training stress is present, and you will have gained strength. Don’t let the confidence gained from the first run affect your pace. Hubris has killed many training programs, so be patient, accept the fact that you are getting stronger with grace and hold back on your pace. You will be glad you did on race day. You don’t need to run downhill for hours at a time to gain strength in your legs, a 45 to 90-minute run is more than enough to get the job done.

You can continue to incorporate the north route in your regular training runs and if you are not sore from it, then you can go on to steeper grades such as the Sacred Heart Academy route or running from Descanso to the Rose Bowl.

Gait and Posture

Your natural instincts will guide you to the best gait. Your neurological motor controls are custom tuned to your particular body type and know just how to get the best overall performance out of your gait. Run like you are escaping a predator and you’ll be fine. Don’t over think this.

Having said that, here are some subtle changes you can make, just to play around with gait and stride:

Long strides end with big impact so keep your strides short. Short strides don’t get you very far, so you’ll need more of them. This means that you will need a quicker turnover rate. Fast turnover and shorter strides will keep the impact forces from destroying your quads and lower back.

If you experience soreness in your lower back the day after a run, then change your posture. A slight amount of pelvic tilt will help distribute the forces more evenly across your joints. Try flattening the curve in your lower back, just slightly when running downhill, but not by bending at the waist.

Strong heel strike should be avoided at all cost because of braking force, causing high impact on knees and lower back. Leaning back will cause more heel strike. A slight forward lean will allow more forefoot strike but avoid bending forward at the waist. Attempt to strike on the forefoot but expect to feel the greatest force through the mid foot.

Interval workouts are useful in training for high turnover and forward lean, as well as pace control, and should be incorporated into training programs to improve performance.

A Word About Warm Up

A good warm-up will allow your capillaries to dilate, diverting blood to your working muscles and turn on your running energy systems. Downhill running requires a longer warm-up, due to reduced strain on your cardiorespiratory system. Take the first two to three miles to warm up at a much slower pace and you will avoid injuries. Coach Ezra has had great success using longer warm up times, with fewer injuries and runners feeling less tired and sore at the end of long runs.

Hope this helps, 

Dr. Steve Smith