In Stride

Things are looking up when it's all downhill from here.     Photo: Jordi Lopez dot/ThinkStock

Why a Downhill Runner Will Always Win Boston

Some people make the grade in Boston—literally; others don’t. And the difference might all come down to the downhill.

As accomplished and legendary a U.S. marathoner as has ever competed, Frank Shorter (Olympic marathon gold medalist in 1972) never won Boston. In fact, he never even cracked the top three. On the other hand, the equally legendary Bill Rodgers won the Boston and New York City marathons four times but finished a disappointing 40th in the 1976 Montreal Olympic marathon. And since 2002, either a Kenyan or Ethiopian has won Boston—with Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai setting the course record of 2:03:02 in 2011. 

Some people make the grade in Boston—literally; others don’t.

“Bill Rodgers was made to run Boston because he’s a downhill runner,” says Shorter, 66. “And what Mutai has shown is that he, biomechanically, moves in a way that allows him to run downhill really well.”

Biomechanically, downhilling involves greater ground reaction forces and therefore induces more stress on the tissues of the leg; it also requires less metabolic energy. Meaning, “the energy required to support any speed is substantially reduced when running downhill,” says Peter Weyand, associate professor at Southern Methodist University’s Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness. Basically, figuring out a downhill pace that feels best for you is the best way to avoid wear and tear, and hence, fatigue.

Physiologically, the bigger you are, the harder you hit the ground. “Since the force at any running speed and incline is set by the body’s weight, gaining or losing weight will increase or decrease the forces on the ground and therefore also experienced by the tissues of the feet, joints and legs,” explains Weyand. “So, if all other factors are equal, being lighter would tend to lessen the pounding a runner sustains at any downhill running speed.”

One of the Boston’s biggest challenges is that its downhill sections come late in the race (the net drop from its start in Hopkinton to the finish is 400 feet), when the legs are more susceptible to stress-induced damage from all the prior miles. Weyand therefore hypothesizes that “the better downhill runners are more willing or able to absorb the pounding—or both.”

More willing and able because they train that way. “My training is very up and down all the time,” says Mutai, who feels it helps to have strong upper legs but whose training probably isn’t all that different from his Kenyan and Ethiopian peers. “So running on hills is normal for me.”

As it was for Rodgers, whose high school coach told him to lean forward and use his momentum when going downhill. “It’s also a time many runners assume is a recovery period—after an uphill—so strategically it can be a decisive move many runners do not want to follow,” says Rodgers, 66, who has always viewed racing as psychological as much as physical. “Breaking way is the name of the game if you’re competing, and in road racing, hills play a crucial role.”

Still, it’s not all psychological. As Weyand says, “The physics cannot be fooled—the ground forces involved are set by a runner’s body weight and speed. The faster one runs, the great the ground forces. The steeper the downhill, the greater the forces are at any speed.” 

Which is why Boston is so physically taxing. “Boston left my legs more sore than any other marathon course,” says Rodgers, who doesn’t see any particular body type as being better suited to hills than any other.

“There are so many grades and hills, but I saw them as key opportunities,” says Mutai, who won’t be running Boston this year. “Think of them in a positive light. As a chance to shift gears, and a time to run away from your competition.” 

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