Outside magazine, October 1996
For runners, hikers, and skiers in training, the best offense is a good descent
When Bill McDermott crests the hill near the 23-mile mark of his beloved Catalina Marathon, he approaches the long, final descent not so much as a respite as an opportunity. While others gingerly coast to the finish, nursing sore hips, tired hamstrings, and spent quads,
How hard can it be to plant one foot lower than the other? Most athletes think of going downhill as a chance to rest, mop your brow, swap high fives. Heed the ascent, we’ve been taught, because uphill training forges stronger lungs, demands more calories, toughens the athletic psyche. But downhill training offers its own benefits: Not only will it improve your running
Thanks to the laws of physics, a 160-pound runner who can average eight-minute miles on level ground can easily achieve seven-minute miles on a ten-degree downslope. This boost in speed not only is invigorating, but also has genuine physiological impacts. It forces you to hone your balance, and it’s a great power workout: Each time you plant your foot on said downslope, you
So we arrive at the eccentric-contraction conundrum: How do we build muscles that are already so powerful when lengthening? Running uphill or on the flats won’t work, because although any stride comprises both eccentric and concentric contractions, neither of those challenges emphasizes the eccentric contraction. Instead you have to put the pressure on by tilting your workout
But most of us don’t do downhill work often enough, which is why our muscles become so thoroughly fatigued after a long day of bump skiing or when, in getting back into shape, we do countless sit-ups. “You get the kind of soreness that you see in exhausted marathoners and mountaineers,” Faulkner says. “Their quads can be damaged enough that they have to walk backward down
Chalk up this soreness to the physiology of eccentricity. When you overdo lengthening contractions, tiny links–called crossbridges–that connect proteins within your muscles get stretched too far. Suddenly these proteins, which generate muscle power in moving back and forth, can’t function smoothly, if at all. The process is a little like a misfiring car engine: The proteins
Fortunately, if you concentrate on training your muscles eccentrically, you can prevent soreness. The best way, in fact, to keep your proteins in line and avoid DOMS is to adapt your muscles to making such movements.
Catalina marathoner McDermott, who once clocked a sub-four-minute mile down a dirt road in training, stresses economy of movement. “You don’t want your arms or legs flailing,” he says. “You know you’ve gotten pretty good when you can run down a rocky path as fast as if it were pavement.” Like the elite skiers, McDermott prefers rough trails where he has to pick his way down
Unfortunately, Johnson says, rigorous downhill training borders on the treacherous. “If you overdo this kind of work, it can be destructive to your muscles as well as your joints and connective tissue,” he says. “It’s so easy to turn an ankle, so we also use a controlled environment.” Enter the weight room, where Johnson’s skiers have greater command over the fate of their
Of course, the average outdoor athlete doesn’t need world-class robustness. Still, both McDermott and Johnson recommend downhill-specific training once or twice a month–especially leading up to ski season. The rest of the time, try to work lengthening contractions into your everyday routine. Because in the end, perhaps the greatest advantage of downhill training may be that
“I tell people to take to the roller-coaster courses,” McDermott says. With that philosophy, and 75,000 miles behind him, he’s training yet again for Catalina. “I’m not ready to concede that race,” he says, though he hasn’t won the last two years. “Why should I? If I’ve lost a step, it’s in my ability to run up.”
Andrew Tilin, a former senior editor of Outside, is getting his muscles in order for ski season.