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Should you focus on developing your uphill or downhill ability?

Updated: Jun 9, 2019

Note: This post is the first of two parts.

Ups and downs are some of the main distinguishing features that separate most trail racing from road racing (figuratively and literally!). But the questions remain… in your next training cycle, should you place emphasis on ups or downs? Should you pick whichever one is your weakness? Can you improve one of these faster than the other? These are all valid questions that I will address.

There is a common notion that since you spend more time on uphills than on downhills in a race, improving your uphill abilities will translate into larger time savings. While this argument is intuitive and largely correct, there is nuance here that often goes unaddressed.

The main issue with this argument is that when you improve, you improve in terms of your fitness, i.e. the effort required to sustain a certain output, and depending on the terrain, this improved fitness translates to improved speed in different ways. In other words, if you get 10% better at downhills (roughly put, that you can hold the same downhill pace as you used to but at a 10% easier effort), that will likely translate to a larger increase in pace than if you got 10% better at ups.

Now of course, you spend more time on uphills, so the improvement in uphill fitness only wins out if the additional amount of time spent on ups versus downs outweighs the faster paces associated with downhills. This means that whether ups or downs should carry more weight is dependent on the absolute paces run as well. If you were drastically more aerobically fit, then of course all paces will be so much faster that this effect dominates (a Jim Walmsley that was a worse downhiller would still be scary fast). Part 2 will go into this aspect in much more quantitative detail.

I approach this issue from a slightly different angle. Improving your uphill abilities is primarily driven by improvements in overall aerobic capacity. While there are certainly biomechanical aspects to running uphill well, generally, the aerobically fittest runners are the fastest uphill runners. You might see incremental uphill improvements with focused hill work, but this adaptation is simply the icing on your aerobic cake. A mid-packer is not going to become elite with six weeks of hill repeats, but could become elite with years of compounding aerobic gains. Since long-term aerobic development should be the cornerstone of running training, it is my view that if you are focusing on aerobic gains and running economy (since uphill running economy is strongly correlated with flat running economy), you are already by default doing the most high leverage thing you can do to improve your uphills.

Mmmm... buttery.

While massive uphill gains will be driven by this long-term aerobic development, massive downhill improvements can be had relatively quickly, against the backdrop of this aerobic development. Even though your maximum downhill speed will still be limited by your aerobic fitness, very few of us actually become aerobically limited running the downs in races. Speed is largely governed by technique, biomechanics, vision, or the mindset of viewing downhills as recovery.

You don’t have to choose whether to get good at ups or downs. Improvements can be had independently and on different time scales. It is very likely that you are not maximizing your downhill speed relative to your fitness. Most people can improve their downhill abilities quickly, unlocking free speed even when they haven’t gained much raw aerobic fitness.

Advantages of being a good downhill runner

Having downhill speed in your back pocket is awesome. If you’re not convinced, here are some additional reasons:

· Vision and technical ability developed on downhills will improve your technical trail running on all terrain. Since downhill running requires you to see and react to more technical terrain per stride, it really stretches your buffering capacity, or how many steps ahead you are looking. Novices are looking one step ahead, while Killian is probably looking 10 steps ahead, automatically saving and processing all those foot placements! This is possibly the single greatest limiting factor on very technical or steep downhill terrain. Moreover, since you are stretching and improving your vision on the downs, you will be able to look farther ahead on the flats and ups as well, making you more efficient and allowing you to run with better posture.

· Smooth downhill technique will actually save (YES, SAVE!) your quads, feeding into fresher and more powerful flats and uphills. Good downhilling means minimal braking, which means that your stride is driven by your glutes, as opposed to dominated by your quads opposing your “fall.” To imagine good downhill form, just imaging good flat running form, but rotate both the slope and the runner! Most people just rotate the slope and lean back, but this wrecks your quads and slows you down. Leaning into the slope and engaging your glutes, almost envisioning landing with your foot behind you will really save your quads.

· Fast downhilling mid-race will open up your stride and add some biomechanical diversity that helps keep you from getting too stiff and locked up. Most of us have been in an ultra where our legs get locked into a certain pattern, which just isn’t fun and limits how many gears we have at our disposal. The ability to really open up your stride on downhills will help to combat this.

· Being a good downhiller gives you strategic flexibility in races. I will address this in more detail through a few case studies in Part 2 of this post, but if you have a lot of downhill gears and can really rip it at a relatively low effort, the fact that you essentially get a speed multiplier for your effort on downhills can be very strategically advantageous. For instance, say you have 2 minutes to make up in the final five miles of a race, which is half flat and half downhill. You don’t think that you have enough in the tank to push for the whole five miles. The better you are at downhills, the more of a speed advantage it is to push on those sections, even for the exact same effort! So if you could increase effort by 10% and go 20 seconds per mile faster on the flats, it would take you 6 miles to make up the 2 minutes (and you don’t have 6 miles). If for the same 10%, you could go a whole minute per mile faster (or even more) on the downs, now you are in business.

· It’s fun! This is obvious.

Removing the brakes on downhill speed

Downhill running is a skill, and improving a skill at your current fitness level unlocks free speed. The two best words a runner can hear. Sub-optimal downhilling, as alluded to above, is largely driven by three main limitations: 1) vision, 2) technique, and 3) mindset.

Vision – If you cannot quickly see and process the terrain at the speed that your legs want to go, you will fall! Luckily, training vision is straightforward. Simply run technical downhills at paces where you are slightly straining to process the amount of information coming at you. Please don’t try to max this out and hurt yourself. You will get much better quickly by just processing as much of this terrain as you can. In fact, several friends of mine known for absolutely crushing extremely rocky New Hampshire trails have described an adaptation period each year. When the snow melts and they get into the mountains again, it takes them several weeks to regain that vision. This exemplifies how this vision can be quickly trained.

Technique – Don’t brake!!! If you can run on flat ground, you can run well on downhills. You just need to do the same thing, but relative to the slope, not relative to horizontal. With a forward lean, a foot strike under your center of gravity, a relaxed musculature, and the feeling of “accelerating” downhill, you will unlock a ton of speed that is actually easier on your legs than constantly braking. Of course there are certain slopes so steep that you have to brake just to maintain control, but focus on the above cues while trying to relax and you will get much smoother and faster.

Mindset – Smart, fast, and fun racing requires that you input effort where it makes sense. We all know that red-lining a climb at mile 2 of a 50 miler is probably not a good idea, but how many of us still go out too aggressively, or push early climbs too hard in long races? Uhh, everyone at some point. Even the best runners need to focus on where and when to deploy their effort, but a consequence of this misappropriation is that many are forced to recover on the downhills because they pushed the ups too hard. What we need here is a mindset shift. If the downhills are where you unlock free speed, then a good strategy is to be conservative on the early ups such that you aren’t too aerobically taxed to tap into all of those fun, fast, downhill gears.

Back to the original question of whether to focus on ups or downs… If you are engaged in a smart training plan, you are already doing the best possible thing for your ups. Don’t skip out on the hill repeats, but at the same time, recognize that you will likely unlock more speed in the short term by devoting effort to improving your downhill ability. So while it sounds nice to say that uphills dominate our time in races and thus require our focus, things are more complicated than that. Part 2 will go into exactly when and where this argument falls apart, and point out the limitations in the deployment of effort towards both ups and downs.

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