In noticing an increase in the popularity of downhill race courses, I decided to do some research and writing on the topic. I was surprised to learn that a majority of my running friends don’t perceive a big difference between flat/hilly courses and mostly downhill ones. Having run two downhill courses, one slight and one very pronounced, I feel like I can speak to their energy and effort (mental and physical) requirements.
I personally believe that downhill courses are easier to run than flat or hilly ones and that BQs and PRs earned on such courses should be marked with an asterisks. Why?
- Less overall use of energy. The muscle group which requires the largest amount of energy while running is the quadriceps, and this muscle group is used less when running on a decline. The leg spends less time in the midstance and take off phases (when the foot and leg hit the ground and push off), and more time in the midswing and terminal swing phases (when the back leg is leaving the ground and going away from the body). The hamstrings and gluteus muscles are still being used quite a bit, but not as much as running on a flat or uphill course. To summarize: less overall muscle usage = less energy required of the muscles.
- Less weight to move around. Gravity certainly works in the runners favor on a downhill course as less weight is being lifted off the ground with each step. Runners often wear racing flats and have an ideal race weight in order to decrease energy usage and maximize efficiency, so a downhill course would create even more of an advantage here.
- Better form. The runner’s center of gravity naturally adjusts on the declined angle of the running path and causes a slight forward lean. An element of proper and efficient running form, this forward lean makes it harder to land on the heel part of the foot and better utilizes the foot’s spring mechanism. Whether the runner is aware of it or not, his/her form improves thanks to gravity.
- Breathing is more controlled. Since less oxygen is going toward working muscles, the aerobic system isn’t working as hard and and breathing feels easier. Going from aerobic to anaerobic takes much longer, so the lactic threshold is reached much later (if at all).
I’ve read a few blogs and articles which claim that a downhill marathon is not any easier than a flat or uphill one. I think that part of the problem is that runners aren’t differentiating between effort-of-running difficulty and overall taxation on the body. Downhill running causes more impact on the joints, greater cellular damage, greater stress on the feet and ankles, and more “scrunching” of the vertebrae (think of a coil being repeatedly pushed up and down). However, this is different from simple intra-race effort. In fact, downhill races don’t provide as much of a challenge, but cause more stress on the body and take longer to recover from. In my opinion, it’s a lose-lose situation.
Below are the common reasons that I’ve heard/read about in defense of downhill races:
- 26.2 miles is still 26.2 miles. Definitely – completing the marathon distance can be an arduous task. However, I feel that on a downhill course, there is more left in the tank in the latter miles, thus making it a bit less grueling. The last 10K of a marathon isn’t a walk in the park for any type of course, flat, uphill, downhill, but it’s a heck of a lot easier when gravity is helping and less energy is needed to get to the finish line.
- Downhill running requires the ability to pace well and not roll down the hill too quickly for the first few miles. For sure – I am guilty of making mistakes here! In fact, I would say that this is the most difficult aspect of downhill races. But, that’s an important aspect of any racing strategy, up or down, long or short. In fact, I think that pacing to conserve energy is actually more important on a flat or hilly course than on a downhill course. There is no mercy for the runner who goes out too quickly on a flat or even worse, hilly course, but it definitely takes less physical energy to grind through a remaining few downhill miles.
- Downhill running requires a different set of muscles, but the effort is the same. Downhill running uses all of the same muscles as uphill running, but the types of muscle contractions differ for each set. There is more eccentric (stretching) contracting occurring, which requires less mechanical energy. In fact, eccentric muscle movement is more damaging to the muscle. Furthermore, downhill running does use the quadriceps muscles, but not so much to pull a person forward or up, but to aid the person from hitting the ground too hard.
Why am I even writing and ranting about this? Straight up, I think that it’s the “easy way” to gain a new PR or BQ and simply not as impressive to me. Seeing race time sequences like 3:31, 3:29, 3:28, 3:07, 3:32, 3:28 cause me to question whether this person is truly fit enough to run 26.2 miles at a 7:08 pace or if they were essentially successful at rolling down a hill. I try not to be a judgemental runner, but I do consider those race efforts as “aided” and times as not reflective of true fitness. With that being said, my official half marathon PR from 2+ years ago was on a downhill course (~650 net elevation loss), but I ran only a few seconds slower on a very hilly course a year later. In regards to whether the Boston Marathon should accept qualifying times on these courses, I think that there should be a net elevation loss standard. E.g. a course with X+ loss of elevation is not accepted.