What goes up must come down | Tips for coming down a mountain

With close to 3500m of elevation gain, the Marloth Mountain Challenge Ultra Skymarathon® is no small feat. Mountainous, technical terrain over a grueling 55km will challenge even the fittest and most experienced of runners. If you’re running it for the first time, your training plan no doubt includes a fair amount of uphill climbing, but it’s important not to neglect the fact that you need to incorporate some downhill running training too, after all, what goes up must come down. With 3500m of descent you’re going to need to prep those downhill muscles! Devon Coetzee, a biokineticist at Beyond Performance Multidisciplinary Sports Injury Centre, offers tips for downhill training that may also aid in injury prevention.

What kind of training can improve downhill running?

According to Coetzee, “running downhill is considered more of a skill rather than pure cardiovascular fitness.” Unlike climbs where you need a large aerobic capacity and good climbing efficiency, when you descend you need to rely on balance, confidence and strength. “Keep it as simple and natural as possible,” says Coetzee, “in other words, don't over think every movement.” Understandably this is easier said than done, but this is where training on downhills can really help. “The best way to improve your technical descending is to get out there and run technical descents,” says Coetzee. “Repetition and exposure to different gradients and technical trails is the best way to improve.”

On top of literally getting out there, you can also look at improving your balance, therefore stability, and also ensuring your quadricep and glute strength is good, so exercises like bridges, lunges, squats and step-ups (when done correctly!) can help you maintain good form when descending.

What can I do to prevent falling when I’m descending on tired legs?

When you’re tired and your muscles are fatigued, mistakes start to happen, you roll your ankles and things sometimes seem like they are falling apart. “The trick is to focus on where you want to place your feet, rather than where you don't. By focusing on the drop-offs, roots and uneven ground, you are more likely to shift your body weight towards that focal point and end up stepping in the wrong place,” says Coetzee when advising on how to get down a mountain in one piece. He also advises runners to slow things down, even just a little bit. “It is important to remember that a fall could cost you more time (or end your race) than if you were to approach the descent with more caution.” 

Are there specific muscles that will benefit downhill running if they’re stronger?

Focusing on one part of your body, or a singular muscle might make your downhill running better, but won’t help improve any other part of your running, so it’s important to approach strength training holistically. That said, descending really takes its toll on your quads. “Descending requires strong eccentric control of the quadriceps. Eccentric contraction means that the muscle is actually lengthening, even though you are 'recruiting' it. When this happens, less muscle fibers are recruited and therefore more force is required from each recruited fiber. This ultimately leads to breakdown of the muscle fibers and the connective tissues surrounding them, which is why you get sore muscles one to two days after a big descent,” says Coetzee. So to strengthen your quads effectively, try to mimic the action and train them eccentrically. “This means focusing on the lowering part of a lunge or squat. Keep the movement slow and controlled to really work the muscle eccentrically.” Says Coetzee.

Can trekking poles assist?

 Some people use trekking poles to help with balance and confidence, both on climbs and descents. Coetzee believes they can assist, providing you train with them prior to the MMC. Buying them the day before the run won’t do you any good. “Trekking poles improve stability on steep terrain by allowing you to have more contact points to the ground, as well as using your upper body to help take some strain off the legs, but you have to practice with them on all types of terrains, gradients, distances and weather conditions. By using them incorrectly, you could be changing the way you naturally run which is often the most efficient,” he says.

And something you might not think about either, is that they add unnecessary weight to your pack, which over 55km will be grueling. Coetzee’s verdict: “If you do lack confidence on the steeper terrain, trekking poles may be a good idea if you have the time to practice running with them.”
 

Coetzee is passionate about all things running, and his focus is not only on the strengthening and coaching of runners, but also the rehabilitation of injured athletes. In fact, he is currently studying his PhD on running injury, running biomechanics and running footwear. To book a consultation with Devon, you can contact him here . If you haven’t got your entry to Marloth Mountain Challenge yet, there is still time, so head over to the Mountain Challenge website and book your spot!  
Article written by Bryony McCormick.