Friday, July 31, 2009

Gravity's Siren Song

This is a bit long but it highlights an important lesson I've learned this past year, perhaps the most important lesson I've ever learned, DON'T HAUL ASS DOWN HILLS.

Last year I was injured, and I'm about 96% certain it was because of a lot of downhill running.

It's tempting, isn't it? You might be running along, or perhaps UP a hill, your stocky, bootylicious self, and you see the downhill and you say to yourself, "WARP FIVE, MR. SULU!". Chances are, if you are not a bird-person, and if you haven't (gently) trained running a lot of downhills, you might be cutting your race short and you will suffer.

If the finish is down at the bottom, fine. But if not, if you have a couple more miles to go after that long downhill (I'm talking here of marathons, 10ks, et cetera, not necessarily 5ks, although I'm not ruling them out.) say, a couple more miles or flat or--shudder--another hills, baby, you are DONE.

Last year I did several long downhills on pavement. I did the New Mexico marathon, which has a 6-mile downhill between about mile 15 and 21.
At right, this is an old profile from a training ride, but the area between miles 1 and 13 are the first half of the NM Marathon. -->

At this marathon, I abandoned my works-for-me plan and answered the siren call of gravity, hauling ass down that hill.

By the time I got to the bottom, the nagging pain I'd had the previous week while hauling ass down the road leading up to the La Luz trailhead had spread to my left tibia. I was in such pain by mile 23 than I nearly fell over when I stepped wrong at an aid station.

I laid off, and then did the Colorado Relay 2 weeks later. My splits were short, about 4 to 6 miles, but all downhill - my choice. The last one dropped in altitude over 900 feet over 3 miles. OWWW. But I was okay, I could jog, a little. X-rays were negative. Diagnosis: shin splints.

Three days later, I went for a quick (2.5 mile run) to the local aquatic center, swam, and then headed home. 100 feet into a very steep downhill on blacktop (running full tilt, of course) I suddenly could not run any more. The theory was that at that point I'd developed a stress fracture. I didn't run on pavement for over 8 weeks, although I could do some light trail running. The rest is history. I finally feel like I'm recovered.

So then, this past weekend. Here's the profile -->

Ahead of time, a fellow ultra runner, Don, warned me about the downhill. Don't go flying back down that hill, he said. You're not done yet.

There was a woman just ahead of me, who seemed invested in staying ahead of me. She is a bit trimmer than I, and she kept looking back at me. Because she did that, well, I had to beat her.
Had to.
You understand, right?

She was good on the flats, but challenged by the uphills - I passed her going up that long 2.5 mile climb. I've started doing this little hopping run--tiny steps-up hills that is faster than hiking, but I could only just now do it because I had to develop quads and calves. But anyway. So I passed her, and said as nicely as I could, "boy, I'll sure be glad when this hill ends, won't you?" as she walked dejectedly up the hill, hands on hips, taking long, huge steps*.
I went ahead, but she wasn't that far behind. She could have, mind you, passed me easily with a gentle jog, and stayed ahead. As we crested and headed back down the hill, however, she flew past me. I mean, she hauled ass, running with big huge sprinting steps, each jarring step pounding the ground with all the combination of her weight coming down on it and the force of gravity.

As tempting as it was, I'd been thinking about New Mexico marathon lately, and last year's injuries, and Scott's warning, and I continued my gentle jog down the slope.

When we got to the bottom, she was done. DONE. as in, she could barely move. She'd shocked the crap out of her shins and quads, and now barely shuffling on the rollers.
She kept looking behind her. I felt sorry for her.
But yeah, I passed her.
I tried to say something encouraging about it being almost over for us, but let's face it, when someone passes you, you just resent them for passing you at that stage of the race.
So my lesson today is, watch out for those downhills. They may be doing much more harm than good. You won't make up much time by sprinting down them that a nice brisk run with small, gentle steps won't accomplish, and you'll feel better when you do.

*Big mistake. When going uphill, change your stride to smaller steps, else you'll burn your adductors out.


  1. I agree with you on downhill running- you need to do specific downhill training if you want to do them fast(er). And I've gotten many injuries (usually hip related) going downhill too hard when not trained. That said, you can work up to it - I managed to run down Mt Diablo twice at decent speed (it's all relative you know!) without too much damage.

    Love your competitiveness.


  2. If I had a nickel for every time our coach warned us about the downhills (take it easy, keep your feet underneath you), I could buy the bike of my dreams....I'm happy to say I headed the about a one way ticket to effed up Kneeville..

  3. My lesson learned here is stay off the pavement. :)

  4. Yep, I couldn't agree more, it took me longer to recover from the Colorado Relay (all downhill legs) than it did from an IM.

  5. Good friend learned this hard way after doing the first half of the NM Marathon course a couple of weeks ago. I'll have to re-read this before that race too.

    I see you'll be in Socorro tomorrow...I'll be there too! Good luck!

  6. My Google Reader is all messed up and did not tell me about a bunch of new posts. So Voila! This morning you get 5,245 emails from me! Sorry about that.

    As a, let's say, sturdier runner, I too have learned the lesson of bombing down hills. I used to sit back on my sizeable ass and just haul. Trying to make up time. But I have learned that I enjoy being able to walk after races and now I don't do that anymore.


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