Believe it or not, there is one thing left in this world that is free. I’m not referring to the free samples at Costco; You paid for those when you bought your membership. I’m not talking about the plastic bags at the grocery store, they charge for those now. I’m not even talking about the first bag you check on the plane, they charged you when you bought your ticket and most now days have eliminated the “first bag is free” policy. What the heck am I talking about you ask? I’m talking about becoming a fast downhill runner.
Since my high school days, I knew that it was important to relax your body on downhill and not run timid but I never fully grasped it until about five years ago when I was doing the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. A former Michigan State Tri Club bud Matt Inch was guiding me and another Spartan, John Paul Severin was following us everywhere around the course being our Super Fan. I remember as we got out of the woods and started on the long downhill towards the beach I heard John Paul shouting, “use the free speed.” John Paul had just summarized all the attempts to explain downhill running to athletes I coach and given me a perfect cue to think about when I was running downhill. Simply put, downhill running is “free speed” if you let it be.
I will explain the above further in two ways. One from a very basic physics point of view and another from a body mechanics point of view. First, the fifth grade physics viewpoint. We all know gravity is a constant force that is acting on us and trying to pull us downward. I know its frustrating dealing with gravity when trying to lift that heavy box or on the eighth floor staircase but we can’t get rid of it so as your mom said when you were a kid, “just deal with it.” Even better, find a way to let it work towards your advantage. When running on flat ground gravity pulls us straight down and the ground is directly below our body. Whereas, when we are going downhill gravity is still pulling down but the ground gets lower with each step. In essence, if we run with our body over our feet (weight forward) gravity pulls us in a downward and forward direction. The best part about this speed is its free. Don’t go out and buy a pair of $200 shoes or the latest design in short running shorts to be fast downhill. Just use the “free speed” given to you by gravity.
As I mentioned above I will explain this from a mechanics viewpoint. When you run you always want your hips (Center of Mass) over your feet (Base of Support) in order to allow the majority of your propulsive forces to push you forward. This can best be explained with running downhill. If you run timid and keep your weight back your hips will always be behind your feet and each step will be like stopping and starting in a car. Conversely, if you stay upright and lean your body forward as you simply lift your heel towards your butt and allow your foot to fall to the ground, your foot will land below your hips and all of your propulsive forces will be pushing you forward and down the hill.
The above all sounds very simple and is if we shed off our tense, neurotic and weighted-own personality and just give everything to gravity. A good downhill runner “falls downhill.” Gravity and momentum push them downhill. All they do is pick their heel up and then just before they literally fall, allow their foot fall to the ground. To perfect this skill and benefit from the “free speed” we must let ourselves fall forward and trust that our foot will fall below us. You will know when you are using the “free speed.” If your are running down a long downhill and your forward momentum and turnover are so quick that it your legs can hardly keep up and stopping ability is greatly compromised than you are probably using the “free speed” of gravity.
A good way to improve your downhill running is incorporate 3-5 downhill repeats at some point in your runs a few times a week. When you allow yourself to relax and just “fall downhill” you will notice yourself passing a lot of people on the hills during your next race. Also, mastering the ability to use the “free speed” of gravity should translate to better utilizing gravity and good running form on flat surfaces as well.
I hope this tip helps all of you. Stay tuned for another great running tip later this week here on my blog.