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Some running coaches advocate running hilly terrains to improve leg strength in a runner. However, which component of the hilly terrain gives you the most benefit, the climbing portion or the descending part of the hill?
Some studies have been conducted to see if running economy and muscle damage occur through downhill running (1,2,3,4,5). Downhill running causes eccentric muscle activation. Essentially this means that the muscle lengthens under tension, such as downhill running.
It is the aim of this article to illustrate how to maximize your hill training to improve your eccentric leg strength. It will take various aspects of the hill descent and incorporate training routines that will focus specifically on the movement patterns and/or angles of the running descent.
Find a hilly course with an incline/decline of 5–10%. To maximize the eccentric effect, find a climb/decline that is about half to one mile in length. After you have warmed up and stretched, begin by climbing the distance as part of your last warm up.
The workout will be to run down the course in a controlled and relaxed fashion until you reach the bottom. Make sure that the slope of the hill does not bring out any more speed than you want—you want to be in control of the descent. Repeat the decline run four to six times as seen in Figures 1 and 2.
Set up on a squat rack loaded with weight in the range of 75–80% of your 1 Repetition Maximum (1RM). Do three sets of six repetitions with a very slow, controlled descent. You can begin with ¼ squats and then progress to full squats as you develop more eccentric strength. Remember, the focus of this exercise is the descent part of the movement and the recovery is the ascent as seen in Figures 3 and 3.1.
Set up on a reverse leg press loaded with a comfortable weight to move with one leg. Do three sets of six repetitions with a slow, controlled descent with one leg at a time. The key to this exercise is to line up the foot, knee and hip position. The correct angles of decent are illustrated in Figures 4, 4.1 and 4.2.
Begin with a wobble board with a wide enough base to begin doing isolated balance work on each leg. The goal is to mimic the angle typically seen while running down the hill. Begin going down as slow as possible while balancing on the wobble board. Extend your arms out for better balance as needed. As you progress, increase the level of difficulty by using a Bosu Ball with the dome facing down. Do three to four sets of six repetitions on each leg, as illustrated in Figures 5 and 5.1.
Set up on a reverse leg press loaded with weight ranging from 80 – 90% of your 1RM. Foot placement on the plate should be about shoulder-width apart with your toes slightly pointing outward. Do three sets of six repetitions with a very slow, controlled descent for each repetition, as illustrated in Figures 6.0 and 6.1.
Use the same hilly course with an incline/decline between 5 – 10% and run down the course in a controlled, relaxed fashion for about 800 meters. But this time, run down the decline about 3% faster than before, as illustrated in Figure 7.0.
Traditionally, athletes have used hill running to improve eccentric leg strength. The emphasis has typically been on the climbing aspect of the hilly terrain. This article has demonstrated specific training exercises that will maximize the eccentric strength in a runner’s legs by focusing on the eccentric training exercises that mimic the movement patterns in downhill running and slowing down these movement patterns.
Juan Gonzalez is the Kinesiology Director and assistant professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. He is a Level I Triathlon Coach USAT, and a Level I Track & Field Coach USATF. He is also a Health Fitness Instructor (HFI), Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and is a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Dr. Gonzalez is a former university Head Women’s Cross Country Coach whose research interests include training female runners.
Chen, TC, Nosaka, K, and Tu, JH. Changes in running economy following downhill running. Journal of Sports Sciences 25(1): 55-63, 2007.
Chen, TC, Nosaka, K, Lin, MJ, Chen, HL, and Wu, CJ. Changes in running economy at differential intensities following downhill running. Journal of Sports Sciences 27(11): 1137-1144, 2009.
Easton, RG. Eccentric activation and muscle damage: Biomechanical and physiological considerations during downhill running. British Journal of Sports Medicine 29(2): 89-94, 1995.
Ebben, WP, Davies, JA, and Clewien, RW. Effect of the degree of hill slope on acute downhill running velocity and acceleration. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22(3): 898-902, 2008.
Moore, CA and Schilling, BK. Theory and application of augmented eccentric loading. Strength and Conditioning Journal 27(5): 20-27, 2005.