As a strong climber both in running and biking, I actually look forward to hills (except when I am already in extremis in a race). Passing more than being passed on the way up is heartening and then cresting brings a rush. The payoff from optimized work!
HILLS ARE MY FRIEND
For me, being a good climber came more from natural ability and prior fitness than learning good mechanics and adopting proper form. After trying without great success to tackle running up the very steep and high ski mountain (in summer) at the Olympic Speed Skating Camp in Marquette, Michigan, I resolved to change my attitude toward hill running, from "this will suck" to "hills are my friend." My years of short-track speed skating already gave me a strong core and, with speed-skater quads, a favorable power-to-weight ratio. Very quickly and especially as I further built my aerobic base and raised my lactate threshold, I learned with my positive attitude I could charge hills, attack them looking into the hill, with a forward lean, knees-up form, shortened stride and faster sustained turnover, and crest ahead of most of those with whom I had been racing stride for stride.
Likewise, when I took up triathlon after my speed skating career and then raced Ironman many times in British Columbia and California, I learned that my "I love hills" approach translated to biking, as well. With a little experience, I found myself passing many other riders over Richter and Yellow Lake passes in Ironman Canada. Push a gear, gear down progressively with more steepness, mostly stay in the saddle except for the steepest bits, and keep spinning at a quick rate to maintain "RFM" (relentless forward motion!).
RIDE (OR RUN) OVER THE TOP
That brings me to the subject of this post: downhill running and riding. The only conscious action addressing going downhill that I took when I was perfecting my uphill running and riding was to adopt the bike racing guidance to "ride over the top of the hill," not easing back before the top or coasting over the top. Riding or running over the top provides great momentum for the downhill segment, and so it did for my hill running and riding.
However, the weakness of not focusing on the downhill segment became apparent to me early on in a hilly 10 mile race that I raced on Memorial Day for a number of years. I would pass many people running uphill, and promptly be re-passed on the steep downhill by many of those I had just worked by. Hmm. I had some learning to do!
I read about downhill running, quizzed my knowledgeable and successful running buddies, and practiced what was billed as proper technique. Likewise, to the extent I could do so in "the hills of Illinois" and in Midwest triathlons and rides, I adopted and practiced better form in bike descending.
NOTHING IS MORE FUN!
So how, at least for me, did I improve my downhills?
First, for both running and biking, I adopted the mindset that "nothing is more fun than going fast down hills." Attitude is everything!
Then, addressing running form, what I found was most important for faster downhill running was to resist the urge to lean backward to counter the slope. Doing this leads to a natural braking effect. Instead, I learned to lean forward from my ankles so my upper body is over my feet, perpendicular with the slope. This posture taps gravity and helps avoid over-striding.
What I have also found helpful for faster downhill running are:
- Pumping my arms for balance.
- Looking ahead, down the hill, not down at my feet.
- Increasing my turnover with a shortened stride to promote a mid-foot strike and reduce impact.
The results? On trail runs and races in Colorado, Wisconsin and Indiana, I have found the joy of "flow" that comes with quick-footed downhill running, navigating twisty turns, picking the best foot plants and using gravity as my source for greater speed. In the Boston Marathon, I used my fast downhill technique to clock faster times in the opening downhill miles while reducing the impact on my quads.
In short, while I am still passed on downhills by some runners, I don't lose much of the advantage I gain from my uphill running success.
CRANK WHILE YOU CAN
So how about biking downhills, you ask? Here's what I learned from study, questioning coaches and fellow riders, practicing and racing experience.
First, crank a big gear while you can to enhance the speed that the downhill will naturally offer you. Too often I have seen riders coast once they get over the top of the hill...and get passed by those who are still on their pedals.
Second, when you do spin out (reach the point where even in your biggest gear you can't keep up with the pedal turnover), get as aero as you can to make biggest use of the speed that gravity will give you. On a triathlon bike mountain descent, this means getting in your aerobars, flattening your back, and even moving forward and slipping your butt off the seat to a position ahead of the seat with your knees pulled in against the top tube. (This can help dampen the vibration that you can experience at higher speeds.)
Third, as the hill begins to lose steepness, starting cranking again at the point where you can keep up with the pedal turnover. You can maintain speed longer by doing this.
CONSIDER BRAKING TIME
Caution: Be sure to look forward and control your speed and line as necessary for taking turns safely. Be careful not to get to the point where you have to "stand on your brakes," because you can burn them out and even risk a flat tire because of the heat generated from extreme friction. Remember, the faster you are going and the more that gravity is pulling you downhill, the longer it takes to brake.
Then there are "luck" factors you can't control, such as inattentive drivers, wildlife, dogs and farm animals who can suddenly appear in your path. One year at Ironman Canada a rider crashed out on a downhill when a mountain goat jumped into the road! Also, I have an Ironman friend who had a squirrel jump onto his handlebars!
Also, be aware of the wind, as well as wet pavement, gravel and potholes. Cross winds can be especially tricky when descending at high speeds, and less-than-ideal pavement poses a much greater hazard at higher speeds.
SMALLER MARGIN FOR ERROR
To sum it up, when you let it fly and ride at high speed on steep descents, you risk serious injury and even death if something goes wrong. The margin for error gets smaller and smaller as you go faster and faster.
I am hardly a pro rider, but I have ridden 55 miles per hour in extreme aero position on a mountain road descent. The thrill - and, yes, the fear - are palpable. Do I recommend this? No. You must choose your own poison. More recently I have tamed my descents to reduce risk. But I know how to descend quickly and doing so helped me attain my 11:49 Ironman PR.