Whilst walking a few days ago I arrived at the bottom of a hill and decided that I wanted to run up it. I’m not sure why I decided to run, but I suddenly felt an urge to break into stride. So I pushed myself step by step to the top of the hill. At the top, moderately out of breath, I started to think about the forces that I felt through my legs when I was covering each step. And it reminded me of the fact that whilst running uphill is taxing on the metabolic systems of muscles, it does not seem impart significant forces on the joints. And this makes sense, given that as you take each step you are effectively falling from a lower height then what you started. As I continued to walk, a thought kernel started whittling away in my brain about the reverse of this, running downhill.
As a sprint coach I have looked at the research before about downhill sprinting and its effect on performance. The idea of running downhill always seemed an avenue for overspeed training. That is sprinting at a higher speed then what you can generate under your own volition. For those in the sports performance world, overspeed training in sprint activities continues to gain popularity as technology improves with the introduction of systems such as the 1080 Sprint and the Dynaspeed System. However as I mulled over these thoughts I decided to turn around and walk back to the hill from which I had walked away. I was interested to feel that strange sensation that we have all experienced as a child, where as we run downhill we get this jolting with each step. I tumbled down the hill, somewhat out of control and instantly felt what I was searching for. Obviously running downhill I had the feeling that I was moving much faster than I could with the same level of effort, but more interestingly I felt the high force impacts that you get from significant ground reaction forces. I could feel my legs straining to stop me from collapsing with each step. They were effectively acting as brakes. It was at that moment that it dawned on me that there may be potential benefit in downhill running, not for overspeed training, but as a powerful high rate of force development resistance training tool. The impacts occur at very high speeds, under very high ground reaction forces. These are the very stimuli that we often go searching for in sprint training to accelerate the tissue properties needed for high speed contractions.
As soon as I returned home I returned to a few research articles I had saved from years ago looking at speed training using both uphill and downhill methodologies against flat ground sprinting. And in these basic and small population studies there was a consistent trend that this method does have benefit versus flat ground sprinting alone. Whilst there was some discussion in these papers by Bissas and Paradisis, two highly respected sprint researchers, the thought that I still cannot let go is that maybe, just maybe, some of the benefit of the downhill sprinting is due to the training effect that it has on exposure to high ground reaction forces under very high rates of force development and that this method may be a valuable form of specialised resistance training for sprint development rather than a running development tool alone. In the following days I then happened to mention these thoughts to a colleague who has worked in high performance sport for a significant period of time and he went on to tell me about a small study that he conducted with middle distance runners using this very concept to assist with developing lower limb stiffness properties and running economy measures. The work that they conducted on much higher gradient hills (up to 10% +) consistently demonstrated this effect. Whilst this idea has not been fully explored in the realm of high velocity sprinting, I for one think it may have some merit as a tool to assist with the transfer of resistance training to the specific movements of sport.
We would love to hear your experience, so if you have any history of exploring this area feel free to reach out and share your knowledge.