Downhill Repeats – Boston Training

Posted: December 15, 2011 in Training
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Thursday kicked off the final “tweak”that we will be making to our marathon training for Boston in April, trying to strengthen an area that reared its head as a weakness in 2010.  Preparing for the opening downhill 14 miles from Hopkinton to Newton.

Boston Marathon - Course Elevation

It is this opening stretch of miles, slightly past the half-way point of the marathon that does more damage to the marathoner’s legs than the well-known “Newton Hills” a series of 4 climbs culminating at Heartbreak Hill at mile 21.

The facts are after having run Boston that the Newton Hills in and of themselves are not particularly long, not particularly steep and not particularly difficult.

It is more about “when” they are than it is about “what” they are.

They come after an hour and a half of the marathoner “holding back” over the downhill first half of the race.  Putting on the brakes, making sure they do not “go out too fast”, but what these careful marathoners are doing is destroying those quadricept muscles mile after mile.  Breaking them down so that when it is finally time to start “racing” this marathon and climbing to the top of the course in Chestnut Hill the legs don’t have anything left.

I have never felt so helpless on a race course as I did in Boston back in 2010.

That race was good for me however as it forced me to make some changes in my training.  In fact, I’ve changed virtually everything about how I prepare for the marathon and I have taken almost 10 minutes off of my marathon PR in the process.

But this year for Boston I know better.  I know that how I prepared for Austin last February or New York this past November is not the recipe for success in Boston on April 16th.  I need to continue to work hard building my strength, stamina and endurance – I need to continue to strengthen my climbing muscles to remain strong on the uphills – but I need more than anything to prepare for that first 14 miles.

I need to harden those quadricept muscles running a ton of downhill miles, sometimes at great intensity to make myself virtually bullet-proof.

Today marked the start of that journey as we ran our first workout of Downhill Repeats.

Typically on Thursday morning I run a 3-mile warm-up and then jog to the bottom of my hill repeat hill.  I make a turn at the bottom, hit my watch and take off to the top of the hill at 5K race effort.  The hill is 3/10 of a mile long and rises 65 feet.

At the top of the hill I hit my watch to mark that split and start a slow recovery jog back down to the bottom.  I start with 8 repeats during the first week, add one repeat a week up to 10 and then run 10 repeats every Thursday until the taper for the marathon.

For Boston every third Thursday or once every three weeks we will be flipping the workout around so that I jog slowly to the top of the hill and run DOWNHILL at 5K effort, hit my watch at the bottom and then make a slow (8:30-8:40 pace) jog back to the top of the hill to start again.

Thursday’s workout was the first week of “Downs” so we started at 8 repeats or repetitions.

Repeat 1:  1:29

Repeat 2:  1:31

Repeat 3:  1:32

Repeat 4:  1:32

Repeat 5:  1:32

Repeat 6:  1:30

Repeat 7:  1:31

Repeat 8:  1:30

1:30 = 5:15/mile pace.

I closed the workout with a mile home in 6:26.  FAST.

In the coming weeks it will be interesting to see how “fast” our downhill splits become.  Today I was running downhill directly into a 15-18 mph wind, which was certainly slowing us down quite a bit.

The goal is not to really “get faster” however, even though running those repeats at a high intensity will build those muscles exactly as we intend.  But running with perfect downhill form is really what I am after.  I want to be able to lock-in and run identical splits as I go through the workout, hitting the same times as my legs grow more and more tired.

I am focusing on form in this workout, tucking my pelvis underneath me, leaning forward slightly – not backward, and letting gravity pull me down the hill.

I want to land on my midfoot, not my heel – and make sure I am not “braking” as I go down the slope.  All to ensure that I am running with an easy, repeatable stride that will not overly tax those quadricept muscles.

Workout number one went about as good as I could have hoped, that 6:26 final mile showed that after all that downhill running my legs were still strong and able to fire.  Exactly what I will need them to do when we pass Wellesley College, reach the first of the Newton Hills and start pulling in runners ahead of us.

When we kick over the final hill at mile 21 on the Boston College campus and 5 downhill miles remain, that is where we are going to make our move. 

Those final 5 miles will be ours.  Simply put, I will own them.

That course owned me back in 2010.  Well you know what they say about payback.

It’s a bitch.  Bring it on Boston, you are going DOWN.

  1. ally says:

    hahaha, good thing my treadmill has a decline LOL

  2. seanmbrown says:

    Love the variety Joe. Can’t wait to hear how this prep work pays off in Boston.

  3. Paul says:

    Im doing lots of downhill repeats as well… My tip is to stay up on your toes and to cycle the legs nice and fast…. overstriding downhill is even easier than on the flat and is going to pulverize your quads.

    • joerunfordom says:

      Hi Paul! Thanks so much for the visit and the message. I think you are spot on with your tips on form. I’m going to shorten things up and protect those quads like I would my daughter over the first 14 miles.

  4. Excellent, excellent idea, Joe. I have a hill that’s nearly identical to yours, and I’ve done a similar set of uphill repeats on it. Time to flip that baby around!

    Thanks for the great idea.

  5. Reading an interesting book right now, Cardio or Weights: Which Comes First? (or is it Weights or Cardio: Which Comes First? – I ironically can’t remember). Anyhow, one section discusses how most runners actually run uphills too fast (takes them too long to recover at the top, and they lose far more than they gained by powering up the hill) and downhills to slow (they spend more energy fighting gravity). I think on the latter, it really is a question of form – the goal is to glide down the hill as effortlessly as possible, whatever that pace may be. It may be that it is a quicker pace than you think – so long as your form is efficient. Regardless, this is a good training adjustment, as I’m also beginning to believe that long (>20 or 30 seconds) uphill repeats are of debatable value (more on that in a future post).

    • Joseph Marruchella says:

      Hi Greg! Great to hear from you. I think I have been guilty of exactly that, not letting the pace come to me on the downhills and holding back. I could notice yesterday during the workout that if I just relaxed and let the gravity pull me my pace increased even though my effort did not change. This is going to be an interesting journey! Take good care,


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