In our first advent of the psychology of downhill running, we discussed the idea that “actions” come first and your “feelings” of confidence come second (or later, once you’ve mastered the basic movements.)
Taking a psychology-based approach to improving your downhill running, I suggested that athletes:
- Identify the necessary skills to improve
- Practice the skills
- Apply them effectively
- Assess the results
- Integrate change and modify as needed.
In the following article, it is my goal to shed light on one of those skills and how as a long time runner and gait analyst, I would go about practicing, applying and assessing that skill.`
Downhill Running Essential Skill #1: Using your VMO and Gluteus Medius
Go online and search downhill running. The bulk of the articles will go discuss the role of the quad muscles in braking, eccentric contractions, and reasons to not overstride.
These articles likely suggest that to improve your downhill running you work on increasing your stride, learn to land underneath center of mass and integrate strength training into your program. Although this is all great advice, I’ve found few of these articles mention the important role hip stability and a strong vastus medialis (VMO) play in your downhill running.
When viewing most downhill runners from the rear it is not uncommon to spot the knee diving, the hip dropping or the foot overpronating, despite increased cadence and landing close to center of mass. Stability and maintenance of neutral hips achieved through the activation of the gluteus mediu,s and stability and straight tracking of the knee achieved by a strong VMO, are both fundamental to injury-free downhill running.
Find the muscle. The role of the glute medius in strength training is primarily hip abduction. While running, however, the muscle functions more as a stabilizer to hold up the opposite hip/ leg while in stance phase. On the other hand, the VMO functions in knee extension by ensuring the knee tracts properly throughout the gait. In most athletes I’ve analyzed, both of these muscles are often under developed and under active in the gait cycle. Therefore, in order to learn to use the muscles (activation) in your gait, we’ve first got to find out where the muscle is. And for that, pre-fatiguing the muscles in order to heighten your brain’s awareness of the muscle itself is the best method. Here are some of my favorite pre-fatigue exercises for these two:
Pre-Fatigue Exercise #1:
Side lying hip abduction against wall 2 x 10 reps each side of your body.
Pre-Fatigue Exercise #2
Lateral band walks 2 x 20-25 reps each side
Pre-Fatigue Exercise #3
Terminal Knee Extensions 2 x 25-30 reps each side, ensure that you do these slowly, focused on the tear drop muscle on the inside of the knee (medial side).
Hopefully you can feel both of those muscles move and activate on your body as we’ll now be moving onto the tricky task of teaching you to do that same activation while running.
Learn to use the muscle.
In one of my favorite running books, Running Rewired by Jay Dicharry, the author discusses the notion of “pushing your big toe down while pushing your knees out.” Another article titled Elite Feet by gait analyst and PT Joe Uhan, calls this same concept the “power ray” and promotes the activation of the gluteus medius, a primary hip abductor and stabilizer in the running gait, by doing the same activity.
When done properly, this drill elicits stability from both the quad muscle (specifically the VMO) and gluteus medius, relieving tension from the IT bands, rectus femoris and lower back, all of whom are common victims of DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness) during long bouts of downhill running with poor form.
Activation Exercise # 1
Put a pillow or a ball between your legs, just above the knee. Standing in place, practice pushing your big toe into the ground and bending your knees while pushing them out (or away from the body.) You should feel your VMO and side-butt muscles (glute medius) firing, the same muscles we were picking on in the pre-fatigue work.
Activation Exercise #2
4x30sec Lateral Hurdle Hops (@ 4:30 in the video), 60sec rest. Do these towards a mirror and watch that your hips are staying level and not dropping throughout.
Activation Exercise #3
4-6x 60sec downhill runs w/ 2-3min’s rest between. Take your newly fatigued muscles out for a spin and remember the following cue: run like you’ve got a toilet paper holder between your knees while pushing down the big toe and rotating those knees out with each stride. This will keep those muscles locked in and engaged. Stop and repeat any time you feel yourself lose concentration.
Know if the muscle is actually working. In order to know whether or not your gluteus medius is actually holding up your opposite hip in stance phase or to know whether or not your VMO is actually firing and helping track your knee correctly, you need to analyze yourself.
Assessment of this skill is best seen through slow motion front and rear footage of the runner. A skilled coach, gait analyst, or PT can then look at the movement and analyze where and how the muscles are activating and functionally working in the runner’s downhill. From there, it’s a simple matter of integrating the necessary changes and appropriately progressing your training to longer and steeper downhills.
Learning to stabilize the hips and use your VMO in downhill running is certainly an advanced change in one’s running mechanics, but it is feasible and the prospect of boundless, pain-free downhills is real!
There are of course many more components and skills to downhill running than the one I’ve covered above. However, I am hopeful that this incites a curiosity in you to try to fiddle and perhaps even master a new skill while becoming more aware of your own bodies’ movements.