|Beat the Toughest Downhill|
...and fight off running pain.
By Mike Dennison
It was a glorious day, and I was headed over to Vancouver’s North Shore to run the trails and ski slopes of Grouse Mountain, mecca for trail runners. I avoided the Grouse Grind and headed further east, eventually running up the brutally steep cut ski slope to the top of the mountain. But at the top, I saw hordes of tourists had created a 90-minute wait for the gondola ride to the bottom of the mountain. I decided to run down.
So down and down I went, retracing my path up. Arriving back at the parking lot, my legs were tired and sore, but nothing I hadn’t experienced before. The next morning, something peculiar was happening: As I rolled out of bed I could barely walk. My legs, painful and tender, could barely support me. It felt like a team of malevolent leprechauns had taken batting practice on my thighs.
Welcome to the painful world of eccentric muscle contractions and delayed onset muscle soreness, a dark place where all athletes, runners in particular, live and suffer.
You certainly don’t need to run down a mountain, throw a javelin, fast-pitch a softball or finish a marathon to discover eccentric contractions, they occur routinely in everyone, athlete or not. But because of the demands athletes place on their bodies, eccentric contractions are far more imposing, and their after-effects far more debilitating. So what are eccentric muscle contractions, why can they cause so much pain and what can be done, if anything, to lessen their consequences?
Of the three types of skeletal muscle contraction, the eccentric contraction creates the most mayhem and misery. When we walk or run our muscles function much like the gas pedal and brakes on a car. The concentric contraction is like stepping on the gas pedal: it creates force to move or accelerate our musculoskeletal system. Conversely, the eccentric contraction does the opposite: it acts as a brake to slow and stabilize the body. But the physiological process at the heart of the eccentric contraction is quite violent. Enormous negative, or oppositional, forces are applied to the working muscles, causing them to pull apart with every stride.
There is substantial evidence that eccentric contractions cause more damage than other types of contraction, which is why they increase the risk of muscle and tendon injuries. To lessen shock as we run and absorb the weight of the body against gravity, certain leg muscles work eccentrically at some stage in a normal gait cycle. The thigh and calf muscles, for example, contract eccentrically just prior to the foot’s initial contact with the ground. This is seen as absorption of energy and reflects the quadriceps’ role as shock absorber. The primary hip extensors (gluteus maximus, hamstrings), and the anterior and posterior tibialis (muscles on the front and back of the lower leg) behave this way as well.
The day-after pain we feel is called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. The symptoms of DOMS can range from muscle tenderness to intense, debilitating pain that typically peaks 24 to 48 hours after the exercise and usually subsides within 96 hours. DOMS is common after a race or when runners initiate new, unfamiliar types of training, or even when reintroducing specific training the body has forgot. This could include faster interval or speed training, long runs and, yes, even downhill running. All can be painful if done for the first time, or for the first time in a while. When we run downhill, for example, the eccentric, pulling-apart forces that work on the quads are magnified because the lower leg falls a little farther than normal on each stride.
With foresight, it’s possible to reduce the effects of DOMS by gradually and cautiously undertaking any new approach to training. To lessen the effects of eccentric contractions, enhancing joint stability and core strength is crucial. This will train our musculoskeletal system to become more adept at switching from the deceleration or braking phase to the force-producing acceleration phase. And, in doing so, we increase biomechanical efficiency, spending less time with the brakes on and creating less muscle trauma.
The good news for someone like me, nearly incapacitated by DOMS, is that rapid adaptation or inoculation usually occurs after just one or two sessions of eccentric training. Armed with this information, we can train with a better understanding of why running hurts, and what we can do to reduce the effect eccentric contractions have on our body.
Mike Dennison teaches yoga to runners in Vancouver; he tries to avoid eccentric contractions whenever possible.