After spending a few years in the racing side of running, I have seen an influx in downhill road racing among my peers, mainly in the distance field of marathons and half marathons. There are a lot of different opinions floating around out there on them, ranging from “it’s cheating” to “it’s harder to run downhill.”
Let me start off by acknowledging that running downhill, uphill, or on flat ground all produce a different level of workload to your muscle groups. They all use quads, hamstrings, and glutes (there’s more, but for simplicity…) However, the ratio between which muscle groups actually depends on what your form looks like. I think this might be why some people believe it’s harder to run downhill.
Gravity is a powerful force. All of the downhill races that I have seen advertised market that they have a FAST course with a high percentage of Boston qualifying times. Though you might feel more pain or be more sore the next day from a downhill course, you do have a pretty big force pushing you forward. It’s irrefutable. Statistically, downhill races get you a faster time than flat or uphill courses. This is where you have to be real with yourself. Is your PR on a downhill course? Uphill races, few as they are, statistically give you a slower time. Do you not give yourself a little break if you don’t hit your goal time? This is why we have come up with labeling courses as “easy,” “hard,” or “fair.”
I want to be clear. Racing a marathon or half marathon is never easy, and I understand why labeling a course with your PR time on it as such is offensive – you trained hard, you raced hard. If you’ve raced downhill, I’m not trying to take anything away from you. If your main running goal is to get a specific time, and you don’t care what kind of course it’s on, go for it, get it, and don’t let anyone take that pride away. But unfortunately, what I see quite often happening, are runners that get huge PRs on these downhill courses and then don’t understand why they didn’t improve their time on their next race, which wasn’t a downhill course. If you really want to gauge time progress in a way that is fair to yourself, then you’d have to run the same course year after year.
Sometimes time goals aren’t the end game. Maybe you want to win. Maybe the timing and location is convenient. Most of the downhill courses I’ve seen around also advertise a scenic route. Perhaps you’re looking for a nice long run through nature, or you’re building a vacation around the race. There are so many reasons to choose a downhill course, a lot having nothing to do with the benefit of elevation loss.
There are many ways to gain time advantages in a race. Drafting, staying in a pack, choosing a race with a later start time (or earlier if you prefer), weather advantages, etc. I’ve done two Abbott Marathon Majors so far and I PR-ed at both of them. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easier to run in a pack. (Side note: This is why I don’t think Boston should have given any prize money to the non-elites who had faster chip times. Bite me.) If you wanted to, you could analyze, argue, and asterisk PRs in a long list of ways.
There’s a reason why both men’s and women’s marathon world records (and several other records) were run in London. Some courses are harder than others, but they are all hard. If you are training for an Olympic Trial qualifying time, then be aware that the course has to be USATF-certified, USATF-sanctioned, and more relevantly, cannot have an elevation loss of more than 3.25 meters per kilometer, which is a little more than 450 feet. The world record cannot be broken on a net downhill course. These rules have to mean something, right?
I encourage you to be aware of all the possibilities downhill courses could bring. Be fair to yourself, and remember that not all courses are equal. Don’t let other people’s standards for themselves rob you of your pride in your own accomplishments, AND vice versa. Be kind to others, and know that their goals are probably different than yours.