Standing/Walking Downhill Kills the Professional Cyclist

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Yesterday after dinner we went for a little walk to help the meal settle.  The little walk involved going up a couple hundred meter hill on mowed grass.  We got to the top and as we started down, I could feel my quads engage.  I knew, from experience, that it was going to make me sore this morning.  I said, “This is going to kill my legs.”

This guys all laughed.  They couldn’t imagine how walking downhill for a few minutes would do anything to leg muscles that can rotate in circles for hours upon hours.  They just didn’t get it.

I know I’m not alone in this “issue”.  Professional cyclists are notorious for not wanted to stand or walk for any period at all.  Especially downhill.  We just don’t have the muscles for it.  I don’t understand the biomechanics exactly, but for some reason, pedaling doesn’t develop those muscles.

Now, walking uphill is a different story.  We can walk uphill great.  But mostly, we still avoid it still.

I can tell you a story.  A long time ago, National Road Championships were in Bisbee Arizona.  I had just finished the Coor’s Classic, went to Aspen and then drove to Bisbee.  I was pitiful at Nationals.  I got spit out the back early in the race.  It was the first time I’d ever been dropped out of the whole field in a race.

After the race, my brother Kris, and this friend from Kansas, Dennis decided to go to the Grand Canyon and do a week long adventure.  We camped at the top and got a late start heading to the bottom on the Hermit’s Rest Trail, which is a more primitive trail that the Bright Angel or South Kaibab.   We had way too much stuff in our packs, since it was so cold at the top, not realizing it was going to be 100 degrees at the bottom, 5000 feet below.

When we got to the bottom , it was late and our legs were wobbly.  Like barely able to walk bad. It was so warm, we just laid on the sand on the beach by the Colorado River.  I’m sure we slept like rocks, but when we woke up in the morning, we all had major issues.  Like not being able to stand up issues.

I had to crawl to over to a small tree and use my arms to help me get vertical.  And even then, I could barely take a step.  All of us were completely incapacitated.  We ended up staying there for two more nights before we could walk.  Even then we turned around backwards to walk downhill the first couple days.

Same thing happened when Ned, Trudi and I hiked up Mt. Fuji in Japan, after a Specialized Cactus Cup.  We hauled uphill, the about 1/2 way down, I couldn’t stop myself.  Both Ned and I ended up walking the last bit backwards, while Trudi was bounding downhill completely fine.

We stayed in Tokyo for the next week and I couldn’t even step off a curb.

So, I know by experience, that cyclists have super muscles for going uphill and nothing for downhill.  Standing just tires legs.  It doesn’t necessarily make my legs sore, but I’m not good after Christmas shopping, etc.

So, guys I’m staying with.  I told you I wouldn’t be embarrassed admitting this and would just post it.  It is a fact and I can’t do anything about it.

This is where we are staying. The walk just went up to the top of one of these bluffs.

This is where we are staying. The walk just went up to the top of one of these bluffs.

We got a little turned around yesterday riding. I had a Garmin, but was a little amused with the number of actually maps on the ride.

We got a little turned around yesterday riding. I had a Garmin, but was a little amused with the number of actually maps on the ride.

An Amish farm. Lots of dying sheets.

An Amish farm. Lots of dying sheets.

Tucker loves romping around the hills all day here.

Tucker loves romping around the hills all day here.


17 thoughts on “Standing/Walking Downhill Kills the Professional Cyclist

  1. scott

    you’re absolutely right – i did a multi day hike a number of years ago across Northern England, through the Lake District & Yorkshire Dales. After decades of 12,000+ yearly mileage, my legs/knees were destroyed for weeks. Uphills were simple, downhills awful. I think, for whatever reasons, I used my knees as breaking mechanisms

  2. Matt Gibble

    It’s all about eccentric muscle contractions. That is the reason for the soreness.

  3. jinglenuts

    that makes sense, I hate walking and when I walk downhill my legs tingle up to my brain – stop… after biking for around 25 years now or so and having given up running for a long long time, I hated running. I hate walking even more.
    I’d say to the next generation of kids – take up tri. That way nothing ever hurts until the later years… tri people just keeping going and going. Where as cyclists and mtbers typically get more injuries ?

  4. Craig

    When you tri EVERYTHING hurts.

    Yep, eccentric contractions which are only developed by, you know, doing. So if you want to avoid these issues, walk down some stairs every day. Yes your legs will still not be as developed but you won’t have the ridiculousness you have now!

  5. Wildcat

    Yes, it may be a fact, but you should know you’re being foolish to think you “can’t do anything about it”. A physical therapist or even a good personal trainer could help you solve this issue. Although, it would require strength-training so I can only assume – from information in previous posts and comments sections – you will avoid trying this at all costs.

  6. mickey

    correct answer above. it’s especially awful if you’re a runner and you have to run downhill a lot.

  7. Joe

    Yeah, my quads have been crippled several times by the Grand Canyon. Eccentric contractions…..

  8. James

    We are human beings. We were designed, or evolved, to walk huge distances, both up hill and down hill, across all types of terrain. We should also be able to pick up heavy things occasionally (opposing thumbs), and perhaps dig a hole or climb a tree or rock and run fast now and then, all without “being wrecked”. My point being is cycling is not all that different than being a desk jockey or sitting in a car all day. Your slouched over, going through a limited range of motion never reaching full extension for multiple hours on end. Sure you get cardio vascular benefit, but we all know the pitfalls of too much intensity on the heart.
    Perhaps a better approach (while your transitioning into your golden years) would be to throw a little variety into your regime. I absolutely guarantee you will feel better and enjoy life more, especially when you get into your 60’s and above. Sure, you probably won’t win or place as high in races, but really, who cares, particularly if you don’t feel good (which seems to be the theam of so many of your posts).

  9. Krakatoa East of Java

    I once did a long, solo backpacking trip in Kings Canyon National Park. It was a lot of steep uphill, and my”loop” route was all planned-out rather evenly (miles-wise). The first few days went as-planned. But by this point, I’d peaked on elevation and the rest of the route was all downhill. The next day, I arrived at camp within 2-3 hours of starting, and didn’t want to sit around all day alone… so I kept going. I hit the next one even faster, so I just decided to keep going all the way to the car. I made it to the car by 2PM, so I hit the road, and drove down the mountain, heading towards Fresno. I found a cafe and decided to eat a really hearty meal, as I was really hungry. But all of that downhill had taken its toll on my legs. When it was time to leave the cafe and hit the road again… I couldn’t get up to a standing position again. My legs just gave out. It felt like they’d been sunk into concrete. It was pure agony driving the 4 hours back home. I’ll never do that many miles downhill in one day ever again.

  10. Calvin Jones

    Once, at least once, you need to do the DH walk at a world cup before the course opens for pre-ride.

  11. ted

    Steve (and others) Do you get cramping along with leg pain? I am far from a professional cyclist but I get the exact same thing walking downhill. Sometimes I can walk downhill just fine without cramping issues, other times going down two flights of stairs and my legs cramp by the bottom. IMy cramps can be totally debilitating. Ive even been to the dr about it, had labs drawn, etc, nobody knows what to make of it.

    The irony, as you state, is that I can ride 160 miles hard without even the closest thing to a cramp.

  12. John

    I know the feeling so well. It would be great to know more why it’s the downhill that makes us feel weak.Best wishes from CA.

  13. Dave

    Steve what exactly is the name of the town you stayed in the “driftless” area? Was it in Iowa or Wisconsin? Thanks. Sounds and looks amazing!

  14. Doug

    A friend of mine ruined his knees for good…running downhill at a race. Ii is better to take it easy on the descents than to suffer permanent injury. Just sayin’………..

  15. Dog

    As a runner I find I can keep up with most cyclists going up steep hills but it’s the flat where I suffer, no power. I’ve done fell/mountain races and its absolutely exhilarating running fast downhills. Feel like I’m restricted on a bike, want to break free of the limited motion and hit full stride. When I dismount the bike I feel myself again.


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