When it comes to downhill running it’s truly much harder on the body than most runners anticipate and there are some form of tricks that you need to know. These are especially important if going for a big downhill marathon.
I’ve found the perfect marathon, it’s all downhill!!!
Me: Ummm that might not be a great idea.
What?! It’s super fast and so easy that way!
Me: I know it should be easier, but I’m telling you the knees and quads don’t always agree.
A conversation I’ve been having on repeat lately with folks like my husband finding some amazing marathons that indeed are largely nothing but massively downhill. It seems like a dream come true, right?
Until you’ve spent some time on steep hills and realize downhills require specific training. Living in Florida for 8 years, I felt hill deprived. Now living in Colorado, I spend a lot of time wondering if flat ground exists!
But the best thing about hills is that they allow you to engage different muscles, which can help with strength and fatigue.
I wrote an entire article on how to do the uphill the right way, so today the focus is purely on the downhill, why it’s so hard and what you can do to save your knees and quads.
Why Downhill Running is Hard on the Body?
While downhill seems like it should be the easy part, it’s often the most painful for many runners because it creates more pressure on the knees and legs with a continuous breaking effect.
But let’s be clear, just as running in general doesn’t ruin your knees, running downhill won’t create injuries either.
You simply need to build up the right knee strength if you’ll be doing a long downhill race or to enjoy the most of flying down a hill you’ve worked so hard to climb.
A few reasons downhill running can feel so hard:
- Running downhill results in more ground force, in other words landing harder
- This more intense pounding creates more tears in the muscles, causing that burning sensation when you finish
- Natural tendency to lean back results in slamming the ground with your heel and pushing pressure up through the knees
- The body thinks that’s a break signal and tenses all the muscles to slow you down
- Running downhill for a long period requires different muscle control that flats, uphills or rolling hills
- When running uphill our knees are bent and we naturally lean forward
- Inhibited range of motion in your hips can create strain as your legs need to lengthen out
7 Tips for Downhill Running Training
One of the keys, as with all things running, is trying to mimic the race course. Can you have someone drop you off on a path that is largely downhill? It’s hard to find paths that are long enough and entirely downhill, but you can.
Once you have a place to practice long stretches of downhill running, it’s time to checkout these downhill running tips to keep your body feeling strong and take full advantage of the work.
#1 Training Frequency
For those training to run a Revel downhill race or other long descent, you need to ensure it’s a consistent part of your training.
Don’t make every run downhill, but try to include at least 1 steep long downhill run each week in training. Start out with just 2 miles running downhill and gauge any unusual soreness after the run.
You might find more DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness) than from regular runs, which will result in muscular gains and a reminder that you need to train specifically for hills..
Use that run to practice thinking about the following form tips.
#2 Mid to Forefoot Landing
The most important thing about your stride is to stay focused on mid to forefoot landing. As soon as you land with your heel it creates a brake effect, which jars the entire body.
On flat ground you aim for midfoot, but that’s much harder going downhill. We don’t want to land too far on the ball of the foot and lose the benefit of the full foot making contact, but you might be focused slightly more on the forefoot to prevent yourself from heel striking.
Remember that heel striking on it’s own is not a negative.
However, when running downhill you are likely striding out and thus placing a great deal more pressure up the leg when you land. While your stride will likely be longer on a gradual downhill as you take advantage of gravity, you still want to pay attention to how you’re landing and trying to keep the foot over your center of mass.
This is huge to prevent you from losing toenails or black toenails from running. These are far more common in downhill running than anywhere else due to the constant pressure of your foot pushing forward in the shoe.
#3 Lean In To It
As noted one of the reasons downhills tear up the legs so much is our tendency to sit back in to the movement. It’s often called sitting in the bucketseat. You’ll tuck your pelvis some and come out of being in a tall upright posture.
Understandably we do it because it seems like this gives us more control over our speed and movement.
However, it’s creating a lot more stress on the joints.
Think about a slight lean from your ankles or hips so that you can keep your knees and ankles in alignment.
#4 Land Light
If you’re feet are slapping the ground so loud you can hear them over your music, it’s time to focus on thinking words like “light and easy.
The additional force going downhill already makes your landing more powerful. It’s your job to think of keeping your body upright and not just sinking in to that intensity.
#5 Change Your Arm Swing
Keep your arms lower, 90 degree bend, and swing a little faster. Your legs will usually follow the pace of your arms, so allow things to flow, instead of slowing yourself.
#6 Look Forward
Running both uphill and downhill we have a tendency to start looking at our feet. This is going to pull you out of alignment and prevents your brain from being aware of potential tip hazards.
Instead, if you look a few feet in front of you the brain has time to process anything that might be coming. This allows you to more quickly change direction or pick your feet up higher to avoid roots and rocks.
#7 Relax In To It
Gravity is going to do the work here, so try to take a breather by relaxing and letting it flow. On a gradual downhill this is the fun part, so get out of your head and let your body naturally move downhill!
On harder downhill runs, the worry is going to create more tension in your muscles. This means both that you are increasing the workload and changing your stride, which as noted could result in injury.
#8 Handling Steep Declines
This is usually my biggest struggle. Super steep descents, especially on the trails I can end up going slower than I did uphill! Luckily I have a some great trail running friends who continue to encourage me and I take my own advice of practicing so I’ve gotten better with each year.
A few things to help on steep declines:
- Use your arms like wings to create more balance
- Think about much shorter steps, which gives you more speed control
- Run in a zig zag pattern if needed to gain control over your speed and lessen the steepness
How to Train for Downhill Races Without Hills?
Don’t think you can just skip downhill training, it will hurt you on race day! A few options
- plyo drills for runners that focus on the down movement. ie jumping down off boxes
- running down stairs stadium
- finding a treadmill with a decline option (love mine)
- scare your family by getting this crazy contraption
I found this one exercise hugely valuable in building knee strength to keep you feeling good on the downhills.
It’s super simple to add in to your routine once a week, building up to a minute each time.
While it seems to go against all logic that downhills could leave the body feeling more abused than uphills, I’ve seen it time and time again in myself and friends.
Looking for more tips to improve your running?
And though you’re tired of hearing me say it…do all the hip strengthening exercises!!!
✅Checkout my 30 Day Runner Core Program – 10 minutes a day and we’ll turn your abs, glutes and hips in to your running strength!
Have you ever done a totally downhill race?
Love or hate hills?
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