Runners — especially those preparing for hilly race courses — know practicing running uphill is important. However, as the saying goes, “What goes up must come down.” Simply put, practicing downhill running, even as gravity assists, is just as important. So why do so many runners neglect it?
“Runners tend blow off downhill training, probably because it feels easy by comparison to uphill training,” explains Debbie Voiles, director and coach of Run Tampa and host of the Mojo for Running Podcast. “That’s a big mistake that has cost many runners in the form of injuries and, if not that, then severe post-race discomfort and slower race times than expected.”
Downhill running can help build muscle strength — different than those worked on flat or uphill surfaces — and should be a regular part of your training. We talked to two coaches to find out how to get the most out of running downhill.
DOWNHILL RUNNING AND YOUR BODY
Running downhill may seem easier than running uphill and, according to Voiles, it is — from a cardiovascular standpoint. However, it is actually is much harder on the legs.
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“Running downhill requires eccentric muscle contractions, meaning the muscles are lengthened rather than shortened, and fewer muscle fibers are activated,” adds Voiles. “This results in greater intensity, which often leads to small tears in the muscles, known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).”
This results in the severe post-race discomfort mentioned above. Of course not every effect runners get from the downhills are bad; if approached properly, runners can get a boost and see faster race times.
According to Janet Hamilton, exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Running Strong, the quads do most of the work controlling momentum on the downhills, so should you experience soreness after a training session or race that was downhill-heavy, the front of the thigh is where you’re most likely to feel it.
PERFECTING YOUR FORM
The good news? A lot of this muscle soreness is preventable if you are not only training on the downhills, but also have proper form when doing so. It can be learned with practice, just like running on any surface. “I tell my athletes to try to keep a light/quick turnover and ‘don’t ride the brakes,’” reveals Hamilton. “Learn to accept that free gift of gravity and go with it; by keeping your cadence quick, you’ll be less likely to overstride on the downhill and land with your leg too far out in front.”
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Voiles echoes that advice, adding that runners should stay perpendicular to the road or lean forward a little bit from the ankles. She also says your arms are key to finding balance, so letting them flail a bit is key. “On the downhill, it’s natural and easy to expand the stride length a bit, but the runner should take care to avoid starting to heel-strike on the way down,” continues Voiles. “High cadence should be easy to maintain on the downhill, but the runner should still stay focused on avoiding pounding.”
DOWNHILL TRAINING TIPS
Just as with any other training, practicing running downhill is something runners should ease into. That being said, even if you are preparing specifically for a flat course, you should still use hill training as a supplement.
“I encourage runners to think about hills as a form of specific strength training for running; it benefits those who run flat races as well as those who are training for races with substantial elevation gain/loss,” suggests Hamilton. “Working the uphill segments builds hip, hamstring and calf strength, while working the downhill segments builds quad strength and gives you a chance to work on leg speed and turnover.”
When choosing hills to train on, beginners should choose smaller hills that aren’t as steep as a veteran would choose. If your goal race has hills, working up to the same grade and length as what is on course is key to keep training race-specific.
“There is no substitute for race-specific training,” concludes Voiles. “When training for a race with hills, I’d advise training on hills once per week and if possible, training on hills — or downhills — as similar to the goal race as possible. Training on hills will always be beneficial, whether preparing for a particular race or just working on overall fitness and conditioning.”