When runners hear “hill workout,” they usually think of running up lung-busting, quad-screaming monster hills. While that type of workout is all well and good, runners often overlook the benefits of running downhill, which, as it happens, is a whole lot more fun than the alternative.
If you’re training for a hilly race, keep in mind that there will likely be an equal number of downhills as there are uphills, so being adept at covering declines is an important skill to possess. What’s more, doing downhill repeats in training can build strength and improve form in ways that running uphill cannot. These types of workouts also teach your legs to withstand the natural wear and tear that happens during a hilly event.
“Running downhill has a significant impact on your body,” says Debbie Woodruff, a USA Track & Field–certified running coach based in La Quinta, Calif. “The muscles lengthen, which can cause microscopic tears, and it generates more force than when running uphill or on level ground.”
In fact, research has shown that impact forces are a whopping 54% higher when you’re barreling downhill. Woodruff explains, “Running at top speed causes the feet to hit the ground harder, which generates more impact on joints, bones and muscles. Training downhill allows your body to adapt to the force, repair itself and become stronger.”
The key is to learn to run downhill correctly in order to avoid injuries. As with most skills, this is best achieved through practice. By incorporating downhill workouts into your running regimen and focusing on form, speed and efficiency, you can expect to see a boost in your performances on hilly courses.
How to Run Downhill the Right Way
Proper running form is paramount if one hopes to benefit from downhill repeats and skirt injury. The biggest mistakes runners make on declines: locking their knees and striking with their heels in a bone-rattling braking motion. Rather than trying to slow yourself down, take advantage of gravity’s influence on quicker leg turnover. At the same time, shorten your stride to maintain control and keep your body from falling forward.
“Try to land midfoot, and maintain proper posture,” advises Woodruff. “Resist the urge to brake, which will cause you to lean back … you should lean forward slightly from the ankles, but you need to keep your core engaged and your body aligned.”
It’s all about striking a balance between taking advantage of the “free speed” downhills offer without becoming a flailing windmill with no control. If you watch professional runners, they look as if they are effortlessly attacking downhills with perfect strength and poise. With some practice, this is something just about any runner can master.
How to Work Downhills into Your Training
1. Try to locate a soft surface to do your repeats.
Since it can take some time to get the hang of good form going downhill, grass or dirt will help lessen the blow on your joints, bones and muscles.
2. Find the right type of hill.
Woodruff suggests finding a hill that has a 3–8% incline and is 100–200 meters long.
3. Begin with a 20 minute easy jog to warm up.
Similar to any type of sprint training, the quick contractions your muscles will need to make when running downhill repeats necessitates a good warm-up period.
4. Start with 10 downhill repeats at about a 10K pace, adding 1–2 each subsequent week.
If you’re focusing solely on downhill running, jog or walk back up the hill after each repeat. Alternatively, you can incorporate downhill training with a traditional uphill workout or into a hilly tempo run. “Instead of letting up at the top of the hills, shift into a higher gear as you start downhill,” Woodruff says.
No matter what approach you settle on, keep in mind that hill training can take a toll on your body. These types of workouts shouldn’t be done more than once per week and should be eliminated when you’re tapering for an event. If you take proper recovery after each workout and add hills in a strategic manner throughout your season, you’re sure to see improvements. Not only will you find your form and speed improves on the declines, but you’ll also discover that you’re a stronger all-around runner.