It’s a truth universally known by longtime runners: Downhills are harder than uphills.
Sure, they may feel amazing, letting gravity do most of the work for you. But that pounding and jarring on your joints is much more likely to cause soreness the next day compared to the uphill sections. That’s because the loading from going down a hill is an eccentric contraction, meaning an outside force (gravity and the hill) is trying to stretch your muscles, particularly your quads, while the muscle is trying to resist that same stretch to help you avoid falling flat on your face.
The result? Downhills may not tax your lungs, but they tax your muscles. Fortunately, that means some strength training in the gym can help avoid some of that post-run soreness and make you a better downhill runner overall. You can arm yourself against those cramps, aches and pains by prepping in the gym.
Stepups are common in most gym settings, whether you’re taking a bootcamp-style class or just following a traditional strength-training circuit. But rather than thinking about just stepping up, focus on the down. Start with a bench, box or step, and during stepup exercises (great for quad and glute strength), step down more slowly, adding a bit more load. You can also use kettlebells or dumbbells to add extra challenge, but only if you can maintain an upright posture while holding them.
Reverse the way you get off the box: Start standing on a small box or a step, and focus on stepping straight down (just bring the foot back up after you touch the ground), focus on keeping your knee aligned with your foot rather than letting it sink in or fall out. Do a set of reps on one foot before switching. The key is to start with a small step — like the ones you would use in a step class, versus a more typical box jump — and slowly build up. You don’t want to sprain an ankle because you started too high!
Squats help downhill running by targeting your quads as well as your glutes, and since your quads are bearing the most weight during a downhill run, the stronger they are, the better they can handle the load. A single-leg squat is a great way to truly target your quads. Don’t use a weight for this: The goal isn’t to squat 200 pounds, it’s to strengthen the chain of muscles from your hips to your toes, so focus on form, not weight. Specifically, watch those knees — the goal is to keep your knee aligned with your foot and hip. (If this is too advanced, a standard air squat gives you most of the benefits without the balance issues.)
Runners certainly need to have a strong core across the board, but in downhill running, it’s even more important. Your trunk helps to keep you balanced, and a strong core can help you avoid injuries by keeping you upright and putting less strain on your hips and quads as you pound down hills. The more stable you are, the smoother you can navigate technical terrain or speed through road downhills with maximum efficiency. Try this five-step core routine as part of your strength training.
RUN DOWN STAIRS
If your gym or nearby track has stadium seating, add a few reps of hiking up and running down. This mimics the loading pattern of a downhill, and hiking/walking up avoids stressing your aerobic system, so the movements are almost entirely strength-based versus cardio activities. This is a great warmup if you can do a few reps before hitting the gym or a sneaky way to add some strength-training while your child is at his or her team practice at school!