5 ways to get better at downhill running

·4-min read
running downhill
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You’d think it would be easier to run down a mountain than to run up it. And sure, if you’re talking about gasping for air and feeling your heart pounding, that’s true.

But as far as your legs are concerned, running downhill for a long period of time is one of the cruellest punishments you can inflict. The eccentric muscle contractions (your quadriceps and calf muscles are trying to shorten but are being forced to lengthen each time your foot hits the ground) cause significant microscopic damage to your muscle fibres, including fatigue and eventually pain, and then delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in the days that follow. In fact, downhill running is commonly used in labs to study DOMS.

It also drains your energy levels. Research has found that you use less energy running downhill when the slope is less than about 20 percent. But beyond that each step requires more braking and provides less acceleration, so you start burning more energy again.

The upshot, however, is that downhill running can lead to rapid muscle adaptions and improved running. A recent study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, saw 10 subjects do 10 modest downhill workouts over a four-week period. This resulted in ‘neuromuscular adaptions typically observed after high-intensity resistance training’. There was no change to the subjects’ VO2 max scores, but the results do suggest that short-term, moderate-intensity downhill running can promote rapid gains in knee-extensor muscle strength, size and structure.

But there’s an art to it. If you’re running on trails and the downhill is particularly technical, you need to be able to place your feet carefully to ensure your don’t fall, all while maintaining your balance.

‘Running downhill on trails successfully comes down to two things, correct technique and confidence,’ explains trail running coach Matt Buck, owner of Running Adventures and guide runner for Love Trails Festival. ‘Once you have mastered the technique, practice lots and constantly challenge yourself over different types of terrain and gradient, and the confidence will come.’

Here, Buck shares his top tips for honing your downhill running technique...

Look where you are going

When running on trails, try to avoid looking at your feet. You need to get used to looking at least three to four metres ahead so that you can see what is happening, this will enable you to plan a safe route down the hill, and give you more time to react to the terrain.

Shorten your stride

You don’t want to over stride, doing this will increase your risk of injury and mean that you have little control over what you are doing and where you are going. Instead, aim to take small steps, the more contact you have with the ground, the more in control you will be. Shortening your stride by increasing stride frequency may also help to reduce muscle damage.

Keeping your arms out and away from your body

This will help you to stay balanced. It might seem like you're reverting back to your school days, but there's a reason why we learn to balance with 'aeroplane' arms and that's because it helps us be more aware of our centre of gravity and helps us stay upright.

Vary your foot strike

There’s a bit of evidence that landing on your toes on a downhill puts extra strain on muscles compared to landing on your heels, resulting in greater muscle damage. That said, a more useful strategy to keep in mind is to mix things up to vary the load on different muscle groups, by switching between different foot-strike patterns. That happens naturally on uneven trails, but might involve a deliberate decision on smoother downhills.

Train for it

This is the big one. If you’re planning a race that includes substantial downhill, make sure you do some significant downhill running in training – significant enough that it makes you sore. If there are no hills where you live, find a treadmill and set it to run downhill.

Research published in the journal Sports Medicine, which looks at fatigue associated with both downhill and uphill running, highlights the importance of downhill training in order to attenuate the negative effects of downhill running. 'Several studies demonstrated that a previous bout of eccentric exercise produces a protective adaptation, such that, after a subsequent bout of similar exercise (the so-called ‘repeated bout effect’), symptoms of muscle damage and strength loss are alleviated up to 10 weeks after exercise,' noted study authors.

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