We hear it all the time from people that down-hill running sucks. It hurts your knees, your feet, your legs. It is uncomfortable. You’d do all the up-hill repeats in the world if you didn’t have to run down. Well, there are definitely ways to lighten to load when you are hammering it down hill. Here are my best tips and tricks to loving the downhill!
Your form is absolutely key to effective downhill running, especially the position of your foot. Avoiding heel striking to take the impact off your knees. A straight leg on the down-hill will send a tremendous amount of weight to your knees which can cause pain and could lead to injuries. Landing with your foot fully on the ground with your knees slightly bent is the proper running form for going down hill. Try and be light on your flight and allow for your quad to take the most of the impact. If you are wondering why down-hill makes your legs feel so fatigued and tired, it is for good reason. Your muscles are elongating as you run down hill and create tension to control your speed down. This increases muscle fibre micro-tears which does stimulate muscle growth but will leave you more fatigued and sore.
Your arms a key component to efficient down-hill running. Use them as a counter balance, keep them up by your sides and move them up and down as you drop. When you are coming to a particularly steep section that requires a bigger stride raise your arms as you drop down and bring them down as you hit the ground again. Always keep your arms up and by your sides to help maintain your balance and technique! This photo demonstrates it well:
2. Look where are you going:
Instead of looking down at the ground, look toward where you are going. You always want to be looking forwards in the direction that you want to be heading. When you are looking down it actually induces neck forward flexion which turns off your hip extensor muscles! These are the muscles you need to stay upright… so this actually increases your chances of falling. The key is to forward in the direction that you are going. Your eyes always want to be a few steps ahead of your feet so that you can plan and anticipate your route. Be aware of larger rocks, roots or steeper drops and adjust your speed or form accordingly. Disclaimer: this is an extremely technical trail!
3. Select the grade of hill best suited for your level:
If your new to running hills, try to pick a more gradual incline, do not start with the craziest, steepest hill you can find. You can either practice downhill running on a focused hill repeat style run or you can choose a more hilly route. When you are doing hill repeats, there is more impact at one time verses extending them over a longer run where you can give your body a break on flatter sections. Avoid steeper grades if you have experienced pain or discomfort in your joints when previously running hills. You can also choose to run on more forgiving surfaces such as grass, gravel or compact dirt versus concrete.
We would refer to this as a mild grade, it is not very technical. This is a great place to start!
Personally, I find that running on trails is much easier than running on concrete. If you are new to trail running, don’t pick a steep and technical trail, start with a more basic terrain!
4. Start slowly:
If you are new to downhill running or are planning for a more hilly race, start slow. This is the best way to avoid any kind of injury or unnecessary aches and pains. Start with one downhill session every week or every other week (depending on how much previous experience you have). Make sure that before doing another session that you are fully recovered from your last session. Ease into it and increase only as you feel comfortable, this way you will avoid burn out and injuries. If the main race that you are training for is exceptionally hilly, try and mimic sections of the race so your legs are used to switching between flat, up hill and downhill. The key is to not go crazy on the downhill and burn your legs for the rest of the race!