Adventures in Running Downhill

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Many people underestimate how running downhill can zap their muscle strength leading to things like cramping, heavy legs, sore feet, blisters, lost toenails and post-race soreness.

At my last marathon, The Deseret News Classic Marathon in Salt Lake City, about sixteen miles of the course was downhill. I can honestly say I have not been this sore since my first marathon six years ago.

In this podcast/blogpost I want to show you why running downhill is so hard on your body and how you can prepare for this challenge better than I did.

One reason why running downhill is so difficult is that it requires the muscles to lengthen causing microscopic tears in the muscle fibers. It also generates more force than when you’re running flat or up hill. You may also underestimate your pace and the faster you move the harder your foot strikes the ground resulting in more pounding.

According to Irene Davis, Ph,D, director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware, the body absorbs a bigger impact with each foot strike leaving you at risk of ITBS and other injuries. It’s also easy to over-stride which will make you land harder, wear your muscles out more quickly and possibly lead to other injuries. The quad muscles as well as tendons and ligaments in the ankles, knees, hips and lower back can take a beating.

I think the only muscles that weren’t sore after this marathon were my glutes and hamstrings. Most runners know that they should run hills for strength and speed gains. There’s also evidence that running downhill can improve speed and foot turnover. The key is to incorporate them into your training before a big event. That way you’ll tolerate downhill running better and recover more quickly. So here are some tips for training on down hills to run your next downhill marathon wisely.

Tips For Down Hill Training

  1. Prepare your body– Develop good core strength before and during your marathon training. One of the best exercises to strengthen your core are planks. Specific exercises to prepare the legs are also important. Things like lunges, squats and plyometric work will help you prepare for the pounding.

  2. Evaluate your shoes– For a downhill half or full marathon you might want a shoe with more forefoot cushioning to offset the impact. Also make sure that your shoe isn’t too small so that your toes aren’t slamming into the front of your shoe. Trim your toenails carefully and make sure they aren’t too long. Wear comfortable socks that don’t have an annoying toe seam (because your foot slides forward in your shoe it will become annoying quickly).

  3. Start gradually– It’s probably best not to start your downhill training with a downhill marathon. Instead start with a short, gradual slope with 2-3% grade and move on to steeper, longer descents when you’ve mastered the easier ones. It’s also best to start with softer surfaces like grass or dirt before tackling roads. Approximately half of your long runs should be done on a course that mimics your key race.

  4. Watch your running form– It’s natural to want to lean back and use a braking motion while running downhill. To correct this and the tendency to over-stride be sure to lean slightly down hill, shorten your stride, focus on quick foot turnover, land lightly and keep your shoulders, hips and feet aligned. Work on stepping down for your next step instead of stepping out which will also help decrease over-striding. Joe McConkey of the Boston Running Center says that it should feel almost like controlled falling to allow for more natural foot placement while keeping forward momentum. Form is more important than speed at first.

  5. Practice your pace– Train so that you know what your goal race pace feels like on down-hills, flat terrain and up hills. This will help you keep an even pace throughout the race. Because running downhill isn’t as hard aerobically you’ll need to avoid the natural inclination to go “all out” trying to bank time for later. While training your best bet is to simulate the race course that you’ll be running.

  6. Specific downhill workouts– Because your body adapts to the usual training you do it’s important to give it a challenge occasionally. Running uphill will strengthen the back part of your leg (hamstrings, glutes, calves, plantar fascia) while running downhill will work on the front part for balanced strength. Here are some specific downhill workouts that you can implement. Be sure to warm up by running easy on flat ground for 10 minutes before attempting any of these workouts:

    • Four by Fours– Run 4 min downhill slightly faster than goal race pace, then run 4 min flat, either jog slowly or walk up the hill and repeat the sequence of 4 min down, 4 min flat, walk/jog uphill 4-6 times.
    • Hill Repeats– Run uphill for 60-120 seconds, run easy for 30 seconds, run downhill for 60-90 seconds at race pace, run 60 seconds on flat ground at race pace; repeat sequence 3-6 times.
    • Up and Down– Run a gradual downhill for 2 miles at race pace, run 2 miles uphill at steady pace (take walk breaks as needed), run downhill for 2 mile at race pace, finish with easy 1 mile on flat terrain. You can also run this type of workout on a hilly route like the ones I run when I visit my sisters in PA.

  7. Recover Right– Treat downhill training like a hard workout. Use a recovery drink or easily digestible carb/protein combination in the first 60 min. Take an ice bath within the first 3 hours and slip on some compression socks. For DOMS consider a warm Epson salt bath. Be sure to move around and avoid taking long trips requiring lots of sitting if you can help it. Take 2-3 days for easy running or light cross training. Don’t do any downhill training in the two weeks before a key race.


3 Responses to Adventures in Running Downhill

  1. Angie August 13, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

    Have you ever done a race with lots of down hill sections?

  2. Tom Porter August 14, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    I ran Boston last year for the first time and I found the most punishing part of the course was the first 6 miles which were down hill. The first mile was especially steep. This down hill portion made my thighs sore for the rest of the run even though I tried not to go out too fast. Following your hill training advice would be very appropriate for Boston. The Georgia marathon in Atlanta was the hilliest course I have ever run. Don’t expect a PR for that marathon but it was a pretty urban course.

    • Angie August 20, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

      I never thought about Boston being a course with down hills (everyone mainly focuses on Heartbreak Hill). I’ve heard that Atlanta has lots of hills! I need to put a hilly race on the calendar to give me the motivation to do more hill training 🙂

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