How to improve your downhill running
How to improve your downhill running
with Doug James
Physiotherapist and podiatrist at intraining Running Injury Clinic
Running downhill is the reward for having run (or walked) up a hill. But, as with most things in life, too much of a good thing can be bad. As discussed in the previous article (The Dangers of Downhill Running – insert link), there are certain injuries that can arise from running downhill. Thankfully, there are some simple running form tips and exercises that can help reduce your risk of injury.
If you’ve just started running, or are a seasoned road runner that uses trail running as a bridge between fun run seasons, you’ll need to take time to build strength in your legs and glutes before spending too much time on hilly terrain. Trail running is notably more strenuous on the body and can increase the risk of injury through overuse and acute injuries .
Hills for breakfast, lunch and tea
To adapt your body to be able to run hills, you will need to include at least a couple of training sessions per week that incorporates hilly terrain. If you’re just starting out as a trail runner or transitioning to trail running after a road running season, look for hills that offer a gradual incline and decline and are interspersed with flat sections, or use standing recovery periods. Heading straight out to highly technical or very steep terrain can increase the risk of overuse injuries and set back your progress.
As you become more comfortable with hilly terrain begin to add longer and/or steeper climbs with less recovery time. Over the course of 2-3 months, you should notice improvements in your fitness and strength when running.
Good form should be the norm
There are a few key differences in the way that you run on hills compared to flat ground. When running uphill, your stride length decreases, step rate increases, and work rate (effort) increases proportionally with the steepness on the terrain . Fatigue from increased effort often leads to decreased step rate, so becoming fitter and more experienced in hills can help to improve your ability to run uphill. Consciously trying to keep your step rate high can help improve your technique and speed. You should also aim to look slightly uphill to optimise your body position.
In contrast, downhill running is typically linked to longer stride lengths, lower step rate per minute, and decreased effort – on -1 to -20% negative gradients (though work rate actually increases on very steep downhill sections) [1,3]. Despite the lower work rate, running form is often poorer as greater strength and attention to technique is needed to maintain good form on the descent.
Here’s 3 Downhill Running Form tips:
During hill training sessions, pay particular attention to the following:
Tip #1 Body Position
Aim to lean slightly forward when running uphill and on slight to moderate downhill sections (some backwards lean is necessary on steep declines). Leaning backwards increases braking force leading to an increased likelihood of overstriding which actually causes you to slow down. Try to maintain a full-body forward lean (from head to toe) rather than simply bending forward at the waist. Focus a few metres forward in front of you rather than looking directly down at your feet as this can compromise your body position.
Tip #2 High step rate and short ground contact time
Try to keep your step rate high (at least 170 steps per minute) as this can also help to prevent overstriding. Decreased step rate is linked with a number of overuse injuries. By maintaining a high step rate you’ll be able to move faster over the ground and will generally spend less time with your feet on the ground – another factor linked with higher injury risk (particularly in bone stress injuries). You can monitor your step rate in real-time with some GPS watches with inbuilt cadence sensors. As you fatigue, your step rate is unconsciously lowered which inevitably leads to slower running speed.
Tip #3 Knee position and movement
Try to minimise any inward rotation of your knees when running. This can increase the likelihood of knee pain, and also leads to inefficient movement patterns that increase ground contact time. Excessively bending your knees when absorbing impact can also be problematic. While some flexion (bending) is necessary to absorb the impact of running, too much of it increases strain on knee and Achilles tendons which takes time and energy to correct before transitioning to the next stride.
Get stronger to run for longer
Strength exercises can really help improve your downhill (and any sort of) running. These can be done at any time, and you don’t need to wait for the trail running season to start. When combined with running, strength training can improve running performance, recovery time and strength without adding much bulk or additional weight. Becoming stronger in key areas can help to improve your running form which can enable you to run further with less effort and reduced injury risk.
The main areas to target include your quadriceps (thigh muscles), triceps surae (calf muscles), and gluteals (bottom muscles). Targeting these three groups can be achieved with as few as two exercises. Any good running conditioning program should include squats. This is considered the number one exercise for improving leg strength for runners and can help improve knee health. Squats can be performed with or without weights making it the ultimate exercise to perform anywhere at any time.
Downhill running references
(1) Björklund, G., Swarén, M., Born, D., Stöggl, T. (2019) Biomechanical Adaptations and Performance Indicators in Short Trail Running. Frontiers in Physiology. 10, 506. URL=https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fphys.2019.00506
(2) Franz, J. R., Lyddon, N. E., & Kram, R. (2012). Mechanical work performed by the individual legs during uphill and downhill walking. Journal of Biomechanics, 45(2), 257–262. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbiomech.2011.10.034
(3) Vernillo, G., Giandolini, M., Edwards, W. B., Morin, J.-B., Samozino, P., Horvais, N., & Millet, G. Y. (2017). Biomechanics and Physiology of Uphill and Downhill Running. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 47(4), 615–629. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0605-y