Why You Should Be Training for Downhill Running – Not Just Uphill
Busy prepping for a race? If it’s that an undulating course that means you’ve got to train on hills. But that doesn’t just mean cranking the treadmill incline up or charging up hill repeats outdoors. You also have to focus on strategic downhill running.
According to a recent poll, RW readers listed the following as some of the SA races which include an infamous downhill: Knsyna Forest Marathon, Sani Stagger Half Marathon, Cango Caves Marathon, Buffs Marathon, Kaapse Hoop Marathon, Sunrise Monster.
Sure, once you’ve done the work of getting up a hill, running downhill can feel like coasting. But bombing down isn’t actually the most efficient strategy in the beginning or middle or a race. Extended downhill running can do a number on your body, which is why it’s just important to prepare your body for a decline just as you would for an incline.
What Is Downhill Training?
This isn’t a trick question: It literally just means training to run efficiently downhill. With downhill training, “you’re spending time focusing on your technique and approach to running downhill,” says Thomas Watson, a UESCA-certified running coach and founder of the Marathon Handbook.
Downhill running actually looks different than running uphill or on a flat route. “On a downhill, you should be leaning forward from the hips,” says Meghan Kennihan, a USATF- and RRCA-certified running coach. “It sounds counterintuitive because you want to lean back—but don’t. Gravity will pull you down the hill; just focus on keeping your body perpendicular to the ground and use your arms for balance.”
You should also be taking “faster steps, making your stride shorter than normal so that it never feels like your feet are getting away from you,” explains Watson. “This helps you control your descent, and the shorter strides mean you’re not over-extending or stressing your muscles.”
Those kinds of form and technique adjustments take body awareness and practice, which is where the training comes in.
Why You Should Downhill Train
Any time the grade of the ground you’re running on changes, how it affects your body—especially your legs—changes, too. During your gait cycle, when your feet hit the ground, your quadriceps and calves eccentrically contract (or lengthen) and then rapidly concentrically contract (or shorten) to drive you forward.
On an uphill, your quads don’t stretch as much. But on a downhill, “these muscles have to elongate in order to manage your speed and prevent uncontrolled descent,” explains Watson. And when you’re landing with your knee almost straight, “the tension of the eccentric contraction basically pulls the muscle fibres apart, causing micro-tears,” adds Kennihan. This is why your quads take a beating on the downhills and feel sore after the run.
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Running downhill still takes less energy than running uphill in the moment (obviously), but the aftermath of descending actually costs more energy in terms muscle repair. That’s why you might experience tired, heavy legs and even DOMS after a downhill workout—definitely not an ideal situation mid-race.
BTW: Even if you’re not preparing for a downhill running event, downhill training can make you a faster and more economical runner on the flats. “The way downhill running engages your leg muscles differently than regular running is similar to performing leg extensions in the gym, where you use upper leg strength to gradually lower a load,” says Watson. That kind of workout strengthens key muscles that also come into play on a flat route, and those stronger muscles will deliver more power, making you more economical and faster.
“Even just one downhill workout a week will allow your body to adapt to the stresses of those eccentric contractions and teach your body more efficient muscle recruitment, which will cause less connective tissue and muscle damage,” says Kennihan. Start slowly with an easy gradient until you build up confidence, then gradually take it steeper, varying your workouts with steep plunges and gentle rollers.
Try These Downhill Running Workouts
Constant Pace Hill Repeats
Find a 400-metre hill with a 6 to 8% gradient.
- 5-minute warm-up
- Start running up and down the 400m hill, keeping your pace as steady as possible (if you are struggling to keep up the pace, dial things back by walking one of the uphill sections)
- Repeat 4 times total (4x up, 4x down)
- On subsequent workouts, increase the number of repeats
- 5-minute easy cool-down
Find a running route that has a mixture of terrain, including a few 200- to 400-metre slopes at a 3 to 6% gradient.
- 5-minute warm-up on flat terrain at 4 or 5 effort out of 10
- Pick up the pace for a 200-400-metr downhill, increasing effort to between a 7 and 9 out of 10
- Recover for 2 to 3 minutes at an easy pace
- Repeat the downhills 6 to 8 times
- 5-minute cool-down
Downhill Speed Intervals
Find a hill with a 3 to 5% gradient.
- 15-minute or 2km warmup
- Run 400m uphill at easy, conversational pace
- Run 400m downhill at 5K pace
- 3-minute recovery
- Repeat 4 times
- 10-minute or 1.5km cooldown
This article originally appeared on runnersworld.com