I’ve found the perfect marathon, it’s all downhill!!!
Me: Ummm that might not be a great idea.
What?! It’s super fast and so easy that way!
Me: I know it should be easier, but I’m telling you the knees and quads don’t always agree.
A conversation I’ve been having on repeat lately with folks like my husband finding some amazing marathons that indeed are largely nothing but massively downhill. It seems like a dream come true, right?
Until you’ve spent some time on steep hills and realize downhills require specific training.Living in Florida for 8 years, I felt hill deprived. Now living in Colorado, I spend a lot of time wondering if flat ground exists!
But the best thing about hills is that they allow you to engage different muscles, which can help with strength and fatigue. I wrote an entire article on how to do the uphill the right way, so today the focus is purely on the downhill, why it’s so hard and what you can do to save your knees and quads.
Why Downhill is Hard on the Body?
While downhill seems like it should be the easy part, it’s often the most painful for many runners because it creates more pressure on the knees and legs with a continuous breaking effect.
But let’s be clear, just as running in general doesn’t ruin your knees, running downhill won’t create injuries either. You simply need to build up the right knee strength if you’ll be doing a long downhill race or to enjoy the most of flying down a hill you’ve worked so hard to climb. A few reasons it can feel so hard:
- Natural tendency to lean back results in slamming the ground with your heel
- The body thinks that’s a break signal and tenses all the muscles to slow you down
- Running downhill for a long period requires different muscle control that flats, uphills or rolling hills
- When running uphill our knees are bent and we naturally lean forward
- Running downhill results in more ground force, in other words landing harder
- Inhibited range of motion in your hips can create strain as your legs need to lengthen out
Training for Downhill Running
One of the keys, as with all things running, is trying to mimic the race course. Can you have someone drop you off on a path that is largely downhill? It’s hard to find paths that are long enough and entirely downhill, but you can.
Don’t make every run downhill, but try to include at least 1 steep long downhill run each week in training. Start out with just 2 miles being downhill and gauge any unusual soreness after the run. You might find more DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness) than from regular runs, which will result in muscular gains and a reminder that you need to train specifically for hills..
Use that run to practice thinking about the following form tips.
The most important thing about your stride is to stay focused on forefoot landing. As soon as you land with your heel it creates a brake effect, which jars the entire body. On flat ground you aim for midfoot, but that’s much harder going downhill, so instead think about landing on the ball of your foot instead of the heel.
Experts vary here and some say by striding out you’ll be less likely to heel strike, others say the shorter stride and faster turnover will get you there. The goal in both is the above mentioned heel strike prevention, so play with it and see what feels best.
Still think about landing on the mid to forefoot and not pounding in to the ground. If you’re feet are slapping the ground so loud you can hear them over your music, it’s time to focus on thinking words like “light and easy“.
Keep your arms lower, 90 degree bend, and swing a little faster. Your legs will usually follow the pace of your arms, so allow things to flow, instead of slowing yourself.
Gravity is going to do the work here, so try to take a breather by relaxing and letting it flow.
No hills available?
Don’t think you can just skip downhill training, it will hurt you on race day! A few options
- plyo drills that focus on the down movement. i.e jumping down off boxes
- running down stadium stairs
- finding a treadmill with a decline option (love mine)
- scare your family by getting this crazy contraption
I found this one exercise hugely valuable in building knee strength to keep you feeling good on the downhills. It’s super simple to add in to your routine once a week, building up to a minute each time.
While it seems to go against all logic that downhills could leave the body feeling more abused than uphills, I’ve seen it time and time again in myself and friends.
FINAL HIPS REMINDER
And though you’re tired of hearing me say it…do all the hip strengthening exercises!!! Stronger hips mean better running form, better mobility and thus always happier knees.
Have you ever done a totally downhill race?
Love or hate hills?
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