Running downhill seems like it should feel easy after making it up a hill or through a long run – but it can be surprisingly difficult. Runners often struggle to maintain proper form, control their speed, or deal with knee pain when going downhill.
Is downhill running hard on your body?
Despite our expectation, running downhill feels surprisingly hard on the body. The downward angle causes eccentric muscle contractions, which lengthen the muscles rather than shorten them.
Fewer muscle fibers are activated in these contractions, creating greater intensity. This increased intensity has the potential to cause more tears, soreness, and even injuries. Many runners experience knee pain when running downhill, which can be a sign that they need to shorten their stride or adjust their form.
However, just like most other forms of intense exercise, when done properly – it can provide a plethora of benefits.
Benefits of Running Downhill
Although it can certainly be taxing, there are a few benefits of downhill running. Since the muscles contract eccentrically, the activity creates a higher intensity. With proper form, running at the downward angle can help strengthen and stabilize smaller muscles around the ankles and knees, as well as the quads and calves.
Running downhill occasionally throughout training helps add variety to prevent injury and overtraining. Running an overall loss in elevation uses slightly different muscles than running on flat surfaces, promoting well-balanced, well-rounded strength in the legs.
Should you run faster downhill?
A common misconception is that runners should hold back when running downhill. While it’s important to not let yourself get out of control, it is actually beneficial to really lean into gravity and allow it to aid you.
It is natural to run faster downhill, and that is perfectly safe. Continue running with the same effort level as flat land, and let gravity propel you downward. Running down a hill is a great place to get a little boost in speed and potentially shave a few seconds off your mile – just be careful not to let things get out of control.
With the proper technique, running downhill can be very advantageous in your training. The downward motion adds a great deal of variety and can help strengthen runners both mentally and physical.
Running Downhill Technique
In order to avoid injury and stay safe on the downhills, it’s important to run with proper form. In most cases, running form looks the same on flat land as it does running down a hill. However, a few components of form are even more important when running downward.
Here are the key aspects of proper downhill running technique.
- Keep chin up and look ahead
- Take quick, short steps
- Try a slightly faster cadence
- Aim for a midfoot strike
- Lean slightly forward
- Use your arms for balance
- Allow gravity to help
- Land lightly
Unless you run solely on the treadmill or track, you’ll likely find yourself running downhill at some point or another during your training. If you’re planning a great deal of hill workouts, embracing the downhill afterwards will help you increase the benefits of your workouts even further.
5 Tips for Downhill Running
Most races have some sort of hill profile, whether it is minor or a major point of the course. Neighborhoods, trails and roads contain many hills along the way as well, making it even more important to know how to stay safe running down hills.
Try these 5 tips to stay safe and reap the benefits of every hill you encounter.
Start with small slopes
While it may be tempting to start out with a bang, it’s important to allow your body time to adjust as you begin incorporating hills. Start with smaller inclines, looking for a minor elevation grade.
Once your body gets more acclimated, you’ll be able to find steeper hills and gradually include more downhills into your training.
Focus on running form
Proper running form is key to running down hills without getting injured. Focus on maintaining proper posture, while also aiming for short, quick steps. A faster cadence can provide immense benefits on the downhill, and will encourage a light, midfoot landing.
Include strength and plyometrics
Believe it or not, running downhill requires strength. Although it might feel like gravity is doing all the work for you, your muscles are contracting eccentrically, creating greater intensity. To help avoid injury and overuse problems, try incorporating regular strength training.
In addition, plyometric exercises can help the body adapt and respond more efficiently to greater force, intensity and pressure. You’ll strengthen your joints and bones with these types of exercises, helping them become more resilient for downhill running.
Utilize gravity safely
When you run down a hill, it’s okay to let gravity help you along. Let it pull you forward while still maintaining the same effort you’d give on flat land – just be careful to not get out of control. If you feel your body starting to move faster than you feel comfortable, pull back until you regain control.
Aim for variety
Nothing leads to injury more than repetition and lack of variety. Including variety in your surfaces, hill type and elevation grade will help your body build strength and versatility when it comes to hills.
Once you adjust to running hills on a regular basis, try to mix things up. Try a few short steep hills, some longer, more gradual slopes, and even some on the trails. You will become stronger and better from it.
Running downhill might sound like a piece of cake, but losing too much focus could actually become a problem. Staying aware of your form throughout the hill will help you use those downhills to your advantage.
You’ll be able to chop seconds off your finish time, gain full body strength, and improve your training all by including a few downhills on a regular basis.