Damaging muscle fibers with eccentric contractions makes them heal back stronger, protecting them from future damage.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiologyin 1985 found that just a single 30-minute run downhill at 10 percent grade had a prophylactic effect on muscle damage and soreness for up to six weeks.
Therefore, while you can expect your muscles to be sore after the first time running downhill, subsequent downhill workouts will cause less soreness.
Add downhills to your training a little at a time.
Start with a short, gradual slope of about two to three percent grade, and progress to steeper and longer descents.
Treat downhill workouts as hard sessions, and make sure you recover before your next hard workout since your legs need recovery from the stress of going downhill, just like they do from any hard workout.
Time has the greatest effect on healing your muscle fibers from the eccentric contractions of downhill running.
So make sure you back off of the hills in the final few weeks before a race.
One thing to be aware of when training downhill is your mechanics, since it’s easy to overstride when running downhill.
Instead of focusing on reaching forward for a longer stride — which already happens from the pull of gravity — emphasize a quicker leg turnover, which will keep your momentum going forward.
Running on trails requires even greater caution, since you won’t have as much time to decide where to place your feet with the faster speeds attained on the downhill portions.
So look ahead a few steps so you can prepare since the footing on trails is often unreliable.
Downhill Running Tips
Switch off your brain
Runners worry about falling, slipping and hurting themselves, which is understandable. However, to think like this will only slow you down.
It’s not easy, but what you have to do is, at the top of the hill, switch off your brain and let your legs take control.
The less your brain is working, the better. Empty it of fear and you will run downhill faster.
Because it has less time to think about things, my brain switches to no-fear mode much easier when I’m racing.
So, when training downhill I often pretend that I’m racing, tricking the mind!
Keep strides long
The most common mistake runners make -and I’m guilty of doing so myself when tired -is shortening their stride.
Longer strides equal faster downhill running. I practice downhill running a lot and the focus is always on maintaining a longer stride.
It takes time and a degree of bravery to improve your downhill running but the end benefits are huge.
Whenever you can, especially on gradual downhill, lean forwards.
This will lengthen your stride and ensure your brakes remain switched off. On steeper descents, I try to lean forward but tiredness can mean I lean back slightly.
This does in turn give you a little more control in your downhill running but you won’t go as fast.
Adapt your technique to the terrain
Be ready to adapt your technique to the different terrains you encounter on a downhill.
Loose rock and scree can often work with you as it moves forward under your feet -just ride it!
Wet rock is the most difficult to negotiate -the less time your feet are in contact wet rock, the better, so stay light-footed and springy.
When running downhill through mud, dig your heels in a bit more.
For complete downhill races:
- 4 x ½ mile downhill (2-3% grade) at 5K race pace effort
- 3 x 1 mile downhill (2-3% grade) at 10K race pace effort
- 5 x 100 to 200 meters downhill (6-8% grade) at 5K race pace effort with walk back up hill as recovery
For races with both downhill and uphill:
- 4 sets of 1 mile downhill (2-3% grade) at tempo pace effort (comfortably hard) + ¼ mile uphill at 5K race pace effort
- 4 sets of ½ mile uphill + ½ mile downhill (2-3% grade) at 5K race pace effort with 3 minutes recovery
Is Running Downhill Bad on Your Knees?
If you are like many runners, you have probably been told not to run downhill because, “running downhill will hurt your knees.” Contrary to this myth, running downhill is not “bad” for your knees.
In fact, your knees need to run downhill in order to get stronger. Running downhill will also help increase your speed and improve your running form.
The key to running downhill is to do it correctly, otherwise you could potentially hurt your knees or back.
Downhill Improves Turnover
Running downhill improves your turnover, which improves your speed.
If you run cross country and/or run trail races, you will need the ability to accelerate and decelerate quickly. This is also true if you are a sprinter.
Running downhill will help you to achieve this quickness, because you will naturally move your feet more quickly when you are going downhill and you will get used to taking more strides per minute.
You should aim for approximately 180 strides per minute, which will give you maximum running efficiency.
Downhill Strengthens Muscles
Running downhill can strengthen your stabilizer muscles, which will help your downhill form as well as your general running form. Running downhill will especially strengthen your quadriceps.
This will make you faster and improve your “running economy” whether you are running downhill or on flat surface.
When you have weak quadriceps, it is more difficult to take more strides and longer strides (which is what makes you faster).
Performing strides or running downhill increases the neuro-muscular connection between your brain and body (also known as proprioception) which will add to your speed as well.
It is true that if you run downhill incorrectly, you will probably hurt your knees. When you are running downhill, don’t lean back.
Even though it goes against your natural reflexes, lean slightly forward. Your body should be centered over your knees.
Your midfoot (not heel) should strike the ground first.
If you are making a stomping sound, like a herd of elephants, you are probably running downhill incorrectly.
It is also true that if you run downhill every single day, you will probably hurt your knees.
Your muscles need time to repair and rebuild. You need to vary your running exercises and surfaces to achieve the best results.
In most cases, you should warm-up before you start running downhill, just like you would before any other speed work out.
Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes by running at an easy pace on a flat surface.
Depending on whether you are doing an actual workout by running downhill or if you are just running downhill, you might also include some strides.
Warming up properly will prevent injury to your knees from running downhill.