Running downhill may seem easier, but is it? Downhill running has a lot of logistics that a runner needs to know.
Keeping these important things in mind will help the runner to make the most of the downhill portions of a race, as well as staying injury-free.
Of course, there are different types of downhill runs and they all are unique. On a typical road race, a person might experience some normal “ups and downs.” Slight elevation variations are expected and do not tend to cause problems for runners.
However, some runners live in areas that are basically flat. These runners need to find places for hill training, both to practice the ups and downs of running.
Commercial treadmills have elevation settings to replicate both up and downhill running, which is useful for people who reside in flat areas.
The long and short of it is that heading into a race without both practice and techniques can be disastrous.
Downhill Running Techniques
Most runners focus on the uphill because it’s difficult. From a cardiovascular perspective, certainly downhill running is easy. However, if runners neglect to run carefully downhill, problems may occur.
Focus shortly in front of feet (10-15 feet) on a downhill. The recommended way to achieve this is to pretend there is a softball under your chin (between your chin and chest). This visualization keeps the runner from looking too far down or ahead.
It is also important to keep your body upright, or slightly forward. Think to align your torso above your body, or slightly ahead of it. Shortening your stride slightly will also help you to keep control as you move down the hill.
A forefoot or midfoot strike will help prevent you from the “brakes” of a heel strike, which may happen on a quick, downhill descent.
Having said that, some exercise specialists recommend varying the foot strike on long descents to switch up the impact load. That means that striking on different areas of the foot, at different angles, engages different muscles in different ways, thus preventing injury.
Engaging your core is essential for all runners, but crucial on downhill runs. Engaging these muscles to keep the runner stable which is particularly important when moving fast on a downhill and control is so important.
“Hips open” is often heard by coaches yelling to runners as they descend. But what exactly does that mean? If runners think about opening up the stride “side to side,” it’s not so much actually opening up the hips as a stability tactics.
To make sense of this, visualize a table. A high table with skinny legs close together is less stable than a table where the legs are spread further apart. The same concept is true of a runner flying down a hill.
Why Is Technique More Important?
Knee pain is common from downhill running because your quads are trying to slam on the brakes as you careen out of control. This illustrates the importance of control while descending.
Downhill running also tends to beat up your quads. There are actually things you can do besides practicing downhills to condition the quads. Here is where spending time in the weight room on squats, lunges and leg presses is important.
A lack of control also puts the ankles of the runner in danger of injury.
Trails: A New Dynamic
Descending a trail hill is slightly different in that the runner always needs to be watching footing that is yet to come. You never know what you might encounter on a trail. There are roots, fallen trees, branches, rocks, and other obstacles.
While running on a road, you might feel more comfortable running fast and furious. On a trail, however, there is more temptation to keep the brakes on, at least to a certain extent.
Increasing in popularity, race directors are advertising downhill races that promise participants an “easy opportunity” to reach a personal record or PR. Potential participants should be cautioned that this type of race is hard on the body and should proceed with caution.
Signing up for, and participating in, a downhill race without preparing can be dangerous and foolhardy.
How To Prepare
As mentioned before, quality treadmills for running are likely to have settings to replicate uphill and downhill running. Too many people take uphill running seriously, practicing hammering up the hill time after time. If you work the uphill but fail to give the downhill the proper respect, injury can occur.
Additionally, it’s one thing to prepare for a race with a few significant descends. However, some of these races have a steady descent the entire race. This can be hard on a body if the runner is not adequately prepared.
✓ Soft Ground
Many coaches preach the benefits of practicing hills on soft ground. The impact of pounding downhills can be hard on the body.
Running on soft ground such as dirt or grass can help alleviate that as the runner acclimates to the up and down.
✓ Hill Repeats
Hill repeats are just what they sound like: repeatedly running up a hill. The thing is, many people think working the ascent is important and neglect the down. As any coach will tell you, both are equally important.
In a quality hill workout, the runner will first get to a hill, do a set number of repeats working the “up” and “down” with equal focus and intensity, then run back.
A favored workout among many athletes is to use the miles getting to the hill as a warm-up, do the hill repeats, increasing the number of repeats as you get stronger, then race the distance back trying to get faster each time.
✓ Rolling Hills
Training on rolling hills builds strength and acclimates the athlete to run well in hilly situations. If there are no rolling hills nearby, it is worth traveling to a place where such hills exist.
Some athletes find this type of terrain at a local park and run the same loop repeatedly in order to experience the much-needed hills in order to prepare. Sound boring? Rather be bored than ill-prepared.
In the End…
In the end, running downhill does not have to be intimidating. With careful conditioning, preparation, focus, technique, proper running shoes and good trail running socks, downhill running can be fun and exhilarating.