I remember the unpleasant surprise from my first Boston Marathon: I heard about the uphills—Newton Hill and the notorious “Heartbreak Hill” that arrives around the point most runners are hitting the proverbial wall.
But the hills weren’t what did me in.
No, it was running downhill.
The first several miles of the Boston Marathon have a net elevation loss of about 350 feet. Most runners would assume this is AWESOME! Get out fast! Gain momentum! But, unless you run downhills in your training, this can tear up your legs.
It did mine. Mine were toast.
After the race, I couldn’t go downstairs, sit down, or even traverse a slight incline without clutching onto something beside me for help—for days! My quads were completely trashed.
That’s when I realized something many runners don’t know.
Related: What causes leg cramps
That’s because what goes up must come down. And it can come down HARD.
In this article, I will cover:
- Why Running Downhill Is Hard on Your Body
- How to Correctly Run Downhill
- How to Train for Downhill Running
- Downhill Running Mistakes
Why is Running Downhill Hard?
Running downhill is harder on the body than running uphill for a lot of reasons.
First, a bit of biology. Your muscles contract in two different ways: concentric and eccentric. With concentric contraction, muscles shorten—like when you’re running uphill. With eccentric contraction, they lengthen—like when running downhill.
“When running downhill, the muscle fibers lengthen under tension in order to control your speed on the way down the hill. This leads to an increase in the number of microtears in the muscle fibers,” explains Dr. Todd Buckingham, an exercise physiologist at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital and world champion triathlete.
Eccentric movements also have the potential to take up more energy which can put more strain on your body, adds Nelson Tuffor, lead reviewer at fitness site, cardiozero.com.
Additionally, because running downhill is a form of resistance, it forces your ankle into more plantarflexion with each step. “This puts more loading on the front of your knee which places more eccentric loading on your quads, quad/patella tendon, and anterior tibialis,” explains physical therapist Dr. Joseph Raynor IV of Medicine in Motion. This is one main reason people get knee pain or IT Band syndrome from running downhill.
Running downhill also puts more stress on your ankles, calves and also your back, core and arms. “That’s because they are being used to anchor you rather than push you forward,” notes Doug Liantonio, an FPA certified fitness trainer.
Running downhill also asks more of your feet since they are making ground contact for longer.
“When you run downhill, you tend to splay your toes and activate more foot muscles to utilize its strength and grip. When you run normally, you push off as soon as your foot touches the ground,” says Shaun Toh, physiotherapist and founder of Fhysio.
Related: Foot care for runners
5 Downhill Running Technique Tips
Because you are using different muscle groups in different ways while under increased force, learning to run downhill correctly is crucial to not only personal bests but overall injury prevention. When done properly, it’s a great tool for strengthening your body to run well, no matter the terrain.
It’s easy to learn with practice of these downhill running tips.
#1: Look up.
Keep your eyes about 30 feet down the road and run tall. This is because when you look down at your feet, you are more likely to fall forward.
“Looking at your feet causes the neck to move in a forward flexion which can turn off your hip extensor muscles like the back and hamstring muscles making it more likely you’ll fall,” adds Tuffor.
#2: Lean slightly forward
Lean slightly forward to match the incline of the slope you are running on, in order to keep your center of gravity centered.
“Even though it seems like you might want to lean backward as you run downhill, hinging at the ankles ever so slightly to bring yourself forward with a shorter stride will not only help you move faster down the hill –
– but you can use the middle of your foot to slow yourself down if needed – allowing the pressure to be off your knees when you land,” advises Hannah Daugherty, certified personal trainer and fitness writer.
#3: Take shorter steps
Quicken your running cadence or shorten your steps so that your feet are landing close to the center of gravity beneath your body instead of in front of you.
“The eccentric contraction requires motor control of the quadricep to prevent falling forward too quickly,” explains Lisa, physical therapist at Running With Goldens. Thus, the longer the stride, the more loading that will be placed on your knee and quad, so shortening the stride can minimize this impact.
#4: Keep your arms low
Running with your arms low on the body will give you more balance. Don’t move your arms in the typically forward/back motion.
By keeping them low and at your sides, you add additional stability as you descend.
#5: Run with your feet diagonal
For really sharp declines, run with your feet at an angle. “Although this is a relatively difficult technique to master, once you get a hold of it, you will start to see how incredibly effective your trains will get,” says Tuffor.
How to Train for Downhill Running
The best way to master downhill running is to practice.
This not only allows you to learn the proper techniques but also strengthens your muscles to handle the impact.
Run the down hills
Start with a gradual slope between -2 percent and -5 percent, and then progress to a -10 percent gradient.
“This is to allow your body time to adapt to the increased muscle damage. Once you’re used to the extra stress on your muscles, you can progress to steeper gradients,” says Buckingham.
Buckingham warns against going steeper than 10 percent due to the difficulty to control your body, increasing the risk of injury and falls.
Start slow on soft surfaces
Also, start on soft surfaces like grass or soft dirt which are forgiving on muscles and provide a soft landing if you fall. When you’re comfortable on grass, you can move to road.
Aim to do at least one downhill session per week up to about 20 minutes of effort.
Related: 6 Benefits of Trail Running
Be prepared for discomfort
DOMS itself is not a bad thing and it doesn’t mean you’re injured. But it does show the strain caused by running downhill.
“If a runner notices that the DOMS continues to worsen as they move past 48 hours, that is a sign that their downhill running session was too intense and they will require a more significant rest (10-14) days before repeating a session at a slightly decreased intensity,” notes physical therapist and certified running coach at Underground Endurance, Chris Streeter.
Also, be prepared for it to be difficult.
It will take some time to get used to performing the downhill running techniques. But don’t be discouraged, says Meghan Hicks, managing editor for the running website, IRunFar.com.
“Soon it will start to come naturally. You’ll probably notice that downhill running not only feels better, but that you’re running downhill faster too.”
Strength exercises that use eccentric strengthening movements of the calves, quads, and glutes will also help your downhill running.
“Runners typically aren’t known for lifting weights, but this can be a great tool to add to every runner’s arsenal. Particularly focusing on lifting heavy weights and performing slow, eccentric contractions,” notes Buckingham.
Exercises that are useful to runners training for downhill running include:
- split leg squat
- reverse Nordic curls
- calf raises
Here’s our comprehensive guide to weightlifting for runners.
The key is to do these movements slow, taking up to 5 seconds on the extension, before powering back up.
For example, Buckingham says, “when performing a squat, going down into the squat position extremely slowly and then returning to the upright standing position. This slow, eccentric movement will have similar effects to running downhill.”
Similarly, performing running drills and plyometric exercises is also a great way to induce eccentric muscle damage without having to run downhill.
Some exercises you can do include:
- squat jumps
- alternating split squat jumps
- single leg jumps
- skater hops
- quick feet
“These exercises can be extremely valuable for runners who live in flat areas and may not have access to long hills to run down for training,” says Buckingham.
The 4 Big Downhill Running Mistakes
When learning to run downhill, avoid these downhill running mistakes!
Mistake #1: Do not push your heel into the ground
“You need to make sure to be mindful of your heel and not slam it into the ground. Look down and where you are going NOT at your feet. Lean back when running to help stabilize your body. Quicken your stride and hold your arms back,” advises Liantonio.
Mistake #2: Don’t run down as fast as possible
Going too fast will feel uncontrolled and can cause you to overstride and over-arch your back leading to injury, says Toh. “Keep your feet under your body and avoid leaning forward or backward too much. Stay close to the ground while keeping those steps light.”
Mistake #3: Not changing your running form
Running downhill is not the same as running on a flat surface or uphill.
Your running form needs to change.
“If the correct adjustments are made, you can USE the momentum to your advantage and ‘coast’ to prepare for the approaching level ground or even the next hill,” notes Stonehouse.
Mistake #4: Resisting the hill
Downhills will hurt less if you don’t fight them.
“The excessive resistance (eccentric control) is what’s burning out your quads and causing so much pain,” says Stonehouse.
If you adjust to the terrain, you can use the momentum to your advantage for what’s coming next.
Sounds like a great strategy for the Boston Marathon, any hilly race, and, well, life.