This is because your quads, or the front of your thighs, take the brunt of the load during the descent. This can prove more than many runners are ready for, and falls can cause some runners to lose control of their form, or run faster than they can sustain.
But when done right, running downhill can be “fast and fun,” says Corkum, who recently logged his first sub-three-hour marathon at Mount Charleston, a 5,000-foot-net downhill race. Even if you don’t have a downhill race on your calendar, you’re bound to experience a fall at some point in your run—whether you’re hill training or trail running. Use these tips from Corkum and other experts for a safe, smooth downhill ride
Why is running downhill so hard?
Downhill running takes such a toll on the legs because it involves an eccentric contraction—meaning the quadriceps are lengthening because it’s taking impact. It’s not something many runners train for, says Scott Frowen, CSCS, an athletic trainer at UPMC Sports Medicine. This is why many finish downhill races with more pain than they are used to in the quads.
Going down a hill can also seem intimidating, says Kai Ng, aka Run Coach Kai, a USATF and RRCA certified running coach. This can cause runners to tense up, or adjust their form by leaning back. Others are fooled by how easy running downhill can feel at first and end up losing control and running too fast—which they pay for later.
How to win downhill
Learn proper running form and stick to it
Even runners who practice good form on flat terrain can get knocked out by falls, Kai says—which is why he recommends getting the basics down on the flats before attempting a lot of hilly work. Although downhill running will require a few adjustments, overall, proper running form is proper running form, says Froen. Hills make you drive your knees, stand tall, send your elbows back and make sure to turn your feet quickly.
Relax and let gravity do the work
Especially when racing, many runners are tempted to “hammer” downhill stretches to make up bank or time, Corkum says. It can be a strategic choice for a short race, or the finish of a race, but “when you’re going to destroy the quads,” he says.
In general, Kai recommends an “easy, but not lazy” effort on the downhill, letting gravity do the work of propelling you forward while staying in control of your form. Downhills can also be opportunities to recover from challenging uphills, he says.
Lean forward slightly
It’s natural to fear that you’re going to go downhill, which is why many runners lean back. But Frowen says it’s the equivalent of driving down a hill with your foot on the brake the whole time — when you reach the bottom, your brakes, or in this case your quads, are shot.
Leaning backwards also causes heel strike in runners, which impacts through the knee and hip and puts the lower leg at risk for fractures, Corkum says. Instead, relax on the hill and lean forward slightly, catching yourself with a quick turnover of your foot, which should land midfoot. Support yourself with your core (runners who aren’t used to downhill running can be surprised by soreness afterward, Corkum says) and stand tall with your shoulders back and chest open.
How much you lean will determine how fast you go—Kai suggests trying to maintain a perpendicular relationship with the slope of the hill. Sometimes runners lean too hard, he says, which causes them to lose control and go too fast, and can put too much stress on the ball of the foot, leading to shin splints and knee pain. “The hill doesn’t dictate how fast you go,” he says.
You know where you’re going
Kai says he often has clients who do vertical swings—or little jumps—while running down hills. “I always say: ‘Is the finish line there or is it in front of you?'” he says, not only does it slow you down and waste energy, but it also increases your muscles and the impact of running downhill. Joints “Understand which direction you want to go,” he says.
On the other hand, don’t look down, says Curcum, which can clog your airways. As tempting as it may be, trust that the ground will continue to meet you and look ahead.
Strength training exercises for downhill
There’s no way to improve your downhill form without regularly incorporating downhills into your training, but start slow, suggests Kai, who recommends working on more gradual declines like bridges first. Because downhill running, even when done correctly, can be so taxing on the body, Froen says hills should be a major part of your run at least twice a week.
Strength-training, meanwhile, is always important for runners, especially when preparing for a downhill race—Corkum recommends incorporating strength work two to three times per week. Use these exercises to build strength in the core and quads.
Corkum recommends spending time in the plank because it’s the same spinal position you want to be in when running and can create core stability to support forward lean when going downhill. “Start in a forehead plank, making sure you’re in a good pelvic tilt,” says Korkum. Rock onto the tip of your toes, sending the head forward over the hands and then back, sending the heels back. “Know how the muscles feel when they’re activated,” she says. Continue moving back and forth for 30 to 60 seconds.
Forward and reverse lunges
Korkum suggests forward lunges and back lunges to take the load uphill. Starting in a neutral standing position, take a big step with both knees making a 90-degree angle with the torso straight, then return to your starting position. Next, take the same leg back, coming into a reverse lunge, with both legs bent at 90 degrees, and the back knee under the hip. Alternate directions and move backwards and forwards and progress by adding a weight to each hand. Continue moving back and forth for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.
To strengthen a high-impact quad, try the jump squat: Start standing with feet hip-width apart, lower into a squat position, keep your knees behind your toes and your torso straight. Jump into the air by pushing down with both legs, extend both legs straight and swing straight arms behind you. Land softly in your squat with bent knees. Continue for 30 to 60 seconds.