As runners, we’ve all asked ourselves the same question… What is the most efficient way to run downhill without injuring yourself?

The first several miles of the Boston Marathon has a net elevation loss of about 350 feet. The Comrades Marathon has a steep 4km downhill that snakes its way down into Drummond.

Most runners will have a big cheesy smile on their faces while reading the above…

These are just two of many examples of big downhills in popular races, the truth is… 

A lot of runners don’t realize that running downhill is harder on the body than running uphill.

If you’re looking to find out the most efficient way to run downhill… If there are things you can do to minimize the damage you do on the hills… Here’s our advice…

Running Downhill Safely

As we mentioned, there are quite a few downhill runs around the world. So really, the best way and most efficient way to run downhill is to try and avoid the excessive impact that does come with that run.

The two ways to avoid the excessive impact of down hills…

  1. Try and get your center of mass as close to under your body as possible. 

The way we do that is to lean slightly forward and that then stops you from crashing your heel first into the ground, which then causes a very high eccentric load.

  1. The other way is to increase your cadence when you’re going downhill. 

So in other words, the focus then becomes on spending a little less time with the actual foot in contact with the ground. By increasing that cadence, and by moving slightly over that center of mass, you then have a much lower impact forcing less damage on your quads.

Cadence: The total number of steps you take per minute.

Of course, you do need to be mindful that the idea isn’t to lean forward and then let your wheel spin out of control and sprint down each hill. 

You need to be thinking: Light of my feet… slight forward lean…and high cadence.

The Most Efficient Way To Run Downhill

Alleviate pressure, don’t lean back running downhill!

Our bodies will try to find the most economically efficient way for us to get down the hill.

In terms of those impact forces and the discomfort that you’re feeling from those impact forces. One of the things that you can do to alleviate that pressure is to not lean back on the hill. Which is what we tend to do instinctively unless we’re running fast.

If you’re running fast, you always lean forward, whether you’re going uphill or downhill. 

To run downhill efficiently you should lean slightly forward and then make a conscious effort to keep as little contact between your foot with the ground as possible. That would then automatically increase your cadence.

In terms of downhill running, we’re talking about a very short-term change in manipulation. It’s designed not to make you run more efficiently downhill but it is to reduce the actual impact forces.

The Trick To Running Downhill

If we minimize the amount of time we spend on the ground, that means that the ground reaction force will act over a much shorter period of time. Which in theory should then reduce the impact on your quads.

The trick to downhill running is not to let yourself spin out of control so that you’re running downhill at three minutes per kilometer, this is when you’re going to damage your quads and on top of that, you’ll burn a massive amount of energy.

Preparing Your Body For a Downhill Run

There are two major things that you can do to prepare your body for a downhill run…

  1. The first is to strengthen your quads and glutes.

You need to head to the gym and do some strength work to make yourself stronger or do some strength training at home consistently.

Then you can run down hills, and you can even do downhill repeats.

Just remember to be cautious because the higher the eccentric load, the higher your risk for injury and the higher requirement for more recovery time.

Here at Coach Parry, we’re massive advocates of strength training. We’ve put together this free strength training plan for runners that you can do once a week, at home and with no expensive equipment needed.  You can access it by clicking here

It’s important to know that if downhill running is something you plan to do over a long period of time then there is a higher risk of you getting injured.

  1. Start with quite a low volume.

It would be beneficial to find a stretch of road that’s not too steep of a downhill, where you can do some solid… not flat-out repeats down that hill… and then SLOWLY build up.

You just need to start with some shorter, much lower-volume repeats. 

For example, you could start with one minute and do three or four of those a session, and then over 12 weeks, you can build that up to maybe 6-8 three to four-minute repeats.

By doing this you will become a lot more fatigue resistant for actual races and your running performance will improve.

How To Race A Downhill Marathon

It’s obvious… Yes, you are going to be fast in a downhill marathon. 

The degree to which you are faster can really allow you into a false sense of how easy it is. 

This is because the downhill pushes up the eccentric load or the pounding forces that go through your muscles. Invariably, most races don’t go downhill right from the start to the finish. There’s almost always a section, normally around six miles long that requires you to be able to run when you actually physically get down to the bottom. 

If you really overextend that eccentric load, you will get to around the 15-mile or 25-kilometer mark, and your running will get increasingly more difficult. So pacing is key!

You’re going to be faster, but you need to work hard. 

In the end, you are aiming to be between five and eight minutes quicker than you probably should have or could have run on a standard course. 

To prepare for the race… If you are an elite to a sub-elite- a very fast runner, then the reward from doing some downhill work might be worth it. 

If you’re not in that category of runner, the reward that you get from physically training downhills, in other words, doing speed work on a slight descent is not worth the risk of injuries in particular your glute and hamstring tendons. 

Again, we can’t emphasize this enough… Make sure you are doing strength training. 

That strength training should include some eccentric work such as eccentric step-ups or tempo squats.

Downhill Running Recovery

Most people don’t think so but after running a downhill marathon… Your body is seriously going to feel it.

You’re going to need more recovery time than usual and if you get the pacing wrong then you’re going to require even more recovery time. 

If your pain peaks at two days, you’ve probably done just about the right amount of damage. If your pain peaks at three or four days, then you got it wrong because, in scenario one, you’ll be able to jog fairly comfortably by the weekend. In scenario two, it could be u14 days before you’re running truly pain-free.

Strength Training For Downhill Running

Strength training will make an enormous difference in terms of preparing your muscles for the eccentric loading that comes with running downhill.

The impact forces that you experience during running are unique to running and don’t take place in any other sports. This is why there is a significant amount of damage done and why the stiffness is so prevalent.

Strength training is really REALLY a good idea. Your focus areas need to be your quads and your glutes.

Your glutes, because they are going to be providing stability while you’re hammering down the hill, and the quads because your quads play the biggest role in the shock absorption when you’re running downhill. 

The three staple exercises that I like to do are single-leg squats, single-leg presses, and step-ups onto a hard bench. Later on, you can start incorporating things like lunges and more complicated movements.

If you really stick to those three core exercises and then throw in a couple around them, it will go a long way to help prepare your legs for downhill running.

If strength training is what you’re after, grab a free-running strength plan here.

Don’t Do These Things While Running Downhill

  1. Don’t lean back while running.
  2. Don’t push your heels into the ground.
  3. Don’t run as fast as possible.
  4. Don’t resist the hill. (Downhills will hurt a lot less if you embrace them)

Devlin Eyden has a passion for seeing his athletes grow and excel. From novice runners or cyclists across all disciplines to elite mountain bikers representing South Africa at World Championships. In addition to helping you ride faster, for longer, Devlin also has the personal touch when it comes to your bike setup, aiming at improving the overall rider experience. With his background as a Sport Scientist as well as a Strength & Conditioning specialist, performance is Devlin’s main priority, be it in the gym, the lab or out on the road or trails. Being a keen runner & cyclist and having completed the Cape Epic among others, Devlin has first hand experience in what it take to reach your goals. If you’re looking for a once-off training program or ongoing, high touch support Devlin has you covered.

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