How to make running downhill easier

meIf you know anything about the Boston Marathon, you’ve probably heard of Heartbreak Hill, the steep half-mile incline that stretches 20 miles into the historic course. What tends to attract less attention? The steady descent for the first 17 miles of the race, losing nearly 500 feet in elevation. “Everyone is afraid of the hill, but a lot of runners don’t think about how to prepare to run downhill,” says Elizabeth Corkum, aka Coach Corky, a personal trainer and running coach based in New York City. “A lot of runners hit the hills and find they’ve been shot in the quads.”

That’s because your quads, or the front of your thighs, take the brunt of the load while running downhill. It may turn out to be more than many runners are prepared for, and the decline may cause some runners to lose control of their form or run faster than they are capable of sustaining.

But if 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-net-foot downhill run. Even if there aren’t any downhill races on his schedule, chances are he’ll encounter descents at some point in his career, whether he’s working out on hills or running trails. Use these tips from Corkum and other experts to run downhill safer and smoother.

Why is running downhill so fucking hard?

Downhill running takes a heavy toll on your legs because it involves an eccentric contraction, which means the quadriceps lengthen as they take impact. It’s not something many runners train for, says Scott Frowen, CSCS, athletic trainer with UPMC Sports Medicine. That’s why so many finish downhill runs with a lot more soreness in their quads than they were used to.

Going down a hill can be scary, too, says Kai Ng, aka Run Coach Kai, a USATF and RRCA-certified running coach. This can cause runners to tighten up or adjust their shape by leaning back. Others are fooled by how easy running downhill can seem at first and end up losing control and running too fast, which they then pay for.

How to conquer relegation

Learn proper running form and stick to it

Even runners who practice good form on the flat can be put off by descents, Kai says, so he recommends learning the basics on the flat before attempting much uphill work. Although downhill running will require some adjustments, in general, proper running form is proper running form, says Frowen. Don’t let hills make you forget to move your knees, stand tall, drive your elbows back, and rotate your feet quickly.

Relax and let gravity do the work.

Especially when running, many runners are tempted to “hammer” downhill stretches to rack up or make up time, says Corkum. That might be a strategic choice for a sprint or the end of a race, but “that’s when you’re going to destroy the quads,” he says.

In general, Kai recommends an “easy, but not lazy” effort on the descents, keeping control of your form while allowing gravity to do the work of pulling you forward. Descents can also be an opportunity to recover from challenging climbs, he says.

lean forward slightly

It’s natural to be afraid of falling down the hill, which is why many runners lean backwards. But Frowen says this is equivalent to driving down a mountain with your foot on the brake all the time: when you hit the bottom, your brakes, or in this case your quads, will be shot.

Leaning back also causes runners to heel strike, which sends shock through the knees and hips, and risks fracturing the bottom of the foot, says Corkum. Instead, relax into the hill and lean forward slightly, catching yourself with the quick spin of your feet, which should land midfoot. Brace yourself with your core (runners unaccustomed to downhills may be surprised to have abdominal pain afterwards, Corkum says) and stand tall with your shoulders back and your chest open.

How far you incline will determine how fast you go – Kai suggests trying to maintain a perpendicular relationship to the incline of the hill. Runners sometimes lean too far, he says, causing them to lose control and go too fast, and they can put too much pressure on the balls of their feet, leading to shin splints and sore knees. “The hill doesn’t dictate how fast you go,” he says.

know where you’re going

Kai says he often has clients swing vertically, or jump slightly, as they run downhill. “I always say, ‘Is the finish line up there or is it in front of you?'” he says, adding that this not only slows you down and wastes energy, it multiplies the impact of running downhill on your muscles and joints. “Understand which direction you want to go,” he says.

On the other hand, don’t look down, says Corkum, which can close off your airway. As tempting as it may be, trust that the ground will be there to meet you and look ahead.

Strength training exercises for descents

There’s no way to improve your downhill running form without regularly incorporating downhills into your training, but start slow, suggests Kai, who recommends working on more gradual descents, like bridges, at first. Since running downhill, even when done correctly, can be very taxing on the body, Frowen says hills should only be a major part of your run twice a week at most.

Meanwhile, strength training, always important for runners, is especially key when preparing to run downhill: Corkum recommends incorporating strength work two to three times a week. Use these exercises to build core and quad strength.

plank rocks

Corkum recommends spending time on the board, as it’s the same spinal position you want to be in when running, and it can develop core stability to support leaning forward when going downhill. He starts on a forearm plank, “making sure you have a good pelvic tilt,” says Corkum. He rock forward on the balls of his toes, sending his head forward over his hands and then back, sending his heels back. “Learn what those muscles feel like when they’re activated,” she says. She continues to move back and forth for 30 to 60 seconds.

Lunges forward and backward

To prepare your quads to take the load of downhill running, Corkum suggests forward and backward lunges. Starting in a neutral standing position, he takes a big step forward, creating a 90-degree angle at both knees and keeping his torso upright, then step back to his starting position. He then steps back with the same foot, coming into a reverse lunge, both legs bent at 90 degrees and the rear knee under the hip. Alternate sides and step back and forth, and move forward by adding a weight to each hand. Keep moving back and forth for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.

jump squats

For a higher-impact quad strengthener, try jump squats: Start standing with your feet hip-width apart, lower into a squat position, keeping your knees behind your toes and your torso upright. Push down with both feet to jump into the air, extending both legs and swinging your arms straight behind you. Land softly with your knees bent into your squat. Continue for 30 to 60 seconds.

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