Race courses are designed to set a challenge for runners whether it be about distance, terrain, or speed. When runners are searching for a “fast” course, most often the race and its course are advertised as flat, with little to no elevation, and an overall greater net descent. Meaning the course provides more downhills that allow for people to reach and achieve personal records. This sounds ideal, of course, as running downhill is easier, from the viewpoint of energy expenditure, it would require less energy. However, unfortunately for the muscles, they would take on more work effort or stress. Therefore, it is really important before going into such a race, and to protect your legs and joints, to adequately prepare for specific descent training. We give you an overview of why running downhill affects your body differently and how to go about training for running downhills correctly to reduce injury.
While running downhill, from a cardiovascular and metabolic standpoint, it will seem easier. The trade-off is the work that the muscles need to provide which is called an eccentric contraction. What this means is the contraction effort, specifically the quadriceps of the lower leg, will not only have to fight the pull of gravity from the descent, which lengthens the tissue, but now the muscle will need to contract in this lengthened position to prevent momentum from taking over, to help the body remain upright and to help us remain stable while controlling our speed as to not lose control of our balance. This increased work effort produces increased muscle damage leaving you to feel really sore and tired, especially if you go into a downhill course with little to no specific training.
Are there ways to help us reduce fatigue and damage to our muscles from running downhill? Yes, in fact, we have provided 5 tips to properly train for downhill running.
While we ought to be training properly for any run concurrently with a consistent mix of strength and flexibility training, sometimes these additional workouts are neglected. With downhill efforts, strength is as equally important if not more than the cardiovascular aspect. Underdeveloped, underutilized, or weakened muscles can lead to inefficient and untimely contractions, alignment issues, or at worst bring on an injury. Working on core strength as well as functional leg strength should be a primary objective even before putting in the miles. Such exercises include planks, lunges, squats, plyometric exercises like hopping and bounding and descending stair training.
What seems like a no-brainer but in fact, is the best way to train for running downhills is to practice running on more downhills! Practice makes perfect so they say and in order to reduce the negative effects from running downhill, it is essential to properly train and mimic courses that will be found on race day. If you are new to downhill training, you will likely to feel the effects as you adapt. Recovery is essential between sessions as is listening to your body to be sure you are not overdoing it. Training should begin small, with one session every other week to one session every week with adequate recovery. Sessions can be focused on hill repeats or on a long hill-filled route practicing progression with pace and terrain difficulties, from grass to concrete, up until about 2 to 3 weeks before race day.
It may seem counterproductive, but running uphill is a strength builder for the muscles in your legs while at the same time also work on producing power. The quadriceps are usually the primary focus when doing work on a downhill run, but by training also the posterior chain which includes the hamstrings, glutes, and calves with uphill runs will ultimately provide the strength and stability needed during every stride in a run, regardless of elevation change. By creating symmetrical strength of both the anterior and posterior chains, we can allow our legs to absorb forces efficiently and take some of the load work off the quadriceps in the downhill portions. Like running downhill, the progression and sessions of uphill training should begin small and progress up until 2 to 3 weeks before race day.
Aside from balance, strength, and speed, downhill running must also focus on form and posture. Proper mechanics will ultimately help to reduce excess forces and improve balance. A common error in downhill running is letting momentum overtake you. Key focus points are to not over-stride and reduce the landing impact. The increased speed may cause you to over-stride meaning your feet land in front of your body as opposed to under you. This can cause abnormal gait mechanics like landing with your heel which can result in higher impact and forces absorbed more within the joints of your body. Shortening your stride and increasing your turn over rate will help to reduce shock per foot-strike.
Not only will looking ahead at the trail improve your upright posture, but it will also help to prepare the body reflexively for what is to come. A preemptive glance will help to sync the brain to the body to help you adjust for what is next on the course or trail. By looking ahead a few feet or meters in front of you, you maintain good form and improved core engagement, which then provides better postural alignment from the chest down to the pelvis and all the way to the feet.
In conclusion, if you want to run a net-descent race you will need to train your body to mimic the downhill aspects to prevent problems or injury. Key aspects for preparing for a downhill run should include eccentric and core strengthening, running hill-filled courses, putting more emphasis on your form while looking ahead on what is to come on the route. On the descent, the focus should be on short, quick, light steps that land under you as opposed to reaching in front of you. You will thank yourself later as you master not only downhill running, but also becoming a more efficient runner overall on all terrain.