Training To Be A Stronger Downhill Runner

If you have ever ran in the mountains, or anywhere with big hills, you'll know exactly where I am coming from with this. Running downhill can be tough. It is meant to be the easy part of a run, yet, we find the downhills leaving us with burning quads which may be tough to recover from mid run. In this blog I explain what causes this, how you can get stronger to cope with downhill running, and how to practice downhill running to improve your technique.

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What Causes Muscle Soreness When Downhill Running?

If you are getting sore muscles (probably quads) while running downhill, this is because you are not optimally conditioned for eccentric loading. Eccentric loading is something we experience every day, but not in the same volume that it is experienced when running downhill.

If you're new to muscle contractions, think about eccentric loading like the pulling back action of a slingshot. It's our muscle's ability to lengthen and absorb force before producing an equal or greater shortening/concentric contraction. Think the downward phase of a squat, before you push back up with a concentric contraction.

This is exactly what is happening when you are running downhill. Your legs are essentially catching you from height hundreds, even thousands of times. Without the right conditioning, this could produce enough lactate or muscle soreness to ruin a training run or even worse, a race.

There are two steps to mastering downhill running. Strength and technique. Each plays a crucial part in a downhill segment and you can see some tips on each of them below.

How To Get Stronger For Downhill Running

To get stronger running downhill, you need to build strength. There are two ways you can do this, and the optimal strategy would be to use them both for maximum variety in your training.

Session 1 - run downhill

You are probably familiar with hill repeats, so why not try some back to front hill repeats? To get better at coping with eccentric loading you need to eccentrically load. Try five sets running down a big hill (not too steep at first), then power hiking back to the top. This will build muscle in your quads, glutes, calfs, core and back.

Session 2 - hit the weight room

The second suggestion I am going to make is to do some specific strength training for downhill running. This shouldn't dominate your training plan, but will definitely help you strengthen up and you can then use the downhills in a race for a rest, which is how they should be used. Use the below exercises with their listed variations. If you are used to lifting weights, I would recommend using heavy weights for this. If you are not, you can start just with your bodyweight.

Squat - Ideally in a front squat position. Take five seconds to lower, then push back up quickly.

Twisting Lunge - Take five seconds to lower, twist to the side and back to centre, then push back up quickly.

Calf Raise - On one foot at a time, stand on your tiptoes and lower slowly, for five seconds or more.

Negative Pull Up - Jump into the pull up position on a bar and slowly lower yourself, taking at least 5 seconds for your arms to straighten.

Practicing Technique For Downhill Running

The second factor you can work on is practicing technique. This not only helps you build confidence on the downhills, but also allows you to run with more flow, reducing impact and reducing the load on your muscles. Here are my top tips for downhill running form.

1 - Push your pelvis forwards a little. Most of us spend too much time sat down, either at a desk or on the couch. This has a detrimental effect on our posture and causes many of us to bend over slightly at the hips while standing and running. Try pushing your pelvis forwards slightly and see if straightening up helps your control downhill. Switching to a standing desk at work can also help with this.

2 - Don't apply the brakes, too much! Applying the brakes while running downhill takes it's toll. Therefore, running downhill slowly, with the brakes on, can be more detrimental than letting go and running down the hill freely. Of course, keep yourself safe and brake if necessary, but don't be afraid to let yourself go a little!

3 - Stop looking at your toes! Again, this one comes with a warning to be careful, but instead of looking straight at your feet, look ahead a little, assess what's coming, and plan your line. Similarly to when you are driving, this will help you to avoid hazards, but it also keeps your body straighter and your head up.

4 - Increase your cadence - Despite a lot of people thinking a good cadence will solve all of your problems, this is not true. Without good form, a faster cadence is just more steps and without meaning, more steps are useless. Once you have mastered running downhill, try speeding up your steps to reduce impact and increase speed.

I hope this post helps you to be a better downhill runner! If you have time, please use the links below to explore the run coaching and training camps I have on offer:

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