The Right Way to Run Downhill

These three tricks let you go fast without trashing your quads and calves.

The real heartbreak in the Boston Marathon isn’t the famous climb in the 33rd kilometre. It’s the steady opening downhill, which lures runners into a flying start that can wreak havoc on their legs.

The problem exists no matter how long the descent: one study found that the muscle damage from a short and fast 6K downhill run was similar to the damage seen in studies of mountain ultras of up to 320 kilometres. In both situations, running downhill requires eccentric muscle contractions as you brake with each stride: momentum forces your quads and calves to lengthen as you’re trying to contract them. The resulting damage to muscle fibres eventually slows you down and can lead to crippling soreness. To ward off this damage, researchers have explored a few tactics.



Taking short, quick steps can reduce the impact of each stride. One study found that increasing cadence (the number of steps taken each minute) by eight per cent compared to what felt natural reduced the loss of strength caused by a 45-minute downhill run. That said, some people already shorten their steps when they run downhill and shortening them further would be inefficient. To figure out what works best for you, experiment with a range of quicker and slower strides in training, and try to settle into a stride that minimises the feeling of braking with each step as you descend hills.



Which part of your foot should hit the ground first has been the topic of vigorous debate. There’s some evidence that landing on your heel as you descend is less fatiguing than landing on your forefoot or midfoot, thanks to the angle of the knee at the moment of contact. But a more practical approach is to think about varying your foot strike so you’re not always landing in the same position, which ensures the load is shared by different muscle groups. This is harder to do on smooth road courses, but uneven trails make it easy to mix up your landings.



Even one experience of eccentric muscle damage is enough to trigger the ‘repeated bout effect’, which lessens the muscle damage and strength loss of a similar exercise session for up to 10 weeks. That’s why savvy marathoners facing a hilly race include plenty of downhill training. The goal is to run downhill for long enough to leave you mildly sore the next day, but not so sore that you can’t run – which may take trial and error to get right.

Tailor your downhill training to mimic the demands you’ll face in competition: duration, steepness and intensity. If you’re preparing for a rolling trail race with lots of ups and downs, run fartleks on a hilly course and focus on pushing the pace on the downhills as quickly as you safely can. If you’re preparing for a race like Boston (or Boston itself), start a long run with six to eight kilometres on a treadmill, varying the downhill incline between two and four per cent, before heading onto the roads.


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