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How To Run Downhill

By Jeremy Chin
Posted on 11 Sep, 2014

How to run downhill

Although running uphill may leave you breathless, going downhill is physically more damaging to your body if you don't apply proper technique and strong form.

Running downhill involves the lengthening of your muscles, which can cause microscopic tears in the muscle fibers. Do it improperly and you'll waste precious energy and become prone to shin, knee, ankle, back and hip injuries.

The key to running downhill requires an understanding of what you're up against, and what you have working for you. Here are some insights and tips you might find helpful.

1. Gravity Is Your Friend

Gravity naturally pulls you downhill. Try your best not to brake the momentum. It not only slows you but it forces you to use your energy to fight the force that is helping you downhill. This deceleration also puts enormous strain on your heels, knees, spine and quads.

But while it's easy to let your body slide downhill on its own accord, we have to apply the right techniques. We like to refer to this form as controlled falling.


2. Apply Proper Form

The ability to effectively run downhills is largely acquired and can be achieved by following a number of simple rules.

Look down the hill, not at your feet. Keep your gaze 10 to 15 meters in front of you. This practice holds several advantages. It allows you to see anticipate what's ahead so you can make less abrupt and jarring adjustments to your course. By looking ahead, you are also keeping your body perpendicular to your running surface. This not only puts less stress on your neck muscles, but allows you to maintain an upright posture for optimal oxygen intake.

Shorten your stride and quicken your cadence to keep your feet under you. When running downhill, it's easy to overstride. Overstriding causes you to land harder, wears down your muscles and increases your susceptibility to injury.

Lean forward slightly from the ankles, but not too much or you will careen out of control. The purpose of a forward lean is to counter your natural tendency to shift your weight backwards to slow down. Remember, pulling back on the downhill is like driving with the handbrake on. It not only costs you time, but places undue stress on the knees and back.

Keep your core tight, but legs, shoulders and arms relaxed. While running downhill, there is a natural inclination to tighten up simply because you are going faster. Don't let this happen. Keep your arms and legs loose and allow them to swing from the momentum. But don't get too crazy with this and run like Phoebe. Lift your knees up and down, not forward and out. Work within the parameters of your own range of motion and let gravity do the bulk of the work.


3. Control Your Speed.

It's easy to hit top speed on a steep descent. But there is something you have to watch out for.

Downhills, especially long gradual ones, can sometimes lull you into a pace that's too aggressive. It's alright to coast a little on the momentum once you've arrived at the bottom of the hill. But to not burn out before the race ends, you have to remember to transition back to your original goal pace. During your training runs, practice your flat terrain goal pace, and develop an awareness of what that pace feels like compared to your downhill pace.


4. Use Your Arms

It is important to maintain control and balance when increasing your pace on the downhill. For greater stability, expand your center of gravity by holding your arms a bit further from your body. Also, because you have better control of your arms than your legs, use your arms dictate your speed, not your legs. But use them not to generate speed, but to set the tempo.


5. Apply Proper Foot Contact and Position

The greater your speed, the harder your feet strike the ground, and the more impact the muscles endure. If you are too much on your heel, your shins receive most of the impact which can lead to shin splints. If you land too much on your forefoot, you stress your calves as they have to work harder to lower your heel. As with running on flat terrain, the best way to minimize injury is to maintain a midfoot landing.

Good efficient running is also about how quickly you can get your foot off the ground once it hits, so that your energy goes into the next stride instead of the road. To keep contact as minimal as possible, a good mind trick you can use is to imagine you are running on hot coals.


6. Strengthen The Muscle Groups Required For Downhill Running

We often see runners running up stairs in their training. Running down stairs has its merits too. It loads the quads and builds strength and control in the hips. Cycling, especially uphill, is great for leg development too.

Also spend some time strengthening your core. A strong core is also vital for conquering downhills because of the amount of control required. Lastly, while this may not count as a strengthening exercise, speed workouts help a lot too, as it gets your legs accustomed to a higher turnover which you will experience when running downhill.


7. Time Your Breaks Correctly

Not all runners are able to run the entire route and take walk breaks. What you often see are runners who exhaust themselves on the upslope and end up walking on the downhill. You should instead do it the other way around. Take your rest on the uphills so you will be ready to push on the downhills. You will also notice that when you take it easy on the uphill, not many will gain on you.

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