Running fast downhill: what’s the best form or technique? How can you do it safely without injuring your joints, specifically your knees? Have you been fighting gravity all along??
Here are a few tips and trick to try on your next run to learn how to run fast downhill and how to do it safely and the most efficiently.
First, Why is Running Downhill so Challenging?
There are a couple reasons:
First, you’re asking your muscles to contract in a different way.
Whenever we go downhill, we are using our muscles eccentrically. This is known as a lengthening in the muscle(s). An eccentric contraction is almost always harder than a concentric (shortening in the muscle) contraction.
This is why running downhill is easier cardiovascularly, but harder on the joints and muscles. This is also why folks who are dealing or recovering from an injury, like runner’s knee, often do better going up stairs than down them.
An eccentric contraction places more demand on the muscle for that lowering phase. And, lowering requires more control.
Secondly, the impulse when running fast downhill, is to lean back and put the brakes on.
This is neither the best nor most efficient way to get down a hill.
You’ll definitely be working harder as you’re likely leaning backwards AND fighting the pull of gravity. This makes running fast downhill feel extremely challenging. And it can feel really uncomfortable, awkward, and even painful if you do it this way.
Lastly, running fast downhill isn’t just about using your legs!!
It’s about using all the muscles of your core to control your descent. I’m talking about glutes, abductors (outer hips) and even your abdominal muscles.
If one of these muscle groups are weak or out of balance, running fast downhill is going to feel pretty miserable.
So, what can I do to improve my running downhill?
Tip #1: Choose your hill wisely.
Don’t start on a steep or long hill when you’re beginning to incorporate hill training. Start out low and short.
Stay away from inclines of 20% or more as this degree of steepness can contribute to hip, knee or ankle injury, especially if you’re doing repeats! The best grade to start out at is 8%. Use your GPS to find an appropriate hill near you to practice on.
Start out on a softer surface. It’s gentler on the joints. Good surfaces would be grass, dirt or even gravel.
Once you get comfortable on these surfaces, then you can progress to running hills on pavement, where there is greater impact through the joints.
If you’re training for a specific race where you know (roughly) the length and steepness of the hill or hills, you can certainly incorporate some race specific training into your program. But work up to it slowly! And don’t do too many race pace/race environment efforts before race day. You’ll get plenty of it on the day of.
Tip#2: Watch your form.
Like I mentioned above, the general tendency is to lean back and pull away from the hill. If you’re doing this, you’re essentially fighting gravity, the hill and yourself.
This makes your effort and your energy expenditure that much harder and higher. This tactic will also lead to heel striking with each step as well as greater strain on the quads, which can lead to injuries that involve knee pain or shin splints.
Really what you want to do is lean forward slightly into the downhill as you descend. Your body should approximate perpendicular with the road surface.
Shorten your step length and increase your cadence or number of steps per minute. This increases your foot turnover and will help you with more of a forefoot/midfoot landing pattern. This softens your landing as well, which will help decrease the forces and impact through your joints.
This means you’re less likely to develop an injury as compared to taking bigger steps. Ultimately, a shorter step length-faster cadence pattern will lead to you running MUCH faster (and more efficiently!) downhill.
The other thing to pay attention to is the positioning of your knee on the landing leg. Make sure you have a soft bend in the knee to help absorb foot strike impact.
If you’re heel striking, you’re likely landing with the knee in full extension, which can put strain on the knee and the patellofemoral joint.
However, if you follow the tip above for a shorter step length-faster cadence, you probably won’t even have to think about bending your knee when you land. Why? Because this patterning causes a forefoot/midfoot landing, and biomechanically you really won’t be able to land with a straight knee.
Tip#3: Let Gravity be Your Friend.
Allow gravity to assist your descent downhill. Don’t fight it. Running downhill should be “easy speed.” This is where you can make up or bank time if you’re in a race.
After you land on one foot, think about picking up your heel from the ground, rather than “driving” forward into the next step.
Make it a series of picking up each heel alternately, so that you’re not overextending the knee or over-muscling it. Some describe this as a circular motion of the step or stride cycle. It’s more of a natural giving into the hill and allowing yourself to be pulled down it.
Tip#4: Where are you looking?
Stop looking at your feet! They will forever be there, right under you!
Keep your gaze down the hill or the trail that you’re on. Not only does this help you to see where you’re going but also helps you to plan your next few steps.
If you’re on a trail, this helps you plan your foot placement to navigate rocks and roots. And if you’re on road, occasionally, you’re negotiating over or around puddles, potholes or even moving out of the way of some crazy driver!
Looking ahead of you down the hill will also help you with your form. It will keep your center of gravity over your base of support for increased efficiency and running faster downhill (see the point above about leaning into the hill).
If you look down at your feet, this pulls your center of gravity behind your base of support for more of the posterior or backward lean, which as we discussed earlier, is NOT an efficient or fast way of getting downhill.
So, In Summary…
You CAN learn to run fast downhill: choose your hill(s), watch your form, work with gravity and look ahead!!
Running downhill with these tips will make you a faster downhill runner as well as a more efficient downhill runner. It will also help to prevent you from developing any injuries from poor technique on the downhills.
I’d love to hear from you. Drop a line below: what are your tips for successful downhill running?