The Benefits of Downhill Running

We see many runners include uphill sprints in their training, but have you ever thought about what happens to your body when you run downhill? It may feel easier, but your muscles are working just as hard, but in a different way. Get our top tips on how to train for the declines.

Downhill running is an important part of any runner’s training. If it’s not yet a part of your training program, we recommend including some downhill sessions – or at least sessions that involve some downhills. 

The only time that you will run on flat ground throughout your run is on a track or a treadmill and if you’re reading this, we’re going to assume that you’ve caught the running bug, meaning that you run, everywhere and anywhere that you can. 

Maybe that means around the streets near where you live or work, the park, trails, mountains, deserts, the list goes on! But one thing remains the same — the terrain won’t be the same all the way through. So, we need to prepare. 

Runners often focus on how to improve running uphill, and don’t get us wrong, it’s an important part of training too! But it’s as equally important as training for the downhills. 

So, let’s find out why it’s important for runners to train running downhill and why. 

What are the benefits of downhill running? #

There are several benefits of downhill running, including; 

  1. Improves cardiovascular fitness 
  2. Improves muscle endurance
  3. Increases leg strength 
  4. Increases bone density
  5. Burns calories

The benefits are plentiful, but runners we’ve seen have often complained of feeling pain when running downhill. As with any pain, it’s key to seek an early diagnosis with a medical professional as soon as you feel the pain coming on so that you can alter your training accordingly. 

But what is causing that pain? Is it inevitable or is there something we can do about it?

Why can downhill running be painful? #

Downhill running is an eccentric exercise, which means the muscles lengthen under load. Plus, you need to apply a braking force to control the momentum that is created by the downhill itself. 

This is in contrast to uphill running, which is concentric exercise, where the muscles shorten during contraction. 

This means that running downhill places more stress on the muscles and the connective tissues, as they go against their natural desire to contract as they shorten. 

Additionally, eccentric exercise is known to produce more delayed-onset muscle soreness. When we aren’t accustomed to certain activities this can translate as pain. This is known as load tolerance. 

On the pain scale (typically 110, with 10 being severe pain), we recommend that you don’t go past a 3 out of 10 pain or stop running if you feel any sharp or shooting pains, specifically.

What are the mechanics of downhill running? #

Let’s break down what is happening in your body as you run downhill. 

A good eccentric movement pattern is important for downhill running, and the key muscles and movement patterns used in downhill running are:

  • eccentric control of the Hamstrings (back of thigh)
  • single hip control using Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Maximus
  • Quadriceps (front of thigh) for strength
  • Tibialis Anterior (front of shin) and Soleus (lower calf) for controlling your foot placement and absorbing load

The quadriceps in particular will be loaded up more while running downhill, so if you are feeling a 3+/10 knee pain, we advise that you see a Sport & Exercise Medicine Consultant or Physiotherapist before doing any further hill training.

How can I reduce the chance of injury? #

Simple – focused strength training. Get strong before doing any downhill running training. It’s not just about aerobic fitness, it’s also about muscle strength and endurance! 

Perform strength-focused exercises, x3 times per week that includes single leg quadricep focused exercises, hip (glute) control, eccentric hamstring, and calf strength. 

It would also be beneficial to build a strong core to provide stability and control as you descend downhill. 

The next step is gradually increasing the weight you train with to safely increase the load that the muscle can cope with and ultimately make them stronger and more resilient. 

Remember to gradually increase the repetitions and the resistance of the exercise, to gently load your body to more stimulus. As well as improving your downhill running efficiency, strength training in this way will reduce your risk of injury as the muscles will never be pushed too far beyond their capabilities and be able to recover each time. 

Using poles can also be beneficial to transfer some of the load through your upper limbs. This might be particularly interesting to trail runners. 

Lastly, for those of us who enjoy some indoor training, some treadmills have a decline setting which you can then incorporate into your training to work on the eccentric control of your lower limbs in preparation for downhill running.

Runners, whatever the distance you’re training for, it is always a good idea to train for both the uphills and the down. Long distance runners will know that there are lots of these — both physical and mental – and the best thing you can do is prepare your body for what it is you are asking of it. 

If you’re unsure how to begin this kind of training, or how to incorporate it into your current training plan, a Strength and Conditioning Coach is the person you want to speak to. They can take your current plan, or create a specific program for you, taking into account your goals, lifestyle, job, etc. so that you can train effectively around your other commitments. 

If you experience pain when running down hills, then your first point of call should be with a Physiotherapist, Sport & Exercise Medicine Consultant or Pain Management Consultant who can diagnose your injury and create a rehab program that can keep you working safely towards your goal. 

Are you experiencing pain when running down hill, or would you like some help with your training or learning how to effectively run on a decline?

Find out how we can help.
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