In our ‘Ask the Coach’ series, we answer your health and fitness questions. Learn from the trail, ultra, and snowshoe racing coach Derrick Spafford as he provides his expert advice. Here, we focus on those running downhill.
I just completed my first organized trail run and have a question about running downhill. My body naturally adjusts when I’m running uphill, but once I start the downhill, I can’t figure out how to run, so I’m not putting too much pressure on my knees or my quads. What should I be focusing on when I’m running downhill to run quickly and efficiently?
– Deborah R.
Congratulations on completing your first trail race! I’m sure you are already getting excited about your next one.
Proper downhill running technique does take some time to master, but there are several things that you can do to help your body adapt to this important element of trail running and racing.
Step No. 1: Body Alignment
One of the worst things you can do when running downhill is to lean backward and resist the downhill. Instead, good downhill running technique involves an upright position with your hips slightly tucked forward. This allows your body to move with gravity; don’t fight it, just go with the flow.
Step No. 2: Avoid Braking
Braking and trying to tiptoe your way downhill puts a great deal of stress on your body from the impact, specifically on your knees, hips, and back. It also contributes to greater muscle strain on your quads. To avoid this, you need to try and prevent your heels from hitting hard on the downhill. Landing midfoot/forefoot will prevent the stress from going up your body.
Step No. 3: Quick Cadence
You’ve got your body in proper alignment, and you’re moving downhill smoothly. However, the final element of effective downhill running is to increase your leg turnover and think of spinning down the hill.
A fast cadence will help you avoid braking and prevent you from overloading your quads, and aid in making up time that you may have lost on the last uphill. If you are worried about going faster than you think you should on the downhill, try taking your heart rate monitor with you on your next hilly run and see how your heart rate drops considerably, even while running quickly on downhills.
Step No. 4: Strengthening Exercises
Regardless of whether you are running uphill or downhill, strong legs are a must. The following three exercises don’t take long to do but are very helpful in improving your leg strength and preventing muscle fatigue on the downhills. It is imperative to have strong quads for downhill running especially if you are prone to knee pain. The following exercises should be done two to three times per week.
a) Quarter Squats
With feet shoulder-width apart, squat about a quarter of the way down before returning to a standing position. (Two to three sets x 10-15 reps)
Step forward into a lunge position while focusing on staying very upright and not allowing your knee to go beyond your toes. Return to starting position. (Two to three sets x 10-15 reps)
c) Wall sits
Sit with your back against a wall as if sitting in a chair. (One set of 30-60 seconds)
Step No. 5: Regular Downhill Practice
All the theory and strength work in the world will not help you much on the hills if you don’t get out there and put this all to practice regularly. Plan a couple of runs per week where you are hitting several rolling hills in training. Run the hills at varying speeds to get more comfortable with your form at various paces you may need on race day, depending on the course or race distance.
Proper downhill running technique becomes more difficult as the trail gets steeper and/or more technical. This is when it is especially important to keep your eyes focused on the trail, use your arms for balance, and step lightly. With a little practice, you will improve on all types of terrain.
If you are consistent with following the above five steps, I’m sure that you will find that you will be running the downhills more efficiently, quickly, and with less potential for pain. Becoming a good downhill runner is an effective way to improve your next trail racing experience.
See you on the trails!
This article was first published on July 15, 2010, and was most recently updated on July 1, 2021.