Hill training. Just saying the words can make you sweat the way that you know you’re going to when you hit those gut-busting inclines. But what goes up must come down—which means that there’s another side to hill training that you’ve probably overlooked: the downhill.
To be sure, people say the quad burn at the Boston Marathon comes from the down slopes, not the up. Why? While running is already a high-impact sport, on the downhill, there are even more forces involved—which translate into more weight on your joints. Your muscles are also forced to work differently when you’re naturally braking, and if they haven’t been trained, you’ll likely experience soreness and cramping, especially during a race.
But the best news: Strengthening those downhill hip and quad muscles is easy—and downhill training is a lot more fun than uphill repeats, to boot.
Mind Your Form
Form is especially important in downhill running. Not only will good form prevent injuries, it’ll also make you faster and more efficient. Perhaps the biggest mistake runners make is braking on their heels. Gravity encourages a runner to lean back slightly and slow down which often results in in a knee-locked heel strike. A double whammy: A locked knee makes for terrible shock absorption and the heel landing causes that force to resonate all the way up the leg.
Rather than working against the hill, try leaning slightly into it, allowing momentum to carry you downward. While it feels counterintuitive at first, work on planting your feet slightly behind your hips with each step instead of sticking them out in front of your body. And with each footstrike, try to land on your midfoot rather than your heels. This, along with shortening your stride, will translate into a gentler landing and will better propel you into the next step.
During all of this, don’t forget to keep your upper body relaxed and controlled. The last thing you want is to be wildly barreling down the hill with your arms and legs winding in different directions.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Start with a 10-15 minute warm up before hitting any hill workout to avoid pulling cold muscles. As you proceed to the downhill portion of your workout, pay more attention to form than pace. (You can work on getting faster once you’ve achieved the proper technique.)
If you can, practice downhill running on grass or dirt—the softer terrain helps minimize impact as you perfect your form. A hilly trail run is the ultimate route because it combines both up- and downhills, forcing your body to switch techniques. If you don’t have access to trails, find a hill and do downhill repeats the same way that you’d do uphill intervals: warm up, then do 5-12 repetitions running downhill, preferably around 150 meters. Then turn around and walk or jog the uphill. Again, let me repeat: Form is more important than speed at this stage. Pay close attention to how you’re carrying your shoulders and where your feet are landing with each step, then adjust accordingly.