We’re very fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the country that hosts one leg of the Sani to Sea mountain bike race. And I am very UNfortunate to be a truly horrific mountain bike rider! (Thus the running habit). The race’s tag line is “life’s not all downhill”. This may be true, but when a race is largely downhill, it’s important to prepare for that specific route profile. While cyclists (bar yours truly) usually love a good downhill, most runners stand at the top and think “my poor knees”!
Why does it hurt so bad?
Downhill running requires a specific technique to avoid straining your muscles and lessening the impact on your joints. Downhill running fatigues muscles more quickly than level running and even hill climbs. The reason is that it requires a lot of eccentric muscle control.
Concentric muscle work involves a muscle shortening as it contracts (think bicep curl). Eccentric muscle work requires the same control from a muscle as it lengthens (think returning to start position after the bicep curl). This type of muscle work is much harder for a muscle to perform and results in faster fatigue and more delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) the next day.
The increased impact when you run downhill requires greater eccentric control to decelerate your legs as you hammer down the hill (some of us more heavily than others). This is one area of your running where you can make any extra weight you are carrying work for you! It is, however, important to achieve good form so you don’t expend a lot of energy slowing yourself down and, in doing so, place excessive strain on your joints.
Tricks to decrease the eccentric load placed on your muscles:
Lean into the downhill slightly, aiming to keep your centre of mass over your feet and not behind them (as when you lean back slightly).
Increase the amount of shock absorption with each footfall by shifting your weight more onto your forefoot than your heel. Try the simple experiment of walking on your heels for a few steps as opposed to walking on your toes. Which feels easier? A forefoot strike allows your powerful calf muscles to help absorb some of the weight as opposed to hammering your knee and ankle joints.
Increase your cadence slightly so as to decreased foot-contact time and thus lessen eccentric load. The goal here is to decrease the impact and the amount of damage to your quads – and not to go into a flat out sprint. Aim to be “light on your feet”.
When prepping for a downhill run it’s important to do some cross training, specifically muscle strengthening for quads and glutes that focuses on improving eccentric control.
My top exercises for downhill run cross training
1. Walking lunges
2. Jump squats – with soft landings
3. Step ups and lower to tap toes on the floor behind you.
4. Reverse lunges
At the same time, find a decent hill and run a few downhill repeats. It’s easy to pick up an injury if you overdo it, so build up the number of repeats very slowly.
Good luck, and may the momentum be with you!
Mama on the Run