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May 03, 2013

A Few Tips on Downhill Running

Written by Dena Evans

cropped_little_girlDownhill running may seem like a breeze, but runners hoping to do it effectively should consider a few tips before heading down the mountain.

Avoid stepping on the brakes

Instinctively, most runners heading downhill will extend their foot out in front of them on each stride, essentially braking themselves and preventing themselves from losing control.    If on a steep hill or an area with uneven ground, this may be necessary as a safety precaution, but if on a manageable grade, this puts needless stress on the knees, hips, and quads.  Instead of concentrating on slowing down via longer slower steps, try to land on the foot as similarly as possible to your regular stride.  What would qualify as good running form on flat ground also qualifies downhill.  Try to replicate it as much as possible.

Lean in!

It is difficult to make up ground or extend a lead over others on an uphill grade.  With such a steep cost required to extend or quicken each stride, the benefits may wash away in fatigue by the time you reach the crest of the hill.  On the downhill, the cost and effort is much less, and effective downhill running can provide an opportunity to change the dynamic of a race by the time level ground is reached.  To run downhill effectively, you must lean forward in the direction in which you plan to go.  On flat ground, the ideal body posture includes an ever so slight forward lean from the ankles.  Maintain this on the downhills.  This lean will also make it easier to take more frequent steps and avoid landing with your foot out in front of you, absorbing needless stress.

Pick up the cadence

The only way it will be possible to both land on your foot similarly to when running on flat ground and to lean forward at the same time is to quicken the cadence of your strides.  A more rapid rhythm in your stride will help you accomplish the form cues you need to minimize needless stress and possible injuries to your body.  It can also be a catalyst for you to implement these form cues to keep up with your stride rate once you have adjusted the mental metronome.

Confidence will take practice

Most runners internalize and repeat a more defensive downhill approach due to an understandable desire to stay upright and avoid just tumbling down the hill.  It can pay dividends in a hilly race to consciously practice downhills of varying grades to build confidence with the feeling of leaning into the descent.  Golf courses (when available to run) can be a great location to practice a more aggressive approach without a large contingent of observers and with a forgiving surface.

Although many races have famous hills – Boston’s Heartbreak Hill, Bay to Breakers 12K’s Hayes Street Hill, and the Doomsday Hill at the Lilac Bloomsday Run, many experienced athletes will cite the effective management of the downhills in these races to provide the crucial difference.  At the Boston Marathon, it can be seen some of the pros running with“reckless abandonment” while navigating the final five miles of net downhill from the top of Heartbreak to the finish.   This takes practice, particularly if “reckless abandonment” is not a typically appropriate description of your running style.   Choose some low key tune up races with hills, include hilly terrain on a regular basis during workouts, and stay mindful of your form.  This can help set aside some of the fear of falling and focus more on getting to the finish line as rapidly as possible.

Whether contending for a win at the Marathon Majors or hoping to just complete your first marathon or half, avoiding injuries and working out effectively is a shared goal by all.  Reckless abandonment may continue to prove an inappropriate description for your approach down hills, but by using just a few tweaks to your approach, at the very least your PRs might have a shot to improve!

 

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