Downhill running is a skill that’s often overlooked. After all, downhill running’s easier, so why would you need to train for that?
And if I’m being honest, it’s something I’ve been guilty of overlooking. But that’s a mistake.
In fact, specific downhill running training is an excellent way to running performance. It can make you a stronger, faster, and more efficient runner. And it can innoculate your legs so you’re less prone to common running injuries.
The good news is you don’t need to do a lot of downhill running to see a benefit.
In this article we look at:
- The 6 key benefits of downhill running
- How to include downhill running training in your program
The Benefits of Downhill Running Training
- Makes you faster and more efficient at running downhill
- Protects against the reductions in running efficiency that follow downhill running and undulating races
- Strengthens muscles and protects against DOMS
- Increases knee extensor strength
- Reduces your risk of injury
- Makes you a faster runners
So, let’s look at some of these points in more detail.
#1 Practising downhills will make you a faster, more efficient runner
So, you’ve signed up for your next half marathon and they rate the course as undulating!!
What’s the first thing you do?…
I’m guessing if you’re like me then you’ll probably add in some extra hill training — after all, you need to prepare for the uphills. Right?
That’s a great approach — you’re going to need that extra strength endurance — but it’s forgetting one key point… Whilst undulating races have more uphills, they also have more downhills!
So, shouldn’t you also be preparing for the downhills?
We know that downhill running differs from horizontal, or uphill running. Not only are there subtle biomechanical differences, but your muscle fibres contract slightly differently — we’ll come to this shortly.
Practise is always key to improving efficiency
The important point here is to become efficient at any activity we need to practise. And downhill running is no different.
So you can’t expect to become efficient at downhill running, unless you’re prepared to set aside some training time to practise running downhill.
Not only will this improve your efficiency, it will condition your muscles for the unique demands of downhill running — which brings us on to the next point.
#2 It protects against reduced running efficiency during undulating races
Consider this… if you’re racing on an undulating course — especially if it’s a long distance race — the downhill sections will reduce your running efficiency.
And that’s not just on the downhill sections.
Once run efficiency is reduced, it remains like that throughout the race. And the greater the volume and intensity of downhill running… the bigger the effect!
So, why does downhill running reduce running efficiency?
Researchers aren’t completely sure why this happens. It appears likely that it could involve several factors, including
- Increased muscle damage
- Reduced strength
- Increased recruitment of fast twitch muscle fibres
- Reduced elastic energy storage
- Lower glycogen levels
- Subtle changes in our running form
One thing we know is: intense, or prolonged periods of downhill running will reduce your running efficiency. And the steepness of the descent, the intensity, and the volume of downhill running all influence the magnitude of that effect.
This is extremely important with longer distance running events, like Marathons and Ultra Marathons.
And let’s not forget if your race starts with a long downhill section!
The extent to which running efficiency reduces is individual: some runners see much greater reductions in efficiency, and some much less.
Individual differences will have a significant effect on the outcome of longer races, like ultra-marathons.
While genetics and physiology play a role, so does training.
The good news is… you can protect against this, by setting aside some specific training time for practising running downhill.
In fact, research has shown that this will help to protect against the reduction in running efficiency.
#3 It protects against delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
As runners we’ve all experienced DOMS — that unpleasant feeling of pain and muscle stiffness that peaks 24-72 hours after a faster run session, race, weights session, or downhill running.
Have you noticed how DOMS is always worse the first time you do a new activity, or when you’ve not done something for a while?
It’s also worse after longer races — like marathons and ultras.
The amount of DOMS you experience is just a reflection of how well conditioned your muscles are.
Here’s the interesting thing: downhill running training is just like strength training, while it initially causes DOMS, your muscles then adapt and become stronger. It’s this adaptation that protects your muscles against DOMS.
So why does downhill running cause DOMS?
When we run, our muscles contract in three distinct ways: concentric, eccentric and isometric.
- Concentric muscle contractions occur when your muscles contract (or shorten) in order to power a movement — think of your calf muscles when running, or lifting weights in the gym.
- Isometric muscle contractions occur when a muscle contracts but remains the same length — such as when your core muscles contract to maintain correct posture.
- Eccentric muscle contractions are different. They occur when a muscle lengthens under tension — an example is the quadriceps muscles when running downhill, or your biceps when lowering a dumbbell. With downhill running, your muscle fibres in your quadriceps are contracting eccentrically — they contract whilst they are lengthening — in order to resist the force of gravity and prevent your knee collapsing.
From a running perspective, downhills cause a significant increase in the amount of eccentric muscle contractions.
And the more intense, prolonged and the steeper the decline, the greater the level of eccentric loading on our quads.
When your muscles lack conditioning, any activity that increases eccentric loading will cause DOMS. And the less conditioned we are… well, the worse it’s going to be!
Since downhill running principally affects the quadriceps, that’s where you experience the greatest amount of DOMS.
Aside from the pain and stiffness associated with DOMS, downhill running also causes micro-traumas — small tears and damage to the individual muscle fibres.
But just like with strength training, we adapt to downhill running
While, in the short term, this has a negative effect on muscle strength, stride length, running economy and aerobic metabolism (Chen et al., 2007; Braun and Dutto, 2007). Just like with strength training, our muscles adapt. They get stronger. And they become more resistant to DOMS.
In fact, research has demonstrated that downhill running is effective at protecting against DOMS (Marqueste et al., 2008; Malm et al., 2004; Eston et al., 1996;). And often, just a single session is enough to protect against muscle damage and reducing running efficiency (Assumpção et al., 2013).
So, next time you experience DOMS, remember it’s a sign that your body is adapting. And overtime, this training adaptation means you’ll suffer less DOMS.
Another advantage is that you will become stronger, faster, and reduces your risk of injury.
#4 Increased knee extensor strength
As I’ve just mentioned, the eccentric loading of downhill running training strengthens muscles and tendons.
In fact, eccentric muscle training is a key training method that’s useful for developing strength and improving sports performance.
As mentioned earlier, the quadriceps muscle groups are most affected. So, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that downhill running training, can lead to significant improvements in knee extensor strength (Toyomura et al., 2018).
As this is a key muscle group — responsible for knee stability — any increase in knee extensor strength can improve the stability of the knee joint. Strengthening us, making us more efficient runners and less prone to injuries.
#5 Reduce the risk of injury
Not only does downhill running strengthen key running muscles, it can reduce the risk of injury.
The eccentric loading can also strengthen and protect our body’s connective tissue, which will help to reduce your risk of injury.
That said, it’s important that we gradually introduce downhill running, to give our muscles and tendons time to adapt. And you also need to be careful not to overuse this form of training.
#6 Downhill running makes us faster runners
When we think of hill training, we always think of uphill training. Why is that?… Why do we only equate the word hill with upward movement?
May be that explains why most runners focus on running uphill intervals, often combined with very slow recoveries.
Interestingly, research shows that downhill over-speed running (Cook et al., 2013) and a combination of uphill and downhill intervals can be effective at improving maximum running speed (Cetin et al., 2018; Paradisis et al., 2009; Paradisis and Cooke, 2006).
In fact, this combination is more effective than horizontal running training.
Why is combined uphill and downhill running so effective?
First, both uphill and downhill running slightly change the emphasis on different muscle groups. They also alter the recruitment of different muscle fibres. So, by including both uphill and downhills, you train a greater number of muscle fibres and muscle groups.
Second, this works muscles concentrically, isometrically, and eccentrically, leading to greater overall gains in strength and power.
Third, uphill running emphasises force per foot-strike, whereas downhill running emphasises neuromuscular coordination and leg turnover speed. In this way, you are training both stride length and running cadence.
The last reason is that with downhill running we have the help of gravity, allowing us to run at faster speeds than achievable on flat terrain. We also increase the amount of force that muscle fibres must resist.
In this way, you are training your muscles and nervous system to fire more quickly and efficiently. Overtime, this leads to improved neuromuscular co-ordination, and ultimately, improved maximum running speed.
So, you’ve heard all the reasons to include downhill running. Let’s look at how to include downhill running.
How to get the most out of downhill running training:
Before starting any downhill training, it’s important to consider that downhill running can be stressful to muscles and tendons, and potentially increase the risk of over-training or injury, if introduced incorrectly.
It’s really important that you carefully introduce downhill running.
And don’t start downhill running training if you have an existing injury.
Because of the impact forces associated with downhill running, faster downhill running (such as downhill strides) should be run on a softer, more forgiving running surface.
And the final and really important point, don’t overuse downhill running training. Not only will that lead to increased levels of fatigue, but it’s really unnecessary as the adaptations don’t require a large volume, or frequency, of downhill running.
What intensity should you use during downhill running training?
Ultimately, this depends on your training experience, level of conditioning and the purpose of your training.
Below is a 5 stage progression of intensity for downhill running. I’ve included my thoughts just below this.
- Easy paced running across undulating terrain — including regular trail running across undulating terrain, is one of the best ways to develop a base level of conditioning for downhill running.
- Steady/tempo paced running on undulating terrain — once you’ve adapted to running on undulating terrain, you can look to increase the intensity of some of these runs by including some steady, or tempo running across undulating terrain.
- Tempo hill intervals — here you combine faster uphill intervals with a steady pace on the downhills. The advantage here is that you combine the benefits of uphill and downhill running in one training session.
- Downhill strides — the next stage is to include some downhill strides. We should keep these relatively short and run at an intensity that’s like top end aerobic intervals (~VO2max intensity)
- *Faster anaerobic downhill repeats* — if you’re looking to develop running speed, and develop a high level of conditioning for downhill running, then faster downhill repeats can be useful. Here we increase the intensity to anaerobic intensities — similar to those used during short hill repeats*
*A word of caution: It’s important to know that running downhills at these intensities can lead to significantly higher levels of DOMS, and reduced running efficiency, the first time you do these. And without adequate conditioning, there is always a risk of injury.
Really, these should run under the guidance of a coach. For most runners, there isn’t a need to include downhill running at this intensity.
Updated: New research has discovered that running downhills at 90% of the velocity at VO2 max significantly improves components of strength and power.
Read more: The strength benefits of downhill running
Putting this together
The first point to make is that for most endurance runners, including regular trail running, will go a long way towards developing conditioning for downhill running. Ideally, look to include one or two undulating runs per week to build this conditioning.
If you’re looking to develop this further, then adding in some tempo/threshold running on undulating terrain works well. And we can then progress this to tempo hill intervals.
For most runners, that will develop the required conditioning for downhill running.
However, if you’re racing over a particularly undulating course or an ultra race, then you may also choose to add in some downhill strides or possibly even progress this to some faster downhill intervals.
My preference is to develop/maintain conditioning through regular trail running. And then top this up with some tempo running across undulating terrain, along with some tempos hills, and then supplement this with some downhill strides.
One way to include downhill strides is to include a few during your usual hill repeats workouts. Here, simply add a few short downhill strides near the end of your session — ideally on a softer surface.
How often should you include downhill running training?
One real advantage with downhill running training is that we adapt quickly. And the adaptation has a positive effect that lasts for several weeks.
You don’t have to include these every week. As mentioned, including regular trail running will go a long way towards inoculating your legs. And for most runners, including an additional tempo hill session or a few downhill strides, every 2-4 weeks, is enough to further develop this.
What about the gradient?
In terms of gradient, research (Ebben 2008) suggests that optimum benefits occur with a downhill gradient of approximately 6-10% (particularly regarding over-speed training). However, I prefer gradients of approximately 6% for downhill running.
One other important point:
Don’t run downhill workouts too close to key sessions or races! Always ensure that you allow adequate recovery before key training sessions or races. As an example, the first time I ran downhills at anaerobic endurance intensity, it took 4-5 days for full recovery.
As a general rule, I wouldn’t run faster downhill repeats in the final two weeks before a key race.
That covers downhill running. If you haven’t already then take a look at the following article: The surprising strength benefits of downhill running
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Downhill running references:
You can view the list of references within the main hill running training article.