Downhill running is a skill that’s often overlook. 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 sometimes overlooked. But that’s a mistake.
In fact, specific downhill running training can be used to boost running performance. Making you a stronger, faster, and more efficient runner that’s less prone to injuries.
And the good news is you don’t need to do a lot of downhill running to see a benefit.
So, what are the benefits of downhill running training?
The Benefits of Downhill Running Training
- Makes you faster and more efficient at running downhill
- Protects against the reductions in running efficiency, that occur during 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 a bit more detail.
#1 Practising downhills will make you a faster more runner
So, you’ve signed up for your next half marathon and the course is rated as undulating! What’s the first thing you do?
I’m guessing, you’ll probably add in some extra hill training – after all you need to prepare for the uphills. Right?
That’s great, 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 is different from flat, or uphill running. Not only are there subtle biomechanical differences, but our 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 anything we need to practice it.
And, downhill running is no different.
Put simply, you can’t expect to become efficient, unless you’re prepared to set aside some training time to deliberately practice running downhill.
Not only will it make you more efficient, it will better prepare 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 – particularly 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 your run efficiency is reduced it remains reduced throughout the race. And, the greater the volume and intensity of downhill running…the greater the effect!
So, why does downhill running reduce our efficiency?
Researchers aren’t completely sure why it has this effect. It appears likely that a number of factors could be involved, including: increased muscle damage, reduced strength, increased recruitment of fast twitch muscle fibres, reduced elastic energy storage, reduced glycogen levels and possibly subtle changes to our running form.
One thing we do know: 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 come together to influence the magnitude of that effect.
This is particularly 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 is affected is individual: some runners see much greater reductions in efficiency, and some much less. Not surprisingly, 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 can 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 normally peaks around 24-72 hours after doing 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 for a particular workout or race.
Here’s the interesting thing: downhill running training is just like strength training, while it initially causes DOMS, our muscles then adapt and become stronger. And this adaptation helps to protect our 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 our 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 quadricep muscles when running downhill, or your biceps when lowering a dumbbell. In the case of downhill running, your quads 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 – particularly in the quadriceps.
And, the more intense, prolonged and the steeper the decline, the greater the level of eccentric loading on our quads.
If your muscles are not well conditioned for eccentric exercise, then any activity that increases eccentric loading, will cause DOMS. And the less conditioned we are…well, the worse it’s going to be!
Since the quadriceps are particularly affected during downhill running – that’s where you tend to 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 the negative effects of DOMS.
In fact, research has shown that downhill running is particularly effective at protecting against the negative effects of 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 the loss of 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 reduce your risk of injury.
#4 Increased knee extensor strength
As I’ve just mentioned, the eccentric loading of downhill running training makes us stronger.
In fact, eccentric muscle training is a key training method that’s useful for developing strength and improving sports performance.
As mentioned earlier, the quadricep 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. Making us stronger, more efficient runners and less prone to injuries.
#5 Reduce the risk of injury
Not only does downhill running strengthen key running muscles, like the quadriceps, it can reduce the risk of injury.
As well as strengthening the knee extensors, the eccentric loading can also strengthen and protect our body’s connective tissue. In fact, eccentric muscle contractions are known to strengthen your connective tissue, which will help to reduce your risk of injury.
Having said that, it’s important that we gradually introduce downhill running, to give our muscles and tendons, time to adapt. 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 concentrate on running uphill intervals, often combined with very slow recoveries.
Interestingly, research shows that downhill overspeed running (Cook et al., 2013) and a combination of uphill and downhill intervals can be particularly 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?
Firstly, 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.
Secondly, this works muscles concentrically, isometrically, and eccentrically, leading to greater overall gains in strength and power.
Thirdly, uphill running emphasises force per foot-strike, whereas downhill running emphasises neuromuscular co-ordination and leg turnover speed. In this way, you are training both stride length and running cadence.
The final reason, is that with downhill running we have the assistance of gravity, allowing us to run at faster speeds than achievable on flat terrain.
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 why you should include some 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 overtraining or injury, if introduced incorrectly.
As such, it’s really important that you carefully introduce downhill running.
And don’t start downhill running training if you have an existing injury.
Due to the impact forces associated with downhill running, faster downhill running (such as downhill strides) should ideally be run on a softer more forgiving running surface.
And the final and really important point, don’t over use downhill running training. Not only will that lead to increased levels of fatigue, but it’s really not necessary 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. These should be kept relatively short, and run at an intensity that’s similar to high 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 the intensity is increased to anaerobic intensities – similar to those used during short hill repeats*
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 this can then be progressed to tempo hill intervals.
For most runners, that will be sufficient to 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.
*A word of caution: It’s important to be aware 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 a high level of conditioning there is always a risk of injury.
Really, these should only be used under the guidance and support of a coach. For most runners there isn’t a need to include downhill running at this intensity.
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.
As such you don’t have to include 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 with regards to overspeed training). However, I generally prefer gradients of approximately -4-6% 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.
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Downhill running references:
You can view the list of references within the main hill running training article.