Downhill Running Training
Downhill running training is often overlooked as a training method for endurance runners. However, there are a number of advantages to including some “specific” downhill running training.
The training benefits of downhill running
Firstly, downhill running training will make you a faster downhill runner – vital if you’re racing on a course with significant elevation changes. To become efficient at anything we need to practice it. And, downhill running is no different. You can’t expect to run well downhill unless you’re prepared to set aside some training time to practice downhill running.
Secondly, downhill running leads to adaptations that not only protect your muscles against muscle soreness, but also reduce the risk of some common running injuries.
Thirdly, downhill running protects against the loss of running efficiency that occurs immediately after down hill running. This may be particularly important during prolonged undulating races like marathons and ultra marathons.
A further, benefit, is that including the correct downhill running training can actually improve your top end running speed. In fact, a combination of uphill and downhill running training has been shown to be highly effective for improving running speed.
Downhill running and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
Downhill running, particularly when run at faster speeds and steeper declines, leads to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). We’ve all experienced DOMS at some point. That unpleasant feeling of pain and muscle stiffness that typically builds to a peak 24-72 hours after doing a faster run session, weights, or downhill running.
Research has clearly shown that Intense, or prolonged, periods of downhill running lead to significantly increased levels of DOMS. In some cases, particularly after prolonged endurance events, this can last for many days afterwards and lead to a significant reduction in muscle strength and running efficiency.
So why does downhill running cause such high levels of DOMS? The increased levels of DOMS is due to the increased eccentric load when running downhill. When we run down hill we see increased levels of eccentric muscle contractions. This is where a muscle exerts force whilst it is still lengthening. The more intense, prolonged and the steeper the decline, the greater the level of eccentric loading on the muscles.
One factor with downhill running is that there is less muscle fibre recruitment with downhill running compared with uphill running. As there are less muscle fibres contracting at any given time, this means more stress is placed on these individual muscle fibres due to the increased eccentric load.
So why does this matter? Aside from the pain and stiffness, associated with DOMS. Downhill running causes microtraumas – small tears and damage to the individual muscle fibres. In the short term this has a negative effect on muscle strength, stride length, running economy and aerobic metabolism for up to 3-5 days after a period of downhill running (Chen et al., 2007; Braun and Dutto, 2007). However, as with strength training our muscles adapt, get stronger, and become more resistant to the negative effects of DOMS.
Protecting against DOMS by including downhill running in your training
As runners we’ve all experienced DOMS at some point. You may have also noticed how DOMS is always worse the first time you do a new activity. Overtime, we adapt to this and we suffer less DOMS.
Research has shown that downhill running is particularly good at protecting against the negative effects of DOMS – loss of muscle strength strength, reduced exercise efficiency, muscle stiffness and soreness (Marqueste et al., 2008; Malm et al., 2004; Eston et al., 1996;). In fact, a single session of downhill running is often enough to significantly reduce the effects of muscle damage and protect against loss of running efficiency (Assumpção et al., 2013).
So. next time you experience DOMS after downhill running remember that’s a sign that your body is adapting.
Downhill running and loss of running efficiency
As well as the negative effects of DOMS, downhill running leads to reduced running efficiency. The reduction in running efficiency happens immediately after a period of downhill running, and can last for several days afterwards.
This is particularly important with longer distance events such as Marathons and Ultra Marathons. If you are racing in a marathon or ultra-marathon with significant undulations you may well find that your running efficiency decreases throughout the race.
Here, it’s likely that runners that have devoted specific training time to downhill running may see less reductions in running efficiency during a race. In fact, research has shown that including downhill run training can blunt this reduction in running efficiency.
Downhill running training and running efficiency.
In the same way that downhill running training protects against DOMS, it also protects against the loss of running efficiency. And, similarly to DOMS, just a single downhill running session can protect against this loss in running efficiency (Assumpção et al., 2013).
A key area affected by downhill running is the knee extensors muscles, where we see a reduction in maximal quadricep isometric strength following downhill running (Baumann et al., 2014, Maeo et al., 2017). This is a key muscle group for knee stability and any reduction in strength here can reduce running efficiency. Importantly, downhill running training leads to significant improvements in knee extensor strength (Toyomura et al., 2018).
Downhill running for improving running speed
,Most runners concentrate on running uphill intervals, combined with very slow down hill recoveries. However, research suggests that downhill overspeed running (Cook et al., 2013) and a combination of uphill and downhill intervals may 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.
So why is this combination of uphill and downhill running training effective for improving maximum running speed? Firstly, both uphill and downhill running emphasize different muscle groups, and each increases the activation of different muscle groups. Therefore, by including both uphill and downhill running training we’re ensuring that we train a greater number of muscle fibres, and muscle groups, compared with just focusing on horizontal running.
Secondly, we’re ensuring we work muscles both concentrically and eccentrically, leading to greater overall gains in strength and power.
Thirdly, uphill running emphasises force per foot-strike, whereas downhill running emphasizes neuromuscular co-ordination and leg turnover speed. This way we are training both stride length and running cadence.
The final reason is that by running downhill, gravity assists us allowing us to run at faster speeds than we can achieve on flat terrain. In this way we are training our muscles and nervous system to fire at faster speeds than they currently can. Overtime, this leads to improved neuromuscular co-ordination and ultimately improved maximum running speed.
How to incorporate downhill running training into your training
Downhill running can be stressful to muscles, tendons and can potentially increase the risk of overtraining if introduced incorrectly. Therefore, it’s important to carefully incorporate downhill running. Below our five stages of progression for downhill running.
- The first stage is to ensure you regularly include running across undulating terrain, particularly during longer runs.
- Once you are used to this you can look to include some steady/tempo pace running across undulating terrain.
- This can then be progressed to tempo hill intervals, where you run at a steady pace on the downhills between faster uphill intervals.
- The next stage is to include some downhill strides at a pace close to what you would use during high end aerobic intervals (~VO2max pace)
- This can then be progressed to anaerobic intensities similar to those used during short hill intervals*
*Running downhills at these can lead to high levels of DOMS and reduced running efficiency the first time you do these. So, always ensure that you are well prepared and allow adequate recovery before key training sessions or races. As an example, the first time I did this at anaerobic endurance intensity, it took approximately 5 days for full recovery.
In terms of gradient, research (Ebben 2008) suggests that optimum benefits occur with a gradient of approximately 6-10% (particularly with regards to overspeed training). However, I generally prefer gradients of ~4-6% for downhill running.
Downhill running training summary:
- Downhill running training is an often overlooked training method, that benefits running performance in a number of ways
- It strengthens key muscles such as the knee extensors
- Downhill run training causes adaptations that protects against DOMS
- The adaptation also reduces the negative effects downhill running can have on running efficiency
- This may protect against reductions in running efficiency during prolonged undulating races
- Downhill running is often used as a form overspeed training, allowing us to run at faster speeds than we can on flat terrain.
- A combination of downhill and uphill training has been shown to be particularly effective.