Some runners prefer to tread on the smooth, even surfaces offered by paved roads. Others would rather navigate the rough terrain found on trail runs. Whichever type of running and racing you prefer, what you may find is that you also have to contend with hills along your routes.
Going uphill is a slog, it's true, but you lean into it and work your way to the top. Then what? What goes up must come down, or so the saying goes. You're bound to find that running downhill can actually be more difficult and potentially more hazardous than going up.
The muscles you use for climbing a hill naturally get a lot of work, whether you're running or not, and are therefore better prepared to perform. When going downhill, however, you rely on different muscle groups that may not have the same strength and endurance.
This can not only slow your gait, but also create potential hazards like tripping, falling, and/or impact injuries if you try to barrel your way down the hill at top speed. The good news is that you can work on your downhill running form in a variety of ways in order to maintain speed and safety, as well as take advantage of gravity to recover after a climb. Here are a few tips to help you perfect your downhill running form.
The main power for running comes from muscle groups in the legs, but your core muscles are what stabilize your body and help to control movement. They are essential to maintaining proper form and keeping up speed when running downhill.
The tendency when you run down a hill is to lean back and slow down. As a runner, you don't necessarily want to slow down. Like a cyclist, you want to use the force of gravity to increase your speed with less effort. Of course, you don't have wheels beneath you, so leaning forward and coasting isn't exactly an option.
If your core muscles are strong, however, you can keep your body erect and maintain your momentum with less risk of losing control and taking a tumble. If you have yet to add core exercises to your running regimen and you're interested in adding hills, now is a great time to focus on abs and lats.
Running is a high-impact activity that is hard on joints like the ankles, knees, and hips at the best of times. When you're running downhill, every step can become even more jarring and place additional stress and demand on your joints to perform.
You therefore need to strengthen joints and the muscles surrounding them in order to increase stability and avoid pain and injury. You should speak with your physician, physical therapist, or personal trainer about exercises for this purpose. Often, balance challenges and activities that increase strength through both lateral and linear movements are key.
If you've never really worked with inclines and declines when running before, it's best to start small and work your way up to greater and greater slopes. If you were skiing, you'd start with bunny hills, not black diamonds. The same basic principle applies to training for hill running.
When you're not accustomed to running downhill, chances are good your first inclination will be to look at your feet. Unfortunately, this is terrible form. You'd never do this on flat ground.
Instead you should try to maintain a gaze about 10-15 feet ahead of you to watch where you're going and avoid hazards in your path. Your ability to do this may depend somewhat on the grade of the slope you're on, but any time you're looking at your feet you'll naturally slow.
You might think shortening your stride will slow you down, but if you quicken your step as you do so, you should be able to maintain your speed while reducing the potential for missing a step and taking a spill on a downhill grade. There's another good reason to shorten your stride, however, and it has to do with reducing impact on your joints.
A shorter stride on a downhill slope will help you to keep your knees bent and hit the pavement on the ball or middle area of your foot, rather than on the heel. This will lessen the jarring impact on all of your joints.