Karen Parnell from Chili Tri is no stranger to hill running. Find out why you should include hill running in your routine and get some great tips for downhill running.
Benefits of Hill Running
The best runners in the world run hills all the time, both in their daily training and in specific hill workouts. The main reason they do this is:
- Hills can improve your running form by increasing knee lift, joint mobility, and neuromuscular fitness (how well your nervous system communicates with your muscles).
- Hills improve muscular strength (your legs’ ability to produce force) and power (the ability to produce a lot of force quickly).
- Hills provide an added cardiovascular boost.
A 2006 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discovered that sprinters who trained on uphill’s and downhills improved their speed and foot turnover more than workouts that only included uphills or flat surfaces.
Hill Running Technique
I live up a mountain (750 metres or 2460 feet) so when I go for a run there will always be some uphill and downhill running! Over the years my knees have become a bit sore which I have learned to live with more or less.
I have always taken the time to strengthen my legs, hips and core to ensure that my knee’s keep aligned and the knee cap stable during cycling and running. However, despite this, I was still suffering from a dull pain behind my knee cap on the down hills.
I have tried resting, ice and stretching well after each run but nothing seems to work. So, I have been researching techniques for downhill running. I like to experiment on myself and I think I’ve found what works for me (and may work for you if you suffer in the same way?).
I have no pain running uphill and even though it’s harder from a cardio perspective it feels good and is certainly a great way to get your fitness and speed back quicker than running on the flat.
Most people focus on their uphill running technique which involves:
- “Running tall,” with your head, shoulders, hips, and ankles aligned.
- Looking ahead rather than down, and using your arms more as you lift your knees, but keeping your shoulders and arms relaxed with the insides of your wrists passing near your waist.
- Leaning forward from the ankle and not the hip.
However, when we hit the top we tend to think of the downhill as free wheeling on our bikes and switch off when it comes to technique.
Switching off on the downhill may cause you to start to heel strike, which is always bad. It’s like slamming on the brakes with every stride. But when downhill running, this heel strike will be amplified and will cause added force of gravity on your muscles and joints when you land. This can cause muscle damage as the eccentric contractions, or elongating of your muscle fibres, stretch under tension to help your body stay in control with each step you take going down.
The most natural way to go downhill once gravity takes over is to lean back and strike on your heels to brake your body and prevent a fall. Each time you land on your heel, you send a jolt of force and tension through your back, quads, and your hips.
By the time you reach the bottom of the hill, you’d think you just got the recovery you needed after a steep incline.However, instead you stressed your legs and could be feeling even more fatigued. I have been doing this and not even thinking about it until my knees were starting to hurt during the downhill running and were feeling even worse in the morning.
Learning how to run downhill efficiently can:
- Improve your foot speed.
- Increase your range of motion.
- Make you a smoother, more efficient runner on any terrain.
- Reduce your risk of injuries as you become adept at not crashing into the ground.
Tips for Running Downhill
Following a few weeks of technique tweaks I have found the following works for me:
1) Perfect the Forefoot Strike
Rather than striking your heels on the ground, focus on landing on your forefoot, to strike the ground at your centre of gravity. Never step in front of your body so that you’re leaning forward. Your body should be centered over your knees.
You may find this a bit strange, especially on steep downhills but with a little practice you will trust in your technique. What I found was that I needed to use a pair of trainers that fitted very well as there was some extra impact on my toes.
2) Take Shorter Strides
You should take lots of small, quick steps to get down the hill. A quicker rhythm helps you land softly and spring off the ground more easily (if you hear your feet pounding the pavement you’re doing it wrong).
Your cadence and running form will improve. You’ll be getting your body used to taking more strides per minute. This will help you become faster over time.
3) Practice on a Soft Surface
Before you start to use this new technique, consider trying out your new running technique on more forgiving terrain.
Since your body absorbs a big impact with each foot strike, start off on a softer terrain, like grass as you work on your downhill running technique.
4) Add Strength and Conditioning Exercises
Your downhill running prep isn’t just limited to the great outdoors. You can add in some specific strength and conditioning exercises in to your home or gym routine. The focus of these exercises will be on the quads, glutes and ankles.
This exercise develops powerful quads for stronger hill climbing. It will also help with ankle stability.
Start first with a low height (no more than a six-inch step or the bottom step of your stairs at home). Stand on top of the step. Using one leg at a time, step down to the floor with one foot, and immediately step down with the other foot. Then return back to the starting position on top of the step.
Continue doing this for 10 reps, then alternate the starting leg, and repeat for three rounds total. These mimics the action of your stride moving downhill with your front leg lowering first, and stabilizing the knee and hip of the back leg.
This exercise works the glutes, hamstrings, and quads (quads are the primary muscles used for running uphill).
While holding dumbbells and keeping your feet shoulder width apart, shift your weight to your heels as you lower into a seated position. Keep your eyes forward and descend until your hamstrings are parallel to the ground before you stand back up. Do 25 reps at a controlled pace.
This exercise works the glutes, hamstrings, and calves, which give you stability and control on downhills.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Bend at the waist and knees and pick up a pair of dumbbells from the floor.
As you stand up, pinch your shoulder blades together. Then lower back down, tapping the dumbbells on the ground before standing back up. Do 25 reps at a controlled pace.
This exercise builds stability and strength that helps you maintain good running form while going up and down.
Start with your feet pointing straight ahead and holding dumbbells. Step forward with your left foot, then bend the left knee until the hamstring is parallel to the floor. Your right knee should touch or come just above the ground.
To avoid injury, make sure the left knee stays behind the toes. Step back up and repeat on the other side. Complete 20 total reps, alternating legs.
Single Leg Calf Raises
This exercise will help strengthen your ankles and calf muscles.
Balance on one leg while doing a calf raise. If it is too difficult to do on just one leg, then start out using both feet until your balance increases. Stand close to a wall or railing for support. Start with 6 repetitions and increase from there.
This exercise also works on ankle strength and stability. It also has the added benefit of being able to be done anywhere.
Come up and balance on your toes as high as you can. Walk forward and backward for a set amount of time in each direction. Start with 30 seconds in each direction and increase time from there.
By incorporating downhill into your training, you will be able to handle them better, save your body from future injuries and literally make or break your performance during your next race.
About Karen Parnell
Karen Parnell is the Founder and Head Coach at Chili Tri in Spain. Karen is also a Personal Trainer.
Chili Tri offers triathlon camps, coaching and training to help athletes achieve their goals.
To find out more about Karen Parnell and her services, head over to Chili Tri.
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