This simple modification to the humble squat exercise will help your legs handle the added stress of downhill running. Essential when you’re training for a hilly race such as the City to Surf. Combine the squat with some eccentric hamstring strengthening, and you’ll find your City to Surf race experience is a whole lot better.
Fall gracefully. That’s about it really, but hard to achieve when you fear you might fall flat on your face at any moment. Firstly, before you do any significant amounts of downhill running, you need to prepare your body for running downhill.
Downhills are often preceded by uphills, so first thing to remember is to leave something in the tank for what’s coming after the uphill part of your run. If you get to the top of the hill so spent you can hardly stand up, your downhill form will be somewhat less than perfect, and you won’t be able to reap the benefits to be gained from running downhill well. See our article for more on uphill running technique.
And now for the downhills.
Gently lean your body into the hill. Relax and it’ll gently pull you down. Don’t lean back and try to brake yourself. Fight it and you’ll end up with sore quads and frustration when you see people powering past you on the downhill-those very same people you just overtook on the uphill!
It’s tempting to take huge leaps when running downhill, but do try not to overstride. Keep your feet low to the ground, and stay light on your feet. Your leg turnover should pick up. Keep your steps quick. Your stride will naturally lengthen a little as the ground drops away beneath you, so to keep your steps quick, you may have to try to shorten your strides up a little. Each footstrike should be very light and very short. With shorter, more frequent steps you absorb less shock per stride.
Lean forward into the hill. The lean should come from the ankles, not the hips. Shoulders should be slightly in front of you. Land with your foot just a little bit behind your hips, not directly underneath you.
Practice makes perfect.
The more you practice running down hill, the more confident you will get, the more relaxed you will get, the better you will get at it, the more confident you will get……Take every opportunity to focus on your downhill form when you are out running, and include some specific downhill sessions each week. Start out with a short gradual slope perform 30 second downhill intervals at race pace. Gradually build up the length of your intervals and your speed down the hill, to about 20 secs faster than your goal race pace.
The most important aspect, as with any training plan, is to avoid overdoing it. It’s normal to be sore as you adapt to downhill training, but too much downhill running can be detrimental, leaving you overly fatigued and prone to injury.
Lastly, don’t expect to get the hang of downhill running on your first attempt. Like most thing, it’ll take a bit of practice before you have that light bulb moment. When you get it right, you’ll know.
View this video for more on hill running.
Downhill running can be very taxing on the body due to the increased impact, but a few key strategies will reduce the impact forces on your knees and the rest of your body, and also help you to lose less energy whilst increasing your overall speed and efficiency. Leg and core strength is important for all running, but particularly before embarking on a training period which emphasises downhill running. The quadriceps muscles, or quads, the muscles at the front of your thigh, can take quite a hammering running downhill. You need to work on them, as well as the tendons and ligaments in ankles, knees, hips and lower back.
Prepare your body for downhill running.
As with any new exercise regime, start out slowly, with one set of 12-15 repetitions per exercise, and progress over to 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions over a few weeks.
Lunges. Strengthen quads, hamstrings and hips. Stationary lunges are safer for your knees, especially if you are just starting out. As you get stronger, hold hand weights whilst you are doing them, or progress to alternating legs or walking lunges. If you already have knee or balance issues, you might be better to give the walking lunges a miss.
Start with feet hips’ width apart. Take a step forward with one leg. This is your stating position. Bend the front knee to 90 degrees, or until your knee just taps the floor. You need to keep your knee in good alignment, making sure the knee is over the ankle, not beyond the toes. Aim to keep your knee in line with your second toe, not your big toe. If you are too unstable to begin with, place a chair beside you to use for balance. Try not to lean on the chair though. Its best to perform this one in front of a mirror so you can check your knee out. Pause at the bottom, and push through your front heel to return to starting position.
Great for strengthening core. Start by doing 3 times sets to exhaustion, and increase the length of time you hold the plank as you get stronger.
Lie face down with your forearms on the floor. Push up so your elbows are under your shoulders and arms bent at 90 degrees. Be sure your elbows are under your shoulders, or even slightly under your body, to prevent shoulder injury. Hold your body in a straight line from your head to your feet.
An easier version of the plank is to perform it on your knees. Just bend your knees and rest on them for support rather than your toes. Your body is then held in a straight line from your head to your knees. It’s called a plank, because your body should be like plank of wood, not rubbery through the middle.
Keep your head in line with your body. Focus on squeezing your buttocks, draw in your navel to your spine, push up through your shoulders and breathe.
These can be done on stairs or benches. Great for strengthening your quads, and also for activating your buttock muscles.
Stand facing the bench, feet hips’ width apart. Step up on the bench with your left foot, and push off with your right foot. Squeeze the bum muscles in your left side as you do so. While standing on the bench on your left foot, raise the right knee up to the height of your waist and pause. Keeping your posture tall, step down with the right foot. Perform the entire set on one leg and repeat on the other.
To make it more challenging, keep your right foot off the floor. Lower it close to the level of the floor and raise back up. Even harder, add a hop at the top of the bench (definitely not for beginners)
Keep your torso tall and avoid leaning to one side. Perform without weights to start off with, and on a low bench. If you find you are bending over rather than standing tall, or are pushing off with your hands on your thighs to help you up, drop down to a lower bench height. As with any exercise performed on one leg, these are great for developing balance and strengthening muscles in your lower leg and foot.
When your legs are strong enough you can includes some hopping and bounding drills so your muscles get used to the eccentric contractions which occur when running down hill. You’ll need a good couple of months of consistent leg strength training before any kind of plyometric work. When you do start plyometrics you MUST be very sure to ease into it gently, otherwise you’ll find yourself very sore and stiff, and possibly injured.