It’s All Downhill Running From Here


If you’ve ever run a race with long or steep downhills, you know what running downhill can do to your legs. Even though running uphill seems harder, it’s the downhills that cause the biggest problems. The reason downhills are so tough is because of all the gravity-induced eccentric muscle contractions, during which your muscle fibres are forced to lengthen, causing them to tear.

The muscle damage decreases your muscles’ ability to produce force, which slows your pace on the flat and uphill portions of the race and leads to delayed-onset muscle soreness, which includes an inflammatory response and lasts for a few days following the race as your muscle fibres heal.

Eccentric contractions are also unique in that fewer muscle fibres are active compared to other types of muscle contractions, causing the force generated to be distributed over a smaller area of muscle. A greater force over a smaller area equals greater tension, which causes even more damage.

Downhill running also affects the running economy, the amount of oxygen you consume to maintain a given pace. A number of studies have shown a significant decrease in running economy for up to one week following a 30-minute downhill run on a 10 to 15 percent grade.

Downhill Training

Damaging muscle fibres with eccentric contractions makes them heal back stronger, protecting them from future damage. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 1985 found that just a single 30-minute run downhill at 10 percent grade had a prophylactic effect on muscle damage and soreness for up to six weeks.

Therefore, while you can expect your muscles to be sore after the first time running downhill, subsequent downhill workouts will cause less soreness. Add downhills to your training a little at a time. Start with a short, gradual slope of about two to three percent grade, and progress to steeper and longer descents.

Treat downhill workouts as hard sessions, and make sure you recover before your next hard workout since your legs need recovery from the stress of going downhill, just like they do from any hard workout. Time has the greatest effect on healing your muscle fibres from the eccentric contractions of downhill running. So make sure you back off of the hills in the final few weeks before a race.

One thing to be aware of when training downhill is your mechanics since it’s easy to overstride when running downhill. Instead of focusing on reaching forward for a longer stride—which already happens from the pull of gravity—emphasize a quicker leg turnover, which will keep your momentum going forward.

Running on trails requires even greater caution since you won’t have as much time to decide where to place your feet with the faster speeds attained on the downhill portions, so look ahead a few steps so you can prepare since the footing on trails is often unreliable.

Downhill Racing

Trashed quads and faster than usual speeds during downhill races require a keen sense of pace, confidence to stick to your plan when others have taken the pace out too fast, and a good dose of self-restraint. Ideally, you want to race downhill with the same feeling that you use when you’re racing on flat ground.

Practice holding your goal race pace while you’re heading downhill so you can duplicate the effort during the race. Because momentum will make your goal pace feel much easier than it does on a flat ground, it’s important to understand how to hold that intensity so you don’t run the downhill portions too fast and trash your quads.

The best downhill running skill to develop during training is the ability to run with different exertion levels. For example, learn to simulate 10K race pace intensity, rather than 10K pace, while running downhill. While your pace will be faster than 10K pace, you’ll develop the awareness and control to differentiate between different paces for different downhill environments. When racing downhill, focus on running at 10K intensity, given that the pace will fluctuate depending on the nature of the course.

Next time you train for a downhill race, prepare beforehand and get plenty of recoveries. If you train smart enough, you’ll be able to charge up the other side of the hills while your competitors are laboring from the downhill damage.

Downhill Workouts

To train for downhill races, try these workouts.

For complete downhill races:

  • 4 x 800 metres downhill (2-3% grade) at 5K race pace effort
  • 3 x 1.5 to 2K downhill (2-3% grade) at 10K race pace effort
  • 5 x 100 to 200 metres downhill (6-8% grade) at 5K race pace effort with walk back up hill as recovery

For races with both downhill and uphill:

  • 4 sets of 1.5 to 2K downhill (2-3% grade) at tempo pace effort + 400 metres uphill at 5K race pace effort
  • 4 sets of 800 metres uphill + 800 metres downhill (2-3% grade) at 5K race pace effort with 3 minutes recovery


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