Downhill Running

 In Running training, Ultramarathons

The downhill sections of marathons or ultra marathons are where you can either gain or lose a lot of time depending on your training. Whilst many runners incorporate uphill repeats as part of their training very few target downhill running. Running downhill is a skill that needs to be trained to improve. It also places a greater load on the legs which unless you have trained for will destroy your quads and leave you with legs barely capable of a shuffle.

Downhill training is not only useful for a hilly course. If your race is flat then adding downhill running in training will strengthen your legs so they won’t suffer as much damage in the later stages of a race.This will allow you to maintain a good pace instead of resorting to a survival shuffle or worse still walking.

I know through my own training that adding downhill training into my routine made a massive difference to my ability to run downhill and also to be able to continue running in the latter stages of a 100 mile ultra.

I’d like to share a few strategies and tips that I have used to good effect.

Build slowly

Downhill running places a far greater load on the joints so must be built up gradually. Start with incorporating hills in your normal runs until your legs can handle the increased load without any extra post run soreness

Hill repeats

As I have discussed in an earlier blog, uphill repeats are a great way to increase fitness. But what goes up must come down and the downhill section can also be used for a training effect. Instead of walking or jogging back down take a short recovery at the top of the hill then run back down. Focus on running easily and taking short strides. Try and land softly and lightly with each stride rather than over striding and thumping your heel into the ground. At this stage you are not running fast downhill just running comfortably.

Downhill repeats

Once your legs have adapted to running comfortably down hill you can start to increase the speed. Find a short hill that takes approx 1-2 minutes to run down and run slowly uphill then run fast downhill. The pace should be faster than your normal run but not anywhere near flat out. Depending on what you are training for will depend on how many of these you should do. Progress by doing more repeats or a longer hill not by going faster.

Downhill efforts

By now your legs and joints should be well adapted to running downhill so this time treat the downhill section as the effort and uphill as the recovery. Find a hill that takes 2-4 minutes to run down. Run the downhill hard and slowly jog back uphill. Repeat 3-5 times. Running fast downhill involves a high degree of muscular co-ordination that takes time to develop. Having the confidence to just let go and fly downhill comes with practice so have patience . Crashing face first into the ground at speed is not fun!

Up and downhill

Now you can combine both. Find a hill that takes 2-5 minutes to run up. Run hard uphill then turn around and run hard downhill . Jog slowly at the bottom for approx 2-5 minutes and then go again. Do as many repeats as you can fit into 30-45 minutes. You might start with 20 minutes and build up to 45. This will teach your legs to run fast downhill even when your legs are tired.

Long downhills

If you have access to long steep downhills, lucky you. You can do some tempo running downhill. Start with 10 minutes of running hard downhill and build up to 20-30 minutes. Run these at the same kind of effort you would run a half marathon.

Stairs

Stairs can be a useful substitute if you don’t have access to long downhills . The longer the staircase the better. A great workout is to go up walking 2 at a time and then run down one at a time . Perform intervals of 10 minutes initially and build up to 20 minutes repeating 2-3 times with 5 minutes recovery between each interval. Not only is this a challenging workout for the legs it also develops fast leg speed which is often necessary descending rocky steep trails.

Terrain

Choose terrain as specific to the race you are training for as possible. Running down a steep road requires a vastly different muscular recruitment pattern compared with running down a technical off road trail.

Putting it all together

Here is an example training week taken from my diary when training for the UTMB ( a 100 mile race involving 9000m of ascent descent)

Monday

Stairs- 8 flights of stairs x 15 in 20 minutes. 5 minutes rest and repeat twice more. I built this up to be able to do it with a backpack weighing 8 kg on.

Tuesday
Speed session at the track 5 x 1 mile repeats , 60 seconds recovery.

Wednesday
2 hour off road easy hilly run

Thursday
Weights – Dynamic Lunges and Step Ups

Friday
Up and downhill repeats.
Hill took approx 4 min to run up and 2.30 to run down. All out effort repeated 5x with 4 minute easy jog recovery at the bottom

Saturday
Walk/ jog uphill , run downhill

I did this for 5 hours using various off road hills that took 1-2 minutes to run up (I would have preferred much longer but that was the longest technical off road track convenient to me) . The downhill section wasn’t flat out or even that hard , it was run at a fast comfortable pace. I’d cover over 100 hill repeats in this way.

Sunday off

This is obviously at the extreme end of hill training and it took me quite a while to build up to this but it was very effective for the UTMB. After the half way mark of the race no-one passed me up or downhill and I was able to run all the way to the finish , running every downhill confidently without my quads blowing up.

Word of warning.

Downhill running hurts, lots! Build up gradually and give your muscles time to adjust. When you legs can recover the next day with no more soreness than you would get from a hard run then you can increase the distance or speed.

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Showing 14 comments
  • Andy Kretsch, Germany
    Reply

    Oh, boy. What great training advice. Thanx a lot!!!! Love your blog. Andy

    • Andy DuBois
      Reply

      Thanks for your comments Andy.

  • Manuel
    Reply

    Hi, this is a great article. However, I think it Is important to point out, as you did in the last section, that running downhill can be dangerous. Not only for blowing up your quads, but also for breaking your bones due to wrong leg positions and/or the repetitive impacts. I have experienced that in the case of my tibia.
    As you say, start slowly and progress gently. People who know, they have not 100% correct leg positions can do specific muscular training on their hips, feet and knees to compensate and to reduce the risk of an injury.
    Thanks for sharing this great article! I will definitely add this blog to my favs.

    • Andy DuBois
      Reply

      Thanks for your comments Manuel – running downhill definitely places more stress on your legs and must be gradually built up , strengthening exercises also help to condition the legs for downhill running

  • Chris Tack
    Reply

    Spot on advise, after being away from the hills for 6 months I did a marathon last weekend with a big technical descent in it about 8 miles in; I ran down it perhaps a little slower than usually but still pacey….cue smashed leg running (walking) for 18 miles…ouchy. Miss this training at your peril…or walk the downhills 😉

  • Kim Welcome
    Reply

    Absolutely love your blog Andy, and read all your great tips! None of the elevation here like Buffalo, but I specially like what you said at Sky Camp about reps and have found places that do the job in Adelaide (Black Hill, Mt Lofty and Chapman’s Track)
    Thanks Andy

  • Andrew Highfield
    Reply

    Thanks Andy

    Just completed my first 76 km ultra and quads tightened up after 45 km, could not understand it, as run 100 mile weeks. This article helps me to understand whys

    • Andy DuBois
      Reply

      Thanks for your comments Andrew – glad to hear the article explains a few things – hopefully that will help you in your training so your quads are better in your next ultra

  • Andrew Highfield
    Reply

    Thanks Andy

    Just completed my first 76 km ultra and quads tightened up after 45 km, could not understand it, as run 100 mile weeks. This article helps me to understand why.

  • Paula
    Reply

    Thanks for this article. I read it a while back and have since then made sure to run the downhills fast in training and it definitely helps prevent an agonizing race recovery.

    • Andy DuBois
      Reply

      Glad it helped Paula

  • surjit
    Reply

    Andy DuBois u have good and helpful blog ,i am beginner and i and completed 5 half marathon best time was 2:00 hours. yesterday i try full marathon i finishe first lap 21 km in 2:10 hours and hope i can finish approx 4:30 hours , but after 26 km i was start crawling , hardly run 30 km then my ankle pain start annd not able to run so i start walking with long step and fishes 5:35 hours so bad to feel all lagging runner crossed me first time i was not able to catch 5:00 hour bus lols , my fuel was fine but i guess track was many underpasses with downhill and uphill and i was not well prepared for that , i practice uphill but never thought downhill also required same , now i will rest some days then start training and register new full marathon thanks for ur blog EVERY MILE WITH SMILE

    • Andy DuBois
      Reply

      HI Surjit – thanks for your comment – good luck with your training for next marathon- hope the blog helped give you some direction with your training

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