Downhill running – up does not equal down
Running uphill does not equal downhill running.
The faster speed of running downhill does not equal the slower speed of running uphill. The rule of thumb expressed in Jack Daniels’ Running Formula the classic book by running guru Jack Daniels, states that every percent gradient of uphill will slow you by 12 to 15 seconds per mile, and every percent of gradient downhill will speed you by 8 seconds per mile. You do not get back the extra time it takes to get up the hill on the downhill.
Not surprisingly, because of the increased gravitational forces, greater forces are transmitted to the legs during downhill running. What is somewhat surprising is the magnitude of the difference. A 2005 study by Junger Gottschall and Rodger Kram found that impact forces increase 54% above level running, and parallel braking forces increase by 73%. Downhill running substantially increases the probability of repetitive use injury.
Speed increases when running downhill because of increased step/stride length and increased cadence. This increases ground reaction and impact forces, thus increasing the risk of injury and tissue damage.
It is well accepted that downhill running is the culprit when it comes to delayed onset muscle soreness. Runners who have had the pleasure of running the first 17 miles of the Boston Marathon, which is basically all downhill, remember well the sore thigh muscles which occur after the marathon. Scientific studies implicate the eccentric muscle contractions (lengthening muscle contractions), which occur with downhill running and lead to delayed onset muscle soreness.
Hills and training
For several reasons, novice runners are more susceptible to the increased forces associated with downhill running. Novice runners tend to have a higher body mass index, resulting in higher ground reaction forces. Novice runners are at increased risk of experiencing shin pain, which can be exacerbated by the force of downhill running. (Walking/running on the treadmill up an incline is an accepted method of managing shin pain.) In addition, novice runners’ muscles are not well conditioned to handle the increased demand for the eccentric muscle contractions required for downhill running. Until their muscles are better conditioned, novice runners should consider running around a hill rather than over and/or running the uphill while walking the downhill.
Prior exposure to downhill running can prevent exercise-induced muscle soreness. The colloquial saying, “Drink the hair of the dog” applies, meaning the best cure or prevention of the exercise-induced muscle soreness associated with exposure to downhill running is to run downhill more often.
Some coaches see downhill running as the desired training technique, one that helps runners to learn a faster cadence. Other coaches advocate avoiding the damaging effects of downhill running while focusing instead on repeat uphill runs to increase the intensity of the workout and to strengthen the muscles in the leg. Sebastian Coe, who held the 1500-meter world record, used to do intervals uphill and his dad would drive him back to the bottom.
Cues for smarter downhill running
The increased risks of downhill running can be mitigated by consciously increasing step/stride length from the hip joint and not reaching by extending the knee joint and lower leg forward. Keep the foot strike close to the center of mass (pelvis). When the foot strikes the ground, the knee should be slightly bent allowing the knee to lessen some of the high ground reaction forces.
Avoid landing with a thud. A thud landing sends tremendous shock all the way up to your spine.
Stay erect and avoid leaning backward. The trunk should be perpendicular to the slope of the hill, which likely means a slight forward lean.
The arms should be held away from the body for balance on steep downhills.
Run downhill as if you are sneaking up behind someone. Keep your feet under you and the footfall as quiet as possible.
The key to downhill running is control. If you go too fast, you burn excess energy and risk falling or straining the body. If you go too slow, consciously leaning back or braking as many beginners do, you’ll place a severe strain on the legs and lose time in races. Running up or down hill, it’s important to hold yourself together and to stay relaxed while maintaining control of your movement.
Making the most of hills and races
Running hills is hard work and it hurts. But it can be enjoyable.
Experienced runners can reflect how the topography of racecourses influences the level of enjoyment. For me, marathon courses are mostly flat, like the Mardi Gras Marathon, on the causeway across Lake Pontchartrain are fast but less enjoyable until I hit one of the overpasses that boats go under. The brief up and down on the overpass can feel like an enjoyable relief.
Uphill racecourses like the Grandfather Mountain marathon are slow, and it’s joyful to accomplish a difficult event. Downhill racecourses like the Boston Marathon are fast, but they hurt afterward.
Racecourses like the old Florida Relays Marathon, with equal up and down rolling hills, are enjoyable.
The information on this website is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You are encouraged to perform additional research regarding any information contained on available through this website with other sources and consult with your physician.
Damien Howell Physical Therapy – 804-647-9499 – Fax: 866-879-8591 At-Home, At Office, At Fitness Facility – I come to you, I do home visits Damien@damienhowellpt.com
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