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13 Tips for Running Downhill: Technique & Injury Prevention (2020)

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Is running downhill is something you want to try? Or perhaps you’ve already attempted it numerous times, and you want to know how to improve your technique so that you can nail every obstacle in your next race (and outrun your competitors).

Not to worry; we’ve put together 13 tips on how to improve your downhill running technique, so that you don’t have to worry about getting injured, or even worse… finishing in second place! (we’re joking, of course). 

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#1 - Engage Your Core 

graphic of the core muscles

When mastering your downhill running technique, one of the first things that you should learn to do is to engage your core. For a full in-depth guide on how to do this (as it can be pretty complicated if you haven’t tried it before), feel free to take a look at our article on engaging your core.

Why should you engage your core when running downhill? Let us explain.

The core is what allows you to keep good posture and form when running, as it acts as a foundation for supporting your other muscles. 

If you engage it, then you’ll get much more from the exercise than you would if you chose not to. The benefits post-exercise are just as prevalent as those during, so we can’t recommend it enough! 

Amongst other things, the core is responsible for the following during your run:

  • Keeping your body stable 
  • Stabilising the pelvis (freeing your legs and supporting the spine) 
  • Boosting strength in your arms and legs

These things may not seem too important if you haven’t got much experience in running or running downhill in particular, but they certainly are. 

The core keeping your body stable will not only protect you from injury (you don’t want to lean too far in one direction and end up taking a tumble down the hill!), but it will also be beneficial to your fitness progress, and allow you to run faster and stronger than you would have done otherwise. 

Your pelvis, when correctly positioned thanks to the engagement of the core, will aid the movement in your legs as you run. 

graphic of a pelvis

The movement will be free and you’ll have a larger range of motion, meaning much more ability to control yourself as you’re running downhill. Not only this, but it will also provide some support to your upper body and spine, which is another bonus in avoiding injuries and building on your fitness. 

Last but not least, it will also boost the strength in your arms and legs due to it being a central muscle group. It’s the main muscle group that packs power and a greater ROM behind the muscles in the arms and the legs, meaning that you’ll have even more freedom of movement with a solid core. 

#2 - Choose the Right Slope 

This is just as important for your likelihood of sticking to a routine when running downhill as it is for your safety. 

If you go too steep too fast, even if you’re an experienced runner (just not in downhill running), you could end up with a nasty injury. Due to being experienced runners ourselves, we know all too well how things can take a nosedive (literally), but everyone has to start somewhere!

running downhill graphic showing 8% incline

You should definitely start with a hill or slope that has no more than an 8% gradual incline and then work your way up with tougher hills. This should involve a training routine that progresses lightly and where the intensity rises consistently over time. 

Need some help calculating how steep the hills you’re sizing up are? No worries; you can use a GPS watch to get a good estimate. 

Once you find a hill that you want to measure, all you need to do is set the GPS watch to track elevation, run up the hill (starting from the bottom) and then measure the change in elevation. Then, you divide the figure that you just captured by the distance ran in feet. If you got 00.6, for example, that would be a 6% incline.  

#3 - Always Look Ahead 

We know how tempting it can be to glare down at your feet when running downhill. If you haven’t done much running this way before, then it seems like the most natural and ‘safe’ way to do things! 

However, this is where you need to be cautious. You’ll be shocked to know that looking at your feet only impedes your ability to execute your downhill running technique safely. 

 

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It disengages your hip extensor muscles (hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles) in favour of your flexor muscles, which in turn increases your risk of injury/falling. The hip extensor muscles are responsible for stabilising your joints and body in general, so you can see where the danger lies here!

If they’re disengaged or in the wrong position they’ll have to work harder to stabilise your body or keep it neutral/properly upright, and this will leave you much more susceptible to injury. Avoid injury or hip pain when running downhill by looking ahead!    

woman running downhill

This means that your legs will have to work even harder than they would otherwise, which can lead to strains or sprains along the road. That’s something that you definitely want to avoid with a proper technique. 

So, how can you fix this urge to look down at your feet when you learn how to run downhill? 

The truth is that it comes with practice. Trust us on this one! Next time you attempt running down a hill, try keeping your eyes fixed on the ground around 4-6 feet ahead of you (on a hill that isn’t too steep if it’s your first time doing this). 

It may seem strange at first, but you’ll soon see that this is the best downhill running technique for both fitness and safety. If you do it this way, you’ll strike the right balance between planning your route and letting your instincts take over. 

Keeping your line of vision 4-6 feet in front of you, as though you’re holding a small ball under your chin, and engaging your core simultaneously means that your hips will stay in the correct and neutral position. 

You’ll be able to balance better, your body will feel stable and solid as you run, and both your arms and legs will benefit from a greater range of motion. Your hips will be able to absorb the force from running correctly, and you’ll be a lot less likely to injure yourself. 

#4 - Relax Your Mind (Switch Off Your Brain) 

graphic of a man relaxing

This may sound easier said than done, but it’s one of the most useful downhill running tips that you’ll receive before taking to the hills (or for running in general!).  

Anxiety surrounding this style of running can seriously impede your running downhill technique, especially if you’ve never done it before, or if you’ve heard about a hill that you need to tackle as part of the big race that you’re entering… 

Don’t panic! We’re going to do everything that we can to expel this nervousness so that you can use the perfect running downhill technique in every challenge (5k, 10k, marathons, triathlons etc.) and always feel prepared for what is to come. 

In their essay 'Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement', Keith A. Knaufman, Carol R. Glass and Timothy R. Pineau state:

The mental skills cultivated through mindfulness training (e.g. enhanced attentional capacity, emotion regulation) seem especially well-matched to sport performance enhancement and can also potentially promote wellness in athletes by helping them cope better with stress.

This highlights the link between improving your mindfulness and subsequently witnessing a spike in your performance when running, and we couldn't agree more! Not only does improving your mindfulness help to make you feel better holistically, but it also helps to curb any anxious feelings during the run itself. 

It’s normal to be paranoid about injuring yourself, but you’ll never get over your fear if you don’t try! We know it sounds blunt to advise you to simply ‘relax your mind’, but this is merely an end goal to achieve with practice. 

If you’re really struggling with anxiety during this exercise, find the hill with the smallest possible incline and practice there. Train your eyes to look ahead, imagine you’re holding a small ball underneath your chin, and start slow (like we mentioned earlier). 

Try to literally ‘switch off your brain’ and rely on your instincts. 

clear your mind when running downhill

Some tips on achieving a calm state of mind beforehand to aid you in this process are to meditate pre-run, focus on your body and how it feels rather than what is around you, and to reflect on how you feel after the exercise. If you feel strong and empowered after achieving a new goal, this will encourage you to tackle your fear more often! 

You can check out OriGym’s article on Mindful Running for more tips on this, as we go into the whole concept in good depth.

Follow these downhill running tips to lose yourself in the exercise, as well as dispelling your fear. You’ll be flying down those hills at the speed of lightning in no time! 

#5 - Lean Forwards at the Hips and Ankles 

If you’ve ever been hiking, then chances are you’ve been conditioned to think that leaning backwards when travelling downhill is the most effective and safest way to go. However, we’re about to turn things on their head and say that this is a myth…

We know, it sounds pretty crazy since it's the opposite of what you’ve been told for as long as you can remember. However, it is true that leaning slightly forwards is an essential downhill running technique if you want to build up to moving at super-speed. 

Leaning slightly forward at the hips and ankles rather than at the shoulders will be much safer and a better practise of downhill running form. It will ensure that you stay in control as you pick up speed, especially with regular practise. 

It’s important to get this part right as if you lean too far forward you could topple over, or if you lean too far back you risk sliding backwards and injuring your feet/ankles. Practise on hills with a lower incline at first so that you can master this without picking up too much speed and losing control! 

TIP: when we say leaning forward slightly at the ankles, we mean something like the diagram below. You can still keep your body relatively perpendicular whilst doing this, which makes it the most stable way of running down a hill. 

#6 - Keep Your Legs Bent (Slightly)

graphic showing how not to run downhill with straight legs

First things first: by bending your legs, we don’t mean running downhill in a squat position. That would be bizarre and likely cause serious knee injury when running downhill. However, our point is that running with straight legs would be just as dangerous (and still looks pretty ridiculous to those watching). 

The best way to run downhill in terms of leg placement and angle is to keep them slightly bent, so as to provide your body with some ‘suspension’ as well as extra stability.

Not only will this protect you from any recurring injury or knee pain when running downhill, but it will also help to keep your body stable and make it less likely for you to take a tumble. 

Falling over is never fun, but it’s especially dangerous if you’re running downhill! Keeping your legs slightly bent will help you to keep your footing and remain in control of how you’re moving across the terrain. 

Avoid injury or knee pain after running downhill by keeping your legs slightly bent! 

#7 - Think about your Foot Placement 

One thing you don’t want to be doing when running downhill is placing your weight on your forefoot. This can ruin your posture and form, and cause your strides to be unstable (and essentially unsafe). 

For safe and effective foot placement in a downhill running technique, you should strive to land either lightly on your heels (keeping your legs bent will help this, as it puts a ‘spring’ in your step), or on your midfoot (as long as you’re confident in doing so). 

downhill running form graphic

Either of these placements work well with the downhill running form that we have already discussed, with the heel strike being our personal favorite. You can even vary them as you go to activate different muscle groups! 

If you’re tackling steep hills then definitely go with a heel strike, however, as this will keep things nice and controlled for you and even enable you to go faster (whilst remaining under control of your movements).

REMEMBER: keep your knees slightly bent as we just discussed, as this will absorb the shock that you’d otherwise feel landing on your heels. 

#8 - Perform Shorter Strides 

In terms of your cadence (the amount of steps you take per minute), keep it at a high when you’re learning how to run downhill. 

By taking shorter strides with a quicker contact time between your feet and the ground, you’re allowing yourself to run in a balanced yet free manner. With practise (on gradual gradients at first), you’ll be able to use this downhill running technique to build up your confidence and subsequently your speed. 

Ever heard those who are accustomed to running downhill saying that they’re addicted to feeling ‘free’ and really letting themselves run as fast as they possible can downhill? This will help you to safely achieve that feeling over time! 

#9 - Use Your Arms 

Think about it: when you’re running on reasonably flat ground, you use your arms to aid you in balancing and running efficiently. That being said, it’s obvious that you should be using your arms to aid you in running downhill!

While we don't need the forward back (swinging) arm movement for power like we do when running on flat ground or uphill, we should definitely make use of a ‘windmill’ or ‘flailing’ action to keep our balance. You’ve seen people walk tightropes in the circus; it’s not too different to that! 

balance when running downhill graphic

We know what you’re thinking; this isn’t the best look for your Instagram photos at the end of the race, and might look a little silly in that context…

However, it’s something that you’ll probably even do automatically when it comes to running downhill, and you’ll see what we mean about it being necessary once you try it!

Using your arms in this way will help your body to stay in control in tough situations, like when you need to alter direction quickly or accidentally pick up speed. 

#10 - Use Squats to Aid Your Technique  

While a regular running routine is a fantastic way to train the muscular endurance of your legs, it’s definitely not the greatest method of building muscular strength in the area. Many newbie runners overlook this, which is why we’re here to spread awareness (especially to those learning how to run downhill). 

Squats are a great way of building muscular strength in your legs, and you don’t necessarily need a gym to do them effectively. You can perform bodyweight squats anywhere, and can use inexpensive weights like kettlebells at home to add more resistance as you progress!

Building strength in your legs with squats will aid you when running, particularly downhill, as improved strength in this area is known to boost performance on either uneven terrains or those that are especially loose/soft, like snow, dirt, or sand. 

graphic of squats to perform when training to run downhill

If you have stronger muscles in your lower body, you’ll find it much easier to manoeuvre 

downhill at high speeds as your legs will be stronger and therefore better at dealing with difficult and changing terrain when travelling, rather than only being trained to move for a long period of time. 

Not only this, but squats in particular will actually help you to develop a stronger awareness of your own body, and which position it should be in at a given time. With regular practice, you’ll be able to know what movement, acceleration, posture, position, etc. that your body should be utilising. 

This can make a huge difference in injury prevention when you’re running, especially since a lot of injuries sustained during running are related to the body being misaligned or faults in movement! 

#11 - Have Good Footwear 

It’s insanely important to have suitable downhill running shoes before heading out to try out your new technique. It could be the difference between a nasty injury or shooting down the hillside like a pro… 

You know what they say about artists. They could be the best painter in the world, but with the wrong brush you’ll never be able to see their best work. 

This applies to downhill trail running techniques too. With the wrong shoes that offer less than adequate ankle support or cushioning and aren’t flat enough to accomodate enough speed, you’ll never be able to do your best downhill run, and you’ll also put yourself at a much greater risk of injury. 

Support is a must, but you can sacrifice some cushioning by opting for a flatter shoe if you really want to pick up speed. However, we’d only recommend doing this if you’ve been practising for a while, and you’re pretty confident with your technique! 

Cloudflyer Running Shoes 

cloudflyer trainers image downhill running shoes

To give you an example of a pair of specially crafted downhill running shoes, this product from Cloudflyer is a must-see. They have ‘Zero-Gravity Foam’ cushions used for the sole, yet they’re extremely lightweight compared to other running shoes. 

They’re also designed to prevent the feet from rotating inwards as they land during the running motion, which is another great feature. 

They’re extremely high-quality for the price, and investing in a good pair of downhill running shoes is something every aspiring runner should do, especially before attempting to run downhill. 

Buy on On-Running.com: £140

#12 - Keep an Eye on the Terrain 

One incredibly important thing to remember when it comes to your running downhill technique is that you should train yourself to adjust your technique to the terrain that you are faced with. In a perfect world, you would never have to run downhill in terrible weather conditions, but this is the UK after all! 

By saying this, we don’t mean that you should fear different types of terrain. This will only hinder your performance. Instead, you should learn when is a safe time to work with different types of terrain, and the methods that it takes to safely do so. 

One example is when there is loose ground or rock along the way. If you notice this, don’t throw on your brakes! Just be cautious. As we said before, training your brain to deal with situations like this ahead of time should be enough to adequately prepare you. 

Surprisingly, loose terrain like this can actually help to propel you forward if you utilise it safely. As long as you’ve trained yourself up on smaller, more even hills and worked your way up to this point, you should be fine! 

keep your eye on the terrain when downhill running

However, sometimes you will be faced with much more challenging and dangerous terrain, one of the most dangerous being wet rock. If you’re ever faced with something like this, be sure to keep the contact time between your feet and the rock to a minimum. Ensure that you’re running downhill with a light tread in these conditions.

Finally, the last common type of tricky terrain on our list is mud. It’s inevitable that you’ll encounter mud at some point when running the in UK, so you should make sure that you’re prepared!

If you’re encountered with mud, make sure that you dig your heels in more than you usually would as you run, as this will help you to gain greater stability and grip, and you’ll be less likely to topple over (no one wants to face-plant on a muddy hill…). 

#13 - Start at the Right Time

In a recent study that they performed on downhill running, S. Maeo, Y. Ando and H. Kanehisa write:

Trail running and some marathon races involve not only level but also uphill and downhill running (DR). These sports have become very popular, and trail running especially has seen an exponential increase in worldwide popularity over recent years.

It's evident from this information that if you wish to start training for events such as these, you should definintely look to learn how to run downhill correctly and effectively. 

Have you got a marathon looming in the distance that you’d rather push to the back of your mind? If it’s a hilly one (and that’s the reason why you’re looking up how to master your running downhill technique), you should definitely try to approach things with a different mindset. 

graphic of a hand holding a stopwatch

Starting sooner rather than later will not only help you to reach new personal bests in the race or event that you’re entering, but it will also significantly reduce your risk of injury. 

If you fail to practice running downhill beforehand, you’ll probably be in for a big shock. 

It’s obvious that leaving your training for a marathon or running event to the last minute is dangerous by itself, but it could potentially be just as dangerous for you to skip on hill training (even if you’ve trained for everything else).

Attempting to run downhill on a whim is just a bad idea whichever way you look at it, and we really hope that you can see the benefits of running downhill safely by starting a gradual training routine months before you even think about running an event! 

Have an ideal starting time for your downhill running technique training? Add on another 4-6 weeks… 

Start small, and don’t rush into running as fast as you possibly can.

Before you go!

Hopefully you now feel confident to start training on hills for that next big event, or to improve your existing downhill running technique.

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Go ahead and check out our Personal Trainer course packages, browse our CPDs or download our FREE prospectus for more info on what you could be learning!  

References

  1. Kaufman, Keith A., Glass, Carol R., Pineau, Timothy R. Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE). Cambridge University Press (2016). Available at: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=2CV0CwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT234&dq=mindful+running&ots=meppNFPesr&sig=t2RVluTqi76xRqweHXIrfwGJGIE. Date accessed: 27/11/2019.
  2. Maeo, S., Ando, Y., Kanehisa, H. et al. Localization of damage in the human leg muscles induced by downhill running. Sci Rep 7, 5769 (2017). Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-06129-8. Date accessed: 27/11/2019

 

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Written by Chloe Twist

Fitness Content Manager, OriGym

Join Chloe on Facebook at the OriGym Facebook Group

Chloe graduated with a BA (Hons) English and Creative Writing from Liverpool John Moores University and prior to OriGym worked at J&R Digital Marketing Agency on the Liverpool 'Female Founders' series. Since joining the company, she has become a qualified Personal Trainer and advanced Sports Nutrition Specialist. Chloe’s professional interests intersect content-development and the world of online fitness, especially across social media and YouTube, and Chloe has herself contributed pieces on fitness and weight loss to sites including the Daily Star and The Express. Outside her day-to-day role, Chloe enjoys playing the guitar, gaming and kettlebell training. 

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