Downhill Running Tips to Save Your Knees & Quads

Downhill Running Tips to Save Your Knees & Quads

Most of you know the Tunnel Marathon is predominantly a downhill course. For some of you I am sure this is a great relief! In most cases a downhill race allows for faster and easier racing. However, downhill running can take its toll on your knees and quads. While it may seem easier, running downhill can often be painful for runners because more force is absorbed by your legs due to the constant “breaking” you are doing on the way down a hill.

To be fair, running won’t kill your knees and neither will downhill running. With that said proper training to strengthen the muscles around your knees is a key component for your marathon training and injury prevention. Below you will find some tips and tricks for downhill marathon training to help get you going in the right direction!

How To Start

Not all of your runs need to be of the downhill variety. It is recommended to add a downhill run every 2 weeks starting 3 to 4 months out from race day.

There are a couple of ways to practice downhill running, including focused repeats, or a longer run on a hilly route. Either way, you will want to make sure that you are choosing your downhill training wisely and replicate what you will be doing come race day (i.e. run on gravel if the race will be on gravel, train at the same hill grade that the race will be at). For example a 20% grade would severely increase the impact and your risk for ankle, hip, and knee injuries. Instead of training on the extremes, look for a softer, more forgiving surface with a gradual slope (of about 2-4%) and work your way up to running longer durations or further distances downhill.

As you run downhill pay attention to how your body is feeling and gauge any soreness after the run. You might find more delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) compared to a flatter run or an uphill run, which will result in muscle gains and tells you that training specifically for a downhill race will be very beneficial not only while running the race, but also for recovery after the race.

Time it Wisely

  • Begin adding in downhill workouts early on in your training schedule, about 3-4 months out from the race.
  • For downhill focused repeats you can start out running 4x800 meters with a walk/jog back up the hill, or 4x4 minutes with the same walk/jog back up the hill.
  • Work up to longer downhill workouts every two weeks.
  • Dial things back as the race gets nearer to avoid injury by using a 3 or 4 week taper.

Running Form

During these downhill runs think about the following form tips:

  • Forefoot
        • Focus on midfoot/forefoot striking instead of heel striking; when you heel strike it creates a brake effect and jars your entire body.
  • Stride
        • Find what feels best for you while keeping in mind to try and avoid heel striking. Some experts say that to avoid heel striking you might need to increase your stride length, others say that you may decrease your stride length to increase your turnover and that will help decrease heel striking. Your stride should change based on the grade of the terrain you are running on. For more extreme downhill grades try shortening your stride, this helps provide more control. Whereas, a lower grade will allow you to lengthen your stride.
  • Posture
        • Think about engaging your abdominals (as if you are stopping yourself from going to the bathroom) while you're running, and look ahead of you instead of at your feet to maintain posture. Lean slightly forward over your ankles so that your upper and lower body are in alignment.
        • Shorten your stride and quicken your cadence, as you descend and as the hill gets steeper. This allows you to take lighter steps and land more on your midfoot instead of using your heel as a brake. Bend your landing leg slightly to avoid absorbing all the impact in your knee.
  • Relax
      • Gravity will do the work in this case, try and take a breather by relaxing and going with the flow.

    No Hills Nearby?

    It will hurt you come race day to skip downhill training. If you do not have access to hills a few alternatives include:

  • Run stadium stairs
  • Find a treadmill with a decline option
  • Crosstrain:
      • Adding resistance and plyometric exercises into your training program is a must and should be completed after your hard workouts. Lifting weights and performing plyometric exercises will help increase your overall strength, promote better propulsion, prevent injury, and as a result improve running performance. Downhill cross training should include a variety of exercises for whole body strength as well as exercises that focus on strengthening your quads to help protect your knees from the impact of downhill running.
        • Resistance exercises for quad strength:
          • Front Squats
          • Single Leg Squats
          • Banded Total Knee Extension (TKE)
          • Sling/TRX Pistol Squat
        • Plyometric Drills
          • Downward Box Jumps
          • Burpees
          • Lateral Bosu Hops
          • Medball Push Press

    While downhill running can be one of the more exciting and relaxing aspects of marathon running, it is important to keep in mind the stress that downhill running can create for your joints and muscles. We hope that some of these tips will make the hard work we know you are putting in to train for Tunnel Marathons a little easier!

    Sierra Myers, Tunnel Marathons Personal Trainer
    trainer@tunnelmarathon.com