H&F running coach Sam Murphy answers your training questions
What’s the most efficient way to run downhill?
Q What’s the best way to run downhill? I’m not sure I’m doing it as efficiently as I could.
A To run downhill well, you need to let gravity be your friend. That way, the natural increase in speed you experience from the gradient comes at no additional energy ‘cost’ and has you careering past your opponents! One study found running down a 5.8 º slope increased runners’ speed by seven per cent – though on steeper hills, the pace boost diminished. Why? Because once the gradient in the study was too steep, the runners’ potential speed gains were offset by a deterioration in technique.
You can tweak your technique, however. Two of the most common errors are leaning back (so your centre of gravity is behind your legs) and overstriding (extending your legs too far ahead of your body). Both of these actions create a braking force, causing your stride to slow. Your brain is subconsciously trying to maintain control over your fastmoving limbs – but this braking action will not only slow you down but put extra force through your muscles and bones, leading to increased post-run muscle soreness and the likelihood of stressed knees.
To fix these form errors, think about keeping an upright posture and both shortening and quickening your stride so that your foot strikes are swift and light. Visualise ‘flowing’ down the hill, keeping your eyes on the road or trail just ahead of you, not at the ground directly in front of your feet, and trying to keep your shoulders and hands relaxed.
Start by practising on a gentle downhill. After you’re warmed up, run down for 100m at a brisk pace, staying tall and keeping your legs ‘wheeling’ underneath you, not reaching out ahead. Jog or walk back up the hill and repeat four to six times. Progress to a steeper hill when you’re ready, and when you feel confident enough, try different terrains, such as grass and trail.
Your thighs and calves my well feel sore after downhill training due to the eccentric muscle contractions (the muscles lengthen as they contract). A study found a reduction in muscle force after a 6.5km downhill trail run of 19 per cent in the thighs and 25 per cent in the calves. Your muscles will adapt with practice and repetition, though.
Make the most of gravity to give you a boost as you run downhill.