Why running up hills is easier than down

Article written by Pip Coates on May 18th 2015, for Executive Style


Why running uphills is easier than down


I have a go-to run that serves the purpose of providing plenty of hill training, pretty scenery and is exactly a 10km loop from my front door. A perfect no-brainer run.

However in recent weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that I prefer running up hills than down. Unfortunately, usually what goes up must come down, and my go-to run is definitely in this category.

The uphill parts are challenging, don’t get me wrong, but I can get into a good posture for the job and once that’s in place it becomes a rhythmic cadence and breathing experience to such an extent that sometimes I actually get to the top without noticing. My mind has wandered off to deal with some other issues going on in my life, usually not related to running (unless this blog is overdue). Needless to say, it’s fantastic when this “zone-out” happens; I’m not feeling fatigued, my form is still good and I’ve possibly even worked out an excuse for missing my deadline.


The downward spiral

Wish I could say the same about the downhill bits. When I run downhill, even though I’ve been told a thousand times how to do it, it remains a bone-jarring, quad-smashing, hang-on-for-dear-life descent. I defy anyone who says it can be comfortable. It’s probably fair to say that as fast as I’m solving problems on the ascent, I’m creating them going down.

In my defence, as it turns out, good downhill running technique is difficult to master.

Tom Cross is a Sydney-based sports doctor who works for AFL and Super 15 rugby teams and specialises in running-related injuries.

He says good downhill technique is about absorbing the significant forces that are travelling through your foot, ankle, knee and hip with each stride. Joints can become injured in just one session, or over time, and there’s a range of tendinopathies plus tibiofemoral (knee) issues that can flare up, too.

“It’s a real skill of its own to learn how to attenuate the forces,” Cross says. “You should gradually build into your downhill stair or incline running and let your system get used to it. If your knees start hurting it’s probably because you’re doing too much and you’re not yet strong enough for it. Change the training a little bit, then bring it up again.”


Adapt to the stress

Sydney sports physio and ultra-runner Mark Green says that by starting your training regimen with relatively short downhill runs, and gradually increasing both volume and intensity, your quadricep muscles (the big guns down the front of your thighs) will adapt to the stress you are placing on them and become stronger.

“Descending is hard on your body, even with good technique,” Green says. “It can be especially punishing if your technique is poor.”

“As a rule of thumb, short steps are best. When running down hills, take as many little steps are you can and keep your cadence high – about 175 to 185 steps per minute is a good guide. It might slow down your overall pace, but you’ll regain it up the next hill because your quads won’t be dead and your knees won’t be sore.”

Green says people often try to make up time by running the downhill sections of a race quickly.

“It is much easier on your heart and lungs, so it doesn’t feel like particularly hard work. Most people, unless taught otherwise, will increase their speed by lengthening their stride. This causes exponentially more impact on the body (up to six times your body weight on steep downhill sections) and increases the likelihood of inflicting a DOMS [Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness] effect on your quads. The rest of the race won’t be much fun if your quads are dead.”


Technique to try

Other techniques to focus on while descending are to engage your core and lean forward slightly. This might feel exaggerated, but the idea is to counteract the tendency to lean back in order to slow yourself down. It takes a load off your lower back, too. Combine a shorter stride pattern with this posture and you are likely to land mid-foot, reducing heel strike (and those back-jarring landings). And of course, keep your landing leg bent to take some of the pressure off your knee.

There’s a lot to think about right there, which means next time I do my hilly circuit, I’ll let my mind wander uphill but bring it back into sharp focus down the other side. By the time I work my way through that checklist, hopefully I’ll be safely at the bottom wondering what the fuss was all about.


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