Running Downhill: Preparing for Hilly Courses (Boston Marathon Prep!)

The Boston Marathon was last week and it was a helluva race.

The elites took advantage of a strong tailwind and favorable temperatures to run incredibly fast: the winning time was 2:03:02 – the fastest time ever run. American Ryan Hall raced 2:04:58, the fastest time ever run by an American.

The women’s race was spectacular, with Hanson Brooks runner Desiree Davila running 2:22 and almost winning the race (no American woman has won Boston since 1985).

Running Downhill

Some awesome running bloggers ran Boston (I’m hoping for 2012!), including Matt Frazier, Pete Larson, Matt “Luau” Wilson, and Steve Speirs. Based on what I’ve heard, the energy at the race was almost unparalleled. Runners knew that there was magic in the air.

So as you can see, even though I didn’t race the Boston Marathon this year, it holds a special place in my heart. I’m originally from Boston and it’s also one of the most historic races in the world. I can’t wait to race it (hopefully) next year.

It’s a very different course than many other marathons because it features a significant elevation loss from the start in Hopkinton to the finish on Boylston street in downtown Boston. The total elevation drop is 146 meters which is fairly significant – and one of the reasons that Boston is ineligible for world record setting times.

Due to the significant downhill running that’s required, I know that my training to prepare for Boston will be different than what it was before the New York Marathon. Let’s look at how you (and I) can prepare for a race like the Boston Marathon with significant drops in elevation and what to keep in mind when running downhill workouts.

Downhill Running – Safety First!

Before I talk about the best ways to practice downhill running, it’s important to note that running downhill intervals or frequent downhills during training is inherently risky. Each foot strike during running sends 2-4 times your body weight’s worth of impact forces from your foot up through your body. This amount of impact forces is more significant when running downhill because of gravity.

Additionally, your muscles need to absorb the shock of this pounding while lengthening (eccentric muscle contractions). When a muscle elongates under tension the likelihood of increased soreness the next day is a lot higher. While Boston is a net downhill marathon course and should be fast because of it, many runners struggle with Boston because the early downhill running trashes their legs.

Preparing for a downhill race is critical and can help you run faster and avoid some of the post-race soreness that you will experience. In addition to practicing downhills during training (which we’ll get to), there is another way to help your body prepare:

Get ridiculously strong. Runners who don’t do any type of strength training are going to be at a serious disadvantage in a downhill race. Holding your form while you’re tired and running downhill is very difficult but it’s easier if you’ve spent time in the gym. Stick to basic, multi-joint movements like squats, dead lifts, and pull ups.

I have a tendency to only do the same 5-6 exercises in the gym. While they’re compound, multi-joint movements that give me the maximum benefit with the least time investment, I should really branch out to avoid a performance plateau. A few things I recommend:

Downhill Workouts – General to Specific

When you think you’re ready to do more specific downhill running, make sure to follow a logical progression from easy (less specific) to difficult (more specific) workouts.

Run several downhills during your normal distance runs 2-3 times per week. Running downhills during a run means that you’re also going to have to run uphills. Both uphill and downhill running can help strengthen your legs. When you are comfortable running downhill for 1-3 minutes a few times per run, you’re ready to go a little faster.

Downhill strides are the next workout you can add after a few weeks of practicing your normal running downhill. Just pick a hill with a gentle slope (1-3% but no steeper) and run 4-6 controlled acceleration strides that build to your mile race pace. If you have no idea what that pace is don’t worry! Just run what you think is a “very controlled hard effort.”

You might be a little sore after these harder efforts, so don’t shy away from your foam roller! An ice bath on your easy day can also help speed your recovery.

Still need more practice? Even though most of the benefits of downhill running can be realized on distance runs and via downhill strides, you can do downhill intervals if you’re feeling frisky. I’m hesitant to recommend them because of the inherent injury risk so please exercise caution: always stay in control, run fewer reps than you would on a track, and cut the workout short if you think you need to.

A good downhill interval session is a variation of a fartlek workout with short reps. I like a pyramid workout consisting of 30″, 1′, 1′, 30″ with 1-2 minutes of easy jogging between each interval. The 30″ intervals are like strides; always run in control – never flail or feel too uncomfortable. I can’t say that enough.

When I was in college we ran similar workouts to the downhill intervals with 1 minute repetitions. Our coach thought that we didn’t have enough practice running downhills after watching us on a particularly hilly course. He was right – we came back 4 weeks later and were much more confident on the downhill sections of the race!

With all of these downhill intervals, remember to keep in mind:

  • Always run relaxed – don’t strain.
  • Consciously focus on your form and a quick, light turnover. No foot stomping.
  • Keep a high stride rate of 180+ steps per minute. This cadence, especially when going downhill, can help protect you from injury.
  • Stay alert – downhill running requires a lot of focus; you can’t coast through these workouts.

With practice, you’ll be mentally and physically prepared to tackle your next downhill race.

Hoping to run the Boston Marathon some day? Learn how Matt took over 100 minutes off his marathon best to qualify for Boston!

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  1. Great article! Good pointers. I love running downhills. I can see the value of additional strength training for longer courses with significant downhills (like Boston).

  2. Thanks for the quasi-timely post. I ran Boston this year for the first time and thought that I was adequately prepared for the downhills. Hill repeats of 1/4 mile on a steep hill is not adequate. My goal is to get back to Boston in a few years and to be properly prepared. Thanks for laying the ground work for that effort.

  3. Fitz,
    Is shin soreness going to be more of an issue with downhill running? What’s the word on this-

    • It really depends on your mechanics – it shouldn’t be if you’re running correctly. It’d be best to run downhills on a dirt hill so the pounding is less and to also run any type of structured downhill workouts in moderation and much more conservatively than usual.

  4. I can vouch for how strength helps your legs. I was really suprised at how well my legs did after my halfs and it must be because they have gotten a lot stronger. I would still rather go uphill than downhill though. Does that make me nuts?

    • Nope, I agree. Running downhill makes me more sore than going uphill because of how your muscles need to stretch while under a lot of tension.

  5. Hi Fitz!
    Great work as usual. I find that doing some downhill fartlek sessions really improves my confidence and skills at downhill running. Breathing is another biggy. Just today I ran a 10K with a lot of hills and since I’ve been focusing on mastering my breathing, I was able to out run a lot of other dudes simple by coasting on the downhills and not getting winded by the extra effort.
    Thanks for your great work!

  6. Excellent post, Fitz!!! I’m signed up now for San Francisco marathon so I’ll need this advice. Also, so glad you linked to the other bloggers… got em in my reader now. Enjoy your day!

  7. Just did 5X2:00 downhill repeats @ MP in hopes of beating up my quads a bit for Boston.I had no soreness the next day. Would it be wise to repeat this session but a few more repeats.

  8. I just ran the Boston Marathon a few weeks ago and really trained hard on the one and only hill where I live (which is very flat terrain) in preparation for all the downhills in the race. I also teach fitness classes during the week, so I was able to incorporate a lot of squats, lunges, deadlifts and stretching into my training program as well. Felt great during the first 14 miles, but then noticed my quads were starting to ache. The aching proceeded to get worse, and by mile 25, I swear my legs just went numb. Managed to finish the race with a PR (3:41:23), beat the explosions and qualified for 2014 by 14 minutes of my qualifying time, but my quads were DEAD. I guess next year I will focus on trying to strengthen my legs even more because it was obvious that I still had not done enough to prepare for all the downhill pounding. It will be challenging because I live in such a flat area, but I am hoping for the best!