Training for Downhill Running

If you know anyone who competed in XTERRA Beaver Creek or if you did it yourself, you probably spent a number of days wincing any time someone bumped your legs or struggling down stairs because of super sore quads and/or sore knees from hammering the downhills on the run. Maybe you even cramped up on the run and limped across the finish. If you enjoyed the sensation or days of hobbling please disregard this article. However if you are gearing up for the Pan American Championships in Ogden, Utah and the XTERRA World Championships in Maui we have some tips for preparing for those grueling downhills.


Running downhill causes what is called eccentric loading. This is when a force(the downhill running) tries to stretch a muscle as the muscle itself tries to counteract that stretch by contracting. This speeds up fatigue which can lead to cramping and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) which is that severe soreness you feel the days after running downhill if you’re not used to it.


The pain that runners feel in their knees when running downhill is caused by what’s called runner’s knee and there can be many reasons for the pain. Runner’s knee is usually caused by poor patella tracking because of tight quads, IT bands, glutes, hamstrings and/or calves. It can also be caused by decreased cushioning from arthritis, swollen tendons etc.


So in order to fight the increased fatigue, soreness, cramping and knee pain you

should come at it with a multifaceted approach including preventative exercises, strengthening exercises and stretching, and consistent downhill running. If you have continued pain continued pain after implementing these measures you should see a specialist.


Preventative exercises/stretches:

  • clam shell
  • glute bridge or marching hip bridge
  • windmill toe touch
  • leg extension squeezing a yoga block or towel between knees
  • band side steps
  • band kick-backs
  • foam roll consistently
  • stretch quads, hamstrings and calves after running


Strengthening Exercises(many are eccentric exercises):

  • Nordic hamstring
  • eccentric calf raises
  • split squat with light jump while holding light medicine ball in front which simulates downhill landing(I would consider this an advanced exercise)
  • single leg rear lunge(start unweighted)


* We recommend doing 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps of each exercise twice per week. The routine should only take 10-20 minutes.


Incorporate downhill running into your training.


You must train running downhill if you want to be able to race well downhill without

cramping and severe soreness. If you live in the mountains almost every run includes some downhill running so it is not as big of an issue, but you still need to make sure you open it up and get in some fast downhill running to simulate what you will be doing on race day. If you live in an area without much undulation figuring out a way to get in downhill running is a lot more important.


Once a week make sure you get in a moderate stimulus of about 8-15 minutes of

hard downhill running. If you haven’t been doing any downhill running start at 5

minutes and don’t run too hard. Build up to 10-15 minutes 1 x per week.


Once a month get in a big stimulus with a run that includes 20-40 minutes of hard

downhill running. This can be broken into intervals such as 2 x 10 or 3 x 10 minutes etc.

Again, start closer to 20 minutes total after you have gotten in a month or so of weekly

moderate stimulus downhill running.  A long run with around 1500 ft of elevation loss can build a resistance to soreness that can last weeks.  


The Pan American Championships is still more than a month away so there is time to prepare to hammer that downhill finish. Do these three things and you should be able to handle downhill running while minimizing knee pain, cramping or severe soreness!

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