How to Train for Your Fastest Downhill Marathon

How to Train for a Downhill Marathon

I ran an 18 minutes PR and my first Boston Qualifier at the California International Marathon in December. One thing I read in the numerous race recaps I surveyed during training was to train for the hills – both the uphills and the downhills – since the net downhill can make or break your race.

My quads certainly felt the effects of Sacramento’s hills after the race, but thanks to deliberate training for a downhill marathon, I was able to negative split and punch my ticket to Boston. In addition to a customized and adaptive training plan, I employed the following actions in my marathon training to prepare for a net downhill race.

Why does training specifically for a downhill course matter? According to Tim Noakes, MD in his Lore of Running, each step you take when running downhill forces your quads to stretch into an eccentric contraction and bear a significant amount of impact. Your muscles aren’t designed to handle prolonged repetition of eccentric contractions, so your muscles are damaged and fatigue more quickly than with flat or uphill running. This means that if you are not properly trained to run long and hard on a significant amount of downhill.

How to Train for Your Fastest Downhill Marathon

How to Train for a Downhill Marathon or Half Marathon

Know Your Course

There are two primary elevation profiles for net downhill races: completely downhill with a drastic drop in elevation (as with Tuscon or Phoenix marathons) or net downhill with rolling hills (like the California International Marathon or the Boston Marathon). CIM loses about 700 feet of elevation total (net downhill of almost 400 feet), which is a fraction of the 2200 feet that Tuscon loses over the same distance.

Therefore, your training and racing strategies will differ slightly for a marathon or half marathon with a moderate net downhill versus a steep net downhill race. At the races with rolling hills, you have to train for running uphill and pace appropriately up the hills, but you also receive the benefit of using different muscle groups.

Regardless of whether you are training for the 2000 feet downhill of the Phoenix marathon or the rolling hills of the Boston Marathon, these principles for training for a net downhill marathon or half marathon will help you run a fast and enjoyable race.

Train Specifically on the Downhills

Downhill repeats will train you to run fast and with proper form, but running fast downhill can increase your risk of injury due to the impact. Besides, if you are training for a net downhill marathon or half marathon, you will not be running at a pace as hard as you do during hill repeats. Training is about preparing you mentally and physically for the specific demands of the race.

Instead, run on hills (especially downhills) as part of long runs, goal pace runs, and tempo runs will benefit you the most for your race. When I trained for CIM, I did hilly long runs (including hard long runs with miles at goal marathon pace), marathon pace runs, fartleks, and easy runs along rolling hills. Every runner responds to workouts differently, so how often you do these downhill runs depends on your fitness level and injury risk.

Training on rolling hills will provide you with the benefits of downhill training but also the reduced injury risk and improved strength that comes from uphill running.

How to Train for Your Fastest Downhill Marathon

What about if you live in a flat area and can’t easily train on downhills. There are alternatives to hill training, including bridges and parking garages (please just be safe).

Improve your Downhill Running Form

The mistake many runners make is subconsciously leaning backwards when running downhill. Leaning backwards actively works against gravity, rather than using gravity to help you run faster. Lean forward slightly from the hips and look forward down the hill (rather than down at your feet).

A quick cadence will increase your speed downhill (without increasing your perceived effort) and reduce your risk of injury on the downhill. Many runners overstride when running downhill, which increases your risk of injury because of prolonged ground contact. By taking quicker steps when running downhill, you ensure that your feet land beneath your body and minimize your ground contact time.

Strengthen Your Quads

Stronger muscles are more resistant to fatigue, so strong quads will resist the fatigue of downhill running better than untrained muscles. Hill running will strengthen those muscles, as will a strength training routine. Just another reason to strength train during marathon training!

Exercises such squats, lunges, step ups, and wall sits will improve the strength and durability of your quad muscles. Add these exercises in a couple times per week during marathon or half marathon training and be prepared to feel strong on the hills on race day.

How to Train for Your Fastest Downhill Marathon

You can also tailor your cross-training exercises towards quad strength. During training for CIM, I hiked a few times per month. Hiking includes long downhill portions, which did wonders for the ability of my quad muscles to resist fatigue and endure a high amount of repeated impact.

Activate Your Glutes

Lazy glutes means a lack of power and poor hill running – whether you are going uphill or downhill. No matter how strong your glutes are, they will not power you over 26.2 or 13.1 miles of downhill running if you are unable to activate them.

It’s not difficult to activate your glutes – it really only takes a few small but vital tweaks to your training. Perform glute activation drills before your runs and then actively think about powering out of your glutes when running up and down hills. If you don’t feel like you are firing from your glute muscles, tap on each glute with your finger to cue your mind to focus on using that muscle.

Have a Smart and Specific Race Plan

Banking time never works in the marathon. If a race starts out on the downhill, running too hard will not only increase your chances of hitting the wall – your quads will also feel the effects of the downhill pounding later in the race.

In his master’s thesis, Olympic marathoner Jared Ward concluded that elite runners and BQ marathoners run their fastest (and most evenly paced) marathons when they start conservatively and take advantage of the downhill. This statistically-derived conclusion should be the basis of every race plan, but especially your pacing strategy for running a net downhill marathon or half marathon.

In a race that begins with a net downhill, such as the Boston Marathon or California International Marathon, you want to avoid the temptation of starting out too fast. Use the downhill to start at an easy effort and ease into your goal pace gradually over the first mile or two.  This will probably feel slow, thanks to gravity, but that’s the point – you want to start conservatively.

From there, use the downhills to your advantage. This doesn’t mean sprinting each downhill you approach – especially in a long distance race, that would just wear your quads out faster and NOT being using the elevation loss to your advantage. Pace by even effort over the uphills and downhills, which means you will pick up the pace on the downhill and use it to your advantage.

If this all seems overwhelming, especially finding your right balance of training hard and avoiding injury, you may want to consider hiring a knowledgeable running coach. You can learn more about my coaching services here!

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner

Have you ever run a net downhill race? How did you train for it?
Do you prefer flat or hilly races?
What tips would you add? 

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26 Responses

  1. Great tips! I always love running downhill, but Ive never done it for an extended amount of time in a race. Well, there is a 12 miler here that is mostly downhill, but the hardest part of that is the last 2 miles that are flat! I definitely need to pay attention more to my downhill running form. Im sure I overstride a bit!

  2. I worked hard on strong quads and active glutes (when do I not, lol) for the Phoenix marathon, adn an extra strong core to hold it all together. I loved Bart Yasso’s advice of doing jump rope as well for the eccentric calf exercise!

  3. I have never run a downhill race (we have no hills here, hence… no downhills) but these are good tips. We do have some races over connectors and bridges and you have to be careful on the downhills! My ortho says running too fast on the downhills could aggrevate my ITBS so it’s something I have to watch out for.

    I think more strength training and glute activation can help with ALL aspects of running and it’s something everyone should do, not just downhill races. I’m glad everything you did worked out well for you at CIM and you punched your BQ ticket 🙂

    1. I agree – glute activation and core strength are so important! Downhills can definitely be tough on the ITBS because of how much force you absorb (up to three times your body weight) when running downhill, so definitely do be careful!

  4. Yes, I did a net downhill once (Tuscon) and it just about killed me. Worst idea ever. My quads were shot at mile 6, and I had to take an Advil at mile 10. I’ll never forget it! I wouldn’t do it again, but that’s just me. If anyone goes for it, this is a great post to read and follow. Squats, squats, and more squats.

    1. Tuscon’s downhill seems nasty to me – it’s 3 times the elevation loss of CIM (without the uphill breaks!)! That’s just rough and I don’t blame you for not wanting to do it again.

  5. This can seem overwhelming. Glad I have you to help me. 🙂

    Honestly, I think this will be the first time in my running life that I have ever properly trained for any race. I have typically always just gone out to run. Over the past couple of years, I would throw in various interval workouts for speed…make sure I ran a hilly route, etc. But you are now providing me with the guidance I want/need for my workouts to help me be successful come race day!

    1. And you can already see this in your plan! First come the rolling hills, then the hilly long runs and wall sits. We are going to have you ready for the drop at Jack and Jill! Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to train on hills here 🙂

  6. This reminds me of my workout this morning – hill repeats that involved easy running back down the hill. I have to be extra careful running down the big ass hill because my knees and hips feel it afterwards if I put the breaks on too much. Which I do often because I don’t like the “out of control” feeling that comes with running downhill. Especially on trails. I can crush the hills. It’s the downhill that freaks me out. Great tips!

    1. Thank you! It’s such a fine balance to run downhill without breaking or pounding out the knees. Out of control is exactly the way to describe some of those steep downhills!

    1. The downhills are what really hurt! Uphills may be hard, but they have little impact compared to even flat running. I read in Loakes that it’s 3 times your body weight in force on the knees and quads – ouch!

  7. This is such great advice! The Broad Street Run in Philly is called a net downhill course, though there are a few short inclines along the way. It makes sense to build strength in your quads to tackle the downhills, I had a hilly half marathon earlier this year that was fun, but I paid for those downhills once I was done!

    1. Thank you! I think those uphills help a lot on a net downhill course – change up which muscles are primarily used! Even if you’re well trained, the downhills hurt so much after the race. Sore quads for days!

  8. This is awesome and something my coach and I have talked about extensively recently.

    Downhill training aside, I have the opposite problem that a lot of runners have. I live in rolling hill country and almost all of my runs are done on rolling hills. Which means when it’s race time on a relatively flat course, I find my muscle fatigue rather quickly because I’m not getting the changes with the ups and the downs. Knowing this, I’ll be utilizing my treadmill a bit more to make sure I can get quality runs in on similar terrain to what I’ll be racing on this spring and summer.

    1. I’ve heard lots of runners who live in hilly areas say that! Flat will just fatigue the same muscles over and over. That’s smart to use your treadmill to train for the flat! I love bike paths also for that.

  9. Great tips! Thank you. You definitely nailed it. If you train well, the race is yours. When I ran Revel MT. Charleston, I couldn’t walk for 2 days straight even after strength and downhill training. My next marathon is ” Tunnel marathon” elevation loss of 2200. Heard its ” very mild” downhill and wanted to if downhill training is necessary for ” gentle” downhill course. Also, is steep downhill course faster than ” gentle” downhill? Or how does steep downhill equates to gentle downhill? Thanks

    1. The terrain plays a huge role – if it’s gravel (which if you’re running the Tunnel Marathon in Washington State, it is), that will slow you down. It’s hard to say exactly how two races equate, since factors such as terrain and weather along with specific training play into the equation. A gentle downhill will likely still lead to some muscle damage – even if it’s gradual, 2200 feet is still a lot of downhill! Recovery after the race, including elevating your legs, ice baths, and compression will help in reducing soreness.

  10. Hi Laura,

    I am beginning training for a full downhill marathon with about a 2000 elevation drop. I love running downhill, but have only done a half marathon with 10 being downhill. Other than your suggestions posted , do you have any others you might want to share? BTW-I am nearing 60 and my body doesn’t not do well running every day, I usually cycle (rolling hills) for cross training.
    Thank you

    1. Hi Vicki, That’s exciting about your marathon! I would recommend easing into downhill training and allowing enough time to recover after downhill runs,s since they can take extra time to recover from. Doing eccentric strength exercises will help also to prepare the legs for the downhill with less wear and tear. Good luck on your training!

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