Water Runs Easily Downhill So Why Can’t We?

April 12, 2017

All the while you’re running or hiking up a steep grade you’re probably thinking how much better it’s going to get when you turn around and start going downhill—it should feel like water flowing. After all you’ve got gravity on your side, right?

Strange as it seems running downhill isn’t the joyful experience that we’d imagine it to be. Many people experience intense discomfort which may include “jittery” knees and pain along the outside of the lower legs. A temporary solution is to walk backwards for a bit as this will relieve the discomfort. It would however, be impractical to walk backwards all the way down a mountain for obvious reasons. So what is the secret to running and hiking downhill? There are several factors involved, and I’ll suggest some possible solutions to the problem.

One important aspect of developing a functional way of moving is to figure out what you do habitually because you can’t change what you’re not aware of. The next time you’re out running or hiking downhill notice what you do. For instance, one of the most common things that people do is to collapse their gaze. What do I mean by that? When people move over rough terrain with a fairly steep grade they will tend to focus directly in front of their feet and lose their peripheral vision. When they do this their back rounds and their hips, knees and ankles internally rotate so that the vector of force coming up from the ground can’t move in a gentle flow up the legs and through the spine. Notice if this is what you’re doing. Then increase your peripheral vision. Look out more towards the horizon and increase your visual field. When you do this you’ll be able to see what’s coming towards you on the path and give your nervous system time to organize for each eventuality that comes up. You’ll notice when you do this you’ll be much more relaxed and your legs will act more like shock absorbers than pile drivers.

Practice this Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® lesson to expanded gaze before going out on your run or hike.

1. Look straight ahead and notice what you see comfortably.
2. Turn your head slowly from side to side and notice the range and the quality of the movement.
3. Now allow your visual field to increase so that you have more peripheral vision.  Notice that your visual field has expanded and you can see more with less effort.
4. Continue to keep this expanded visual field and turn your head slowly from side to side noticing how this changes the range and ease of the movement.
5. Consciously practice expanding the visual field whenever you feel tension in the neck and eyes.

You may have noticed that when you expand your gaze your neck and shoulders become more relaxed. In fact your entire body becomes more relaxed when you practice looking in this way. Once you've worked with this idea a few times try it the next time you're running or hiking and see how it changes your movements.

Next, we’re going to explore the idea of your legs acting as shock absorbers when running or hiking downhill. If you’ve ever watched mogul skiing you’ll know what I mean. In that activity the skier assumes a half crouched position and as she goes through the moguls the hips, knees and ankles flex and extend as they absorb the impact of the changing terrain while the upper body stay in a more or less constant position relative to the slope of the hill. In running and hiking something similar needs to happen when you’re going downhill. Gravity is a force to be reckoned with and unless you learn organize your movements to keep the forces that move through the body low, your legs will become pile drivers ramming into your knee and hip joints with every step you take.

When we’re running downhill we’re dealing with a situation of repetitive falling and we tend to brake with our feet. The body’s automatic response to this is to go into the startle reflex where the back arches into hyperextension. When this happens it’s hard for the body to absorb the impact of the foot hitting the ground.

Try the following Feldenkrais® Awareness Through Movement® lesson before you start running downhill: 

1. Stand on a horizontal surface (in other words not on a slope). Keep your back straight and bend your knees and ankles a little. Now alternate bending one knee more and then the other as you wiggle your butt from side to side. Notice the range and quality of your movement.

2. Now, at the same time you bend your knees and ankles bend forward so that your hip joints actually move backwards and your butt sticks out. At this point you should look like a zigzag starting at your feet and going up to the top of your head. In this position alternately increase the bend in one leg and then the other as you again wiggle your butt from side to side. Notice the difference from the first movement you did.

3. Now you’re going to do the same thing on a slope. Start with a straight back and slightly bent knees and begin moving downhill. Notice the amount of effort required. How do your knees and hip joints feel?

4. This time go into to “zigzag” position with hip joints, knees and ankles bent a little (your center or gravity should now be over your feet). Start down the hill again and notice that it’s much easier to let your butt move from side to side and that this increases your options as the terrain shifts under your feet. Notice how this differs from the straight backed version.

Just to be sure I wasn’t going to lead you astray, I went out to my driveway which has a perfect 30% grade to test things out (my neighbors may have thought I was a little wacky this morning as I ran up and down my driveway for 10 minutes when there is a great running path around the corner from my house). At any rate, when I kept my back upright and moved mainly from the knees and ankles I noticed the following:

* My automatic response was to further arch and stiffen my back
* There was a lot of tension in my pelvis
* There was a decreased R.O.M. in my legs and I wasn’t able to keep my center of gravity over my feet
* I had to slow down and be “careful”

When I put myself in the “zigzag” position I noticed the following changes:

* My pelvis moved easily—it actually felt like it was floating over my hip joints
* My feet responded more to the changes in terrain and I felt more confident than I did in the other position
* My legs didn’t fatigue the way they did when my back was rigid
* I felt much freer and lighter on my feet

When working with clients I’ve noticed that men seem to have more problems running downhill than women. Wonder why? The reason is that women tend to move their pelvises naturally—they aren’t afraid to “wiggle” their butts. Men on the other hand are much tighter in their pelvises and culturally are more inhibited with lateral pelvic movement. The good thing is that when you’re running downhill not too many people are going to be watching what you do with your butt!

Happy running!

Embrace Feldenkrais as part of your daily routine

Wake Up Your Body and Brain by Sandra Bradshaw

My book, Wake Up Your Body and Brain is not meant as a “cure all”. It is a place to start a process for physical and mental improvement and give you a taste of what’s possible. It’s now your job to pursue this work and embrace it as part of your daily routine. The Feldenkrais lexicon contains thousands of Awareness Through Movement® lessons addressing every conceivable aspect of movement and improvement. Many of these lessons are available via the internet as on-line classes or prerecorded audio and video lessons. I invite you to explore and experience the possibilities. You will be glad you did! Buy your copy of "Wake Up Your Body and Brain" from Amazon, or download it today.

Sandra Bradshaw, Guild Certified Feldenkrais® Practitioner Functional Movement Specialist will help you to boost your capacity to move effortlessly. With a background in special education, yoga, functional movement, and music, Sandra integrates this knowledge with the latest brain research to help you find solutions to your personal needs that are effective and long lasting. If you are interested in more information or would like to make an appointment, call Sandra today at 250 862 8489. 

The Feldenkrais Method® created by physicist Moshe Feldenkrais, PhD., combines precisely structured movement sequences with the latest advances in brain research; it will help you recover from specific areas of injury such as the neck and shoulders or to improve fluidity and ease in sports, recreational activities or life. Join the ranks of such notables as actress Whoopi Goldberg, cellist YoYo Ma and the members of the Canadian Men’s Alpine Ski Team.

Tags: Feldenkrais, back tension, body tension, Wake Up Your Body and Brain, running daily routine, Awareness Through Movement, Awareness Through Movement® lessons, foot position, body tension, Wake Up You Body and Brain, running, health


Solid article, Sandra. It struck me while reading it that perhaps better examples of downhill action for most people are cross country runners (even better are guide or mountain runners) who are not so constricted in their movements as are skiers and at the same time must be able to move fluidly over rough country at speed. This requires constant awareness of distance and balance as well as near vision obstacles and avoidance of sudden jolts that could lead to injury. It also requires constant twisting and swaying of hips to maintain balance. My own early experience of climbing mountains before I was 10 and adding cross country running during my school teen years has led to my still being able at 76 to run screes without the least fear of danger or damage to joints or limbs. Long may it continue, even if it does frighten the life out of my partner.\r\nGeorge Stephenson, Australia

- George Stephenson

Feldenkrais®, Feldenkrais Method®, Awareness Through Movement®, and Functional Integration® are registered service marks of the Feldenkrais Guild® of North America. Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner ™ and Guild Certified Feldenkrais Teacher ™ are certification marks of the Feldenkrais Guild®.