More Thoughts on Running Downhill

March 30, 2010

Today 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!


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