4 Exercises to Prepare for Downhill Running and Hiking

The major struggle with downhill running and hiking is keeping knees healthy and pain-free.

Living in Sun Valley, Idaho is incredible for so many reasons. One of my favorites is easy access to climb up and down so many different mountains in the area. However, everyone living in or traveling to the mountains struggles with the same thing come the Summer and Fall hiking season. That struggle is keeping our knees healthy, happy and pain-free while also needing to run and hike downhill. This article will give some ideas on how to train for downhill running and hiking.

We must prepare the body and specifically the knee joints to handle downhill running and hiking stress. From a knee perspective, downhill running means eccentric loading and typically thousands of reps of it. Eccentric loading (the lengthening phase of a contraction) is especially challenging to what is called the patellofemoral joint of the knee. This is where the knee cap, meets the femur. Inadequate strength, poor mechanics and lack of exposure to this type of loading can turn downhill forces into injury producing stress. Prior to mountain running or hiking we need to start implementing sport specific training into our general preparedness programming.

Downhill running and hiking is especially challenging on the knee joint.

Downhill running is especially challenging on the knee joint and a common complaint I hear in clinic from patients. In fact, for most of my clients and patients who are recovering from injury or who have advanced knee arthritis I tell them to hike up Bald Mountain (the local ski resort mountain) and take the lifts back down. Why, well hiking uphill is all concentric muscle action (muscle active while shortening) at the knee joint without any eccentric loading (loading while muscle is lengthening). Concentric only exercises tend to cause less mechanical stress, load and pain to joints and tendons than do exercises that have eccentric phases. 

The problem is we don’t always want to or have access to a mountain that has a free ride down via a ski lift. We want to get out and explore all of those beautiful peaks and hills and perhaps even join in on a mountain running race like those put on by the Cirque Series or the Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska. Therefor, we must prepare our body and specifically our knees to handle downhill running. From a knee perspective, downhill running is nothing but eccentric loading and typically thousands of reps of it. So, 6 weeks out from mountain running or hiking we need to start implementing some sport/task specific training into our general preparedness programming. 

The strength movements below are similar but slightly different in specific ways. We purposely only hit each one once per week because too much volume of these exercises could quickly lead to an over training injury, so be careful. I would recommend adding in additional hip flexor and quadriceps mobility work at the end of your training sessions as well to maintain good length tension relationships and to protect your spine.

The point of these exercises are to:

  1. Increase vertical loading volume of the knees with a sight posterior to anterior (back to front) force vector
  2. Get exposed and accustomed to decelerating the vertical and forward forces using primarily a knee strategy
  3. Transition from doing most lunges and squats with a 3 points of contact foot position to a more heel elevated position where we contact and press through the forefoot
    • The 3 points of contact foot position is the most stable position for the foot and encourages a balance of hip and thigh musculature – great for general preparedness training
    • Transitioning to a heels elevated position where the forces are applied through the forefoot places most of the stress on the quadriceps and knees – optimal for downhill run/hike training

The exercise videos below are demonstrated by World Master’s Nordic Skiing Champion (many, many times over) and former US Olympic Ski Team member, Betsy Youngman.  Betsy had messaged me earlier on the day of the videos asking how she can better prepare her knees for the stress of downhill running. The day before she had done a grueling hike up a local peak and on the way down she had pain and felt weak and unsteady beyond what she thought she should be experiencing. In the videos below you are seeing her attempt these movements on day one of learning them. 

4 Exercises for Downhill Running and Hiking

* Add these movements into your weekly training 2 times per week 

  • # 1: Heels Elevated Goblet Squat
  • # 2: Forward Alternating Lunge with Farmers Carry Loading
  • # 3: Forward Alternating Drop from Box Lunges
  • # 4: Banded Posterior to Anterior (PA) Forward Lunge

Exercise # 1: Heels Elevated Goblet Squat

Heels Elevated Goblet Squat: Part 1
Heels Elevated Goblet Squat: Part 2

Exercise # 2: Forward Alternating Lunge with Farmers Carry Loading

Forward Alternating Lunge with Farmers Carry Loading: Part 1
Forward Alternating Lunge with Farmers Carry Loading: Part 2

Exercise # 3: Forward Alternating Drop from Box Lunges 

Forward Alternating Drop from Box Lunges: Part 1
Forward Alternating Drop from Box Lunges: Part 2

Exercise # 4: Banded Posterior to Anterior (PA) Forward Lunge

Banded Posterior to Anterior (PA) Forward Lunge

Start the Downhill Running and Hiking program with the recommended volume and then advance as needed

  • Session A (exercises 1 & 3 above)
    • Heels Elevated Goblet Squat
      • 3-5 sets of 10-15 reps
    • Forward Alternating Drop from Box Lunges
      • 3-5 sets of 10-16 reps (5-8 reps per leg)
  • Session B (exercises 2 & 4 above)
    • Forward Alternating Lunge with Farmer’s Load
      • 3-5 sets of 10-16 reps (5-8 per leg)
    • Banded PA Forward Lunge
      • 3-5 sets of 10-16 reps (5-8 per leg)

Read more from Dr. Sela and the Movement Guides Team at their BLOG

Kyle Sela, PT, DPT, OCS, SCS, CSCS

Kyle is a physical therapist who is a board certified specialist in sports and orthopedics. He completed a sports medicine fellowship at Duke University in the Management of Division I Athletes and served as a physical therapist on active duty in the US Army where he cared for a Brigade Combat Team during a deployment to Iraq. His passion is in movement efficiency and maximizing every patient's potential to live life to the highest quality. The SquatGuide™ reflects years of experience teaching people to squat with great form and efficiency so that they may benefit from this great exercise.

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