You have just spent an hour walking up hill, stopping for frequent ‘photo opportunities’ and by the time you reach the top your legs feel like lead. You stop at the top of the hill to enjoy the view and look forward with great relish to the nice easy walk downhill again.
Walking downhill adds stress and potential injury to your joints. This is particularly true of the knee and ankle which can give a lot of pain when walking downhill. You may also experience muscular pain or tightening especially the following day. With each step you are hitting the ground harder and at an unnatural angle.
Walking downhill is called eccentric exercise where the leg muscles lengthen under load and applying a braking force at the same time. However, when walking uphill the muscles are shortened during contraction which is called concentric exercise. A side effect of eccentric exercise is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) which can persist for several days after walking.
The muscle groups used when walking downhill and which may cause pain are the butt, front thigh, back calf, outer side calf and the front of the shin. They may also cause discomfort and even night cramps if you are older or poorly hydrated.
How Do I Improve My Downhill Walking?
Changing the way we walk downhill, can have a major impact on the reduction of pain and strain.
Control Your Gait – There is a natural tendency to elongate the stride when going downhill. This over striding causes you to brake, whilst gravity is still trying to make you move faster than usual. Try to shorten and slow down the stride to a more natural gait.
Don’t Lean Back – this will put you off balance and increase the risk of slipping or loosing control of the stride. maintain a vertical posture or lean very slightly forward. If you are carrying a rucksack, try to keep your centre of gravity directly over your hips.
Bend The Knees – keep your knees slightly bent at all times, especially when on very steep slopes. This will help reduce the braking impact on the joints and allows the muscles to cushion the impact.
Zig-Zagging – On very steep slopes, it is easier to walk across the line of the slope making a gradual descent. Whilst it will increase the distance walked, it reduces the angle of the descent and therefore the impact on the legs.
Slip Hazard – loose gravel or stones on the slope can greatly increase the risk of slipping. Walk more slowly, picking your way carefully and keep your eyes on the ground. If the view is awesome, stop before you look!
Trekking Poles – Without any doubt, the use of trekking poles will be the best piece of kit you can carry. They will help reduce the impact on the leg joints and greatly improve your stability. Used correctly they will make you progress downhill so much easier. A good quality trekking pole can be fully adjusted in length to cater for the increased reach when in the descent. See my recent review on LEKI UK trekking poles.
Walk Backwards – It may seem counterintuitive to walk backwards downhill. But stop and think about it! You are not putting your joints under undue strain or stress. The leg muscles and joints are working in the same way as when walking uphill, just in reverse. This technique is particularly useful on very steep ground where there may be a tendency to lose your balance and topple forward down the hill.
All too often, especially when training in a gym, we focus on the uphill elements to build strength into the legs. We use inclined treadmills and stair steppers; these offer no training for the downhill elements. The only way to train for this is to go out into the countryside and climb and descend hills of varying steepness.
The use of stairs, either at home, work or in public spaces are another good training aid. Swap the lift for the stairs or spend half an hour in the evening, walking up and down stairs at home. Even the ramps in multi-storey carparks can be used, though watch out for the cars!