As a runner, you probably welcome downhills for a change of intensity and pace. Momentum takes some control of speed and you have a chance to catch your breath. But one downfall of downhill after downhill: achy knees and super sore quads the next day. The antidote is easy, though. Simply add quad exercises to your routine that work the eccentric action—or the downward phase of a move like when you lower into a squat—to get the legs strong enough to conquer every decline.
“Runners often experience pain while running downhill because of a lack of strength at their hips, calves, hamstrings, or quadriceps,” Daniel Giordano, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., chief marketing officer at Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy in New York City tells Runner’s World. “The lack of strength and/or muscle imbalance can lead to poor form, poor tracking of the knee, or it can create increased compression forces at the knee, which over time can lead to an injury at the knee joint.”
Research also shows that downhill running can cause increased muscle damage to the knee extensors (quads) and the plantar flexors (calves)—one reason you might be extra sore after tackling a negative grade run route. “As you run downhill the quads work to control the braking aspect of going downhill and simultaneously work to control your acceleration,” explains Giordano. “This excessive eccentric work, especially if you don’t train eccentrically, will create more muscle damage that your body is not used to.”
“During an eccentric contraction, the force applied to the muscle is greater than the force produced by muscle,” he adds.
Whether you have a downhill race on the calendar, consistently tackle hilly terrain, or feel knee aches kick in any time you hit a descent, these eccentric quad exercises will build up the strength you need to keep running strong.
How to use this list: Complete 4 sets of 8 reps of each of the following exercises, two times per week. Giordano demonstrates each move so you can master the proper form. You will need a step, as well as a chair, bench or box, and a long resistance band, with something heavy to anchor it.
Quad Exercise #1: Eccentric Lunge
Stand with feet together. Step left foot backward about a foot-length away from right foot and place toes on the ground. Slowly lower into a narrow lunge on a count of 5. Aim to keep front right knee behind right toes. Stay low in the lunge as you step the left foot up next to the front right foot. Drive through both feet to stand back up. Repeat. Then switch sides.
Quad Exercise #2: Side Step Down
Stand on the edge of a step, right foot planted firmly on the step and left foot off the side of the step. With arms straight out in front of you at shoulder height, keep weight on right foot and slowly, on a count of 5, send butt down and back to lower into a squat position, left foot reaching toward the left until heel taps the ground. Hips hinge slightly as you lower. Drive through right foot to slowly stand back up. Repeat. Then switch sides.
Quad Exercise #3: Reverse Nordic
Start kneeling on both knees, toes tucked under and placed firmly on the floor. Keep arms at sides, back straight, quads and glutes engaged. Lean the body (from knees up) backwards towards heels as far as you can go while maintaining a straight line with body. Return to starting position. Repeat.
Quad Exercise #4: Skater Squat
Stand with feet together in front of a step, facing away from it. Lift left leg and kick it behind you, bending knee 90 degrees. Keep weight in right foot and slowly bend the right knee to lower into a lunge-like position. Keep left leg elevated, driving left foot behind you and lowering until the left knee and shin touch the floor or as close as you can go. Drive through right foot to slowly stand back up. Repeat. Then switch sides.
Quad Exercise #5: Reverse Step Down
Stand on step, right foot planted firmly on the step and left foot slightly behind step. With arms straight out in front of you at shoulder height, keep weight on right foot and slowly, on a count of 5, send butt down and back into a squat position, as left foot reaches behind you, lowering until right toes tap the ground behind you. Hips hinge slightly as you lower. Then drive through right foot to slowly stand back up. Repeat. Then switch sides.
Quad Exercise #6: Single-Leg Eccentric Box Squat
Stand in front of a box, chair, or bench, facing away from it. Lift left leg, kicking the foot out slightly in front of you. Standing firmly on right foot, slowly send the butt back and down and bend knee to lower into a single-leg squat position. Lower on a count of 5 until you reach the chair, box, or bench behind you. At the bottom, sit on the chair, box, or bench, then place left foot back down on the ground. Drive through both feet to stand back up. Repeat. Then switch sides.
Quad Exercise #7: Spanish Squat
Wrap a long resistance band around an anchor point in front of you, at shin height. Facing anchor, place the band around your calves. Step back until there is tension on the band. Separate the feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes pointing slightly outward, and slowly sit back and down into a squat. Drive through feet to stand back up. Repeat.