The Healthy Way to Walk Downhill

Couple walking downhill
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Walking downhill may seem to be a breeze. After you crest a hill, it will feel great to catch your breath and have an easier time while descending. You look forward to going faster. But walking downhill puts more strain on your knees and ankles than walking uphill or on level ground. You hit the ground harder with each step and the angle does your knees no favors. Many walkers report that they hate going downhill due to knee pain. Meanwhile, research shows that downhill walking has surprising benefits in lowering blood sugar.

Relax and Flow: Your stride will naturally elongate going downhill. This overstriding is bad on the level, but going downhill it helps to brake you a bit while gravity keeps you moving faster than usual. If you find yourself going too fast, shorten and/or slow down your steps and keep it natural.

Don't Lean Back: Leaning back will put you off balance, instead stay upright over your hips and knees or lean very slightly forward.

Straight Posture or Lean Slightly Forward: Keep your torso upright or lean slightly forward for stability.

Bend Your Knees: On steeper slopes, keep your knees slightly bent at all times.

Switchbacking: On very steep slopes or those with a loose surface, I like to take a serpentine path and angle for a few steps left, then a few steps right. This switchbacking is a common trail design to reduce steepness either uphill or downhill.

Take Care on Loose Surfaces: Going downhill has a greater risk of slipping on loose gravel or loose dirt. Although you may want to speed through a downhill, you should take caution on natural surfaces.

Use Trekking Poles: Poles can help take some of the impact off as you go downhill, plus give you a little extra stability. You may have to adjust the length when you start a descent as they will be on the downhill slope and will need to be longer to be used at the correct angle.

Faster May Be Better for Stability: Oddly enough, going a little faster rather than picking your way down a slope may result in fewer slips. Your balance system will go into gear automatically if you jaunt down a slope, and if you hit a loose rock you are immediately stepping off it and on to the next one.  This is the parkour technique. If you take careful steps you are going to have to make sure of stable footing with each step and you are thinking it through rather than using instinctual balance.

Don't Just Train for Uphill Walking: If you are preparing for a long walk that will have both uphill and downhill, you need to do both. Don't limit yourself to doing incline workouts on a treadmill or stairstepper machine, only going uphill. You also need to train with some sustained downhill. If you will be walking the Camino de Santiago, take this into consideration.

Complaining Knees: Downhill walking can trigger knee pain in a few different conditions. Chondromalacia patella or runner's knee can hurt under the kneecap when going downhill or uphill. Iliotibial band friction syndrome can cause pain in the knee and the outside of the thigh and can be worse when going downhill. Knee osteoarthritis also is a cause of knee pain when going downhill.

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