The Healthy Way to Walk Downhill

Benefits and Reducing the Risks

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. While it takes less energy to go downhill, you will still be getting exercise and health benefits. However, you will be adding stress to your joints and some people experience knee pain. You can take steps to make your downhill walking pleasant and have less risk of pain or injury.

How Your Body Works Walking Downhill

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.

Downhill walking is eccentric exercise, lengthening the muscles under load and applying a braking force. This is in contrast to uphill walking, which is concentric exercise, shortening the muscles during contraction. Eccentric exercise is known to produce more delayed-onset muscle soreness, but also to help build and train muscles.

The specific muscles that get a better workout going downhill as compared to level walking include the gluteus maximus (your large butt muscle), quadriceps (front of the thigh muscles), soleus (back of calf), peroneus (outer side of calf) and tibialis anterior (front of shin). You may feel the effects of exercising these muscles during your bout of downhill walking.

Your body has lower energy demands when going downhill. For example, downhill running consumes only half of the oxygen as running uphill. You burn fewer calories over the same distance. However, because eccentric exercise stimulates muscle building, you also improve your resting metabolism.

When going downhill you only burn 6.6 percent fewer calories per mile than walking on flat ground. That means burning 5 calories per mile less for a 150-pound person.

Benefits of Downhill Walking

One of the biggest benefits of downhill walking is that what goes up must come down in the natural environment. By keeping your body trained with shorter bouts of downhill walking you will help prevent aches when you must do longer walks. This is especially needed by anyone planning a long hike or a multi-day trek.

Meanwhile, research shows that downhill walking and other eccentric endurance exercise has surprising metabolic benefits improving lipid metabolism and insulin resistance. It improves your lean body mass, which can mean you burn a few more calories even at rest. These effects have been seen not only in young, healthy subjects, but also in older ones and those with a variety of chronic health conditions.

Downhill walking is better tolerated than uphill or level walking for people with many different conditions, such as cardiac rehab, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and obesity. It can be used to help these people maintain or improve their fitness.

Aches and Pains From Downhill Walking

Research bears out what walkers report, that you can end up with muscle aches and soreness the next day. You are most likely to feel this if you aren't used to walking downhill, such as if your typical workout is on a treadmill that doesn't have a decline setting (negative incline), or you do most of your walking on level ground.

Many walkers report that they hate going downhill due to knee pain. Iliotibial band friction syndrome is an overuse injury that causes pain along the outside of your leg and knee, especially when walking downhill. If you have knee osteoarthritis or other knee conditions, you may feel more pain when walking downhill. Chondromalacia patella or runner's knee is another condition where you can feel pain under the kneecap when going downhill or uphill.

Improving Your Downhill Walking

Working on your walking form can help you walk downhill with less risk of pain or slipping.

  • 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, take a serpentine path by angling across the slope 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: Research confirms that trekking 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 to make your poles longer.
  • 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.

Downhill Walking Training

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.

You can check your local terrain for hills that will give you a nice long downhill to walk. You can use online maps and mapping apps to see where the hills are. Check for favorite routes added by local users on apps such as MapMyWalk. If you live in the flats with no natural hills, you can use ramps of parking garages or overpasses. However, those are shorter and have risks of tangling with traffic.

If you have a health condition such as COPD, or you have a low fitness level and are easily out of breath with exercise, discuss downhill walking with your doctor. It is more and more being recognized as a good way to get the health benefits of exercise with less of a challenge in breathing. However, since you may wish to avoid going uphill, it's best to find a treadmill that has a decline feature.

Treadmill Decline

Most treadmills have an incline feature, which you can adjust to simulate hills. It's less common that they have a decline feature to simulate going downhill, although this is being seen on more and more models. Check the treadmills available for you to use at local health clubs or community gyms for a decline feature.

Walking Down Stairs

Walking down stairs isn't quite the same as walking downhill, as it creates different stresses on your muscles and joints. But If you tolerate stairclimbing well, find a building of five stories or more and do one or more sets of climbing the stairs. If you hate going up, you can still get good health benefits by taking the stairs down and the elevator up.

A Word From Verywell

Downhill walking has benefits beyond just giving you a breather when you've crested a hill. With a few precautions for those with knee problems, it is a healthy part of a walking workout. Enjoy the views as you get in some healthy strides.

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