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Which is harder, running uphill or running downhill?

I have done the Salt Lake City, Utah marathon and it has a huge chunk of descending. I think circa 5000 feet vertical the route of the year I ran it.

I was surprised how much my quads hurt from catching myself on every downhill step.

I suppose if you trained for it, it would not be so bad.

But which is actually harder? Uphill or downhill?

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What does harder mean? More painful? More physically exhausting? More force exerted by the feet? – corsiKa Feb 10 '12 at 2:29
I dunno. I think it would be interesting to address in a couple of different ways. – geoffc Feb 10 '12 at 2:45
up vote 21 down vote accepted

Running uphill is harder...if you know how to run downhill effectively.

Running downhill requires rapid feet, and shorter than normal strides - specifically so you DON'T catch yourself. Think of a 500 pound stone falling towards your head. You wouldn't try to catch it, instead you should just try to flick it to the side (and slide your body the other way). When running downhill, this is exactly what's happening. A huge stone (the Earth) is coming at you quickly, and you can't stop it. So instead, with a quick foot movement you flick it behind you, and slide your body forward.

This takes practice, guts, and more practice! But, it's faster, and MUCH easier than over striding, slamming your heels down, and constantly trying to stop gravity from pulling you down the hill.

Don't try this for the first time in a race, especially not a trail race, as you need to learn the footwork to be safe, and to control the inevitable adrenaline rush as you realize you're one misstep away from eating it!!

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A rather poetic description... – Tonny Madsen Feb 10 '12 at 12:14

Running uphill will definitely exhaust you faster if you try to keep a too fast pace. On the other hand, if the hill is not too steep, it doesn't have to be much harder than running on a flat surface.

Running downhill really depends on your technique and what conditions are you running in. It will be completely different if the road is wet or otherwise slippery, as you will have to put in a lot more energy to keep your balance. But if the road is dry and you have good shoes, it can be pretty easy with some practice.

I have this 1.5km long climb on my regular jogging track, which is quite steep. I live on top of the hill, so at first I have to run down, and at the end of the track run it back up.

If I'm running it in good weather conditions, I can run down pretty fast, feeling confident that I won't slip and basically don't get tired at all. But if it is a rainy day, I take a huge care with every step, making it almost as exhausting as running back up.

The difference with running up is that it is almost always the same, no matter the weather conditions.

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Mile for mile, running uphill requires a greater amount of physical work to be performed. You are clearly working against gravity rather than with it.

However, running downhill can be perceived as more difficult for several reasons.

  • it tends to be much faster so there is higher impact on the body parts
  • unlike flat or uphill runners, downhill runners need to resist forward motion to maintain control, and the biomechanics of this "braking" involves muscles that may be less well trained
  • as mentioned by Darth and Mike Hedman, runners who are not used to downhill running may be using improper or uncontrolled technique
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This is the only answer which mentions the real reason running downhill leaves you sore: downhill running requires your muscles to perform repeated "eccentric" contractions, which means resisting the muscle's extension rather than contracting to pull (as they do when running uphill). If you're not well trained for this kind of motion - which muscles don't generally handle well - you're going to be sore. – pjmorse Oct 7 '14 at 14:02

Running downhill is more physically demanding, as your body is doing more to resist the force of gravity.

Running uphill in itself is not more demanding unless you have a tendency to try to sprint uphill. In fact, if you close your eyes while running uphill, you can easily convince yourself that you are running on a flat plane.

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I don't know if I buy that - I'm pretty sure my legs and lungs know when I'm running uphill no matter what I do to convince them otherwise... – Zannjaminderson Feb 10 '12 at 8:06
@Zannjaminderson: I agree. Running down a hill is like heaven after the hell of getting up there! – Matt Feb 10 '12 at 10:44
As far as resisting the force of gravity...gravity wants you to go down, so when you are running uphill you ARE resisting gravity. The physics of it demand that going uphill requires more energy. If you choose to run badly downhill, then you might encounter more pain, but that's 100% preventable. – Mike Hedman Feb 10 '12 at 16:41

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