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Running uphill is obviously more challenging than running on a flat surface, but on a hilly course, there is also an equal amount of downhill. If my goal is to have the hardest workout, burn the most calories, etc - does the downhill cancel out the uphill? Do I burn fewer calories running downhill than on a flat surface? Does that cancel out the extra calories I burn running uphill? If so, are there other benefits of running on a hilly course, besides added caloric burn?

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You'd usually just do it in an interval-training fashion: as hard as possible on the uphill and easy on the downhill. You don't even need more than one hill, after a few sprints up you'll hardly notice anything around you! :) –  VPeric Dec 4 '11 at 22:14
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No, running downhill does not cancel out running uphill any more than driving in reverse removes miles off the odometer. Will you burn fewer calories expending less effort? Sure. But you are still burning more calories than you would sitting in a chair or walking somewhere.

The biggest thing to watch out for when running downhill is uneven terrain and the added stress on your knees. When you are running uphill, you make contact with the ground faster. That provides more resistance to your quadriceps, which means:

  • You are building more strength than you would running on a level course, which translates to more Calories burned even at rest.
  • There is less stress on your knees because there is less distance for your weight to accelerate toward the ground.

Running downhill in a controlled manner can provide more resistance to your hamstrings--provided you aren't trying to go too fast. However, each and every step is going down a greater distance, which compounds the stress to the knee. In order to get the most work out of the hill, and to protect yourself from injury:

  • Shorten your stride as much as you can. This requires more steps to be taken in the same distance, but cancels out some of the bad aspects of downhill running
  • Go controlled. Faster is not better here. If you are in essence slowing yourself down by the leg in contact with the ground, you will feel it in your hamstrings, and you will be able to deal with small ankle-wrenching dents in the terrain without hurting yourself.

By applying that strategy you will be building some strength on both sides of the leg, protect yourself as much as possible during the run, and get some serious conditioning in. Strength (more muscle mass) will burn more calories while you are resting than pure cardio endurance training.

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Additionally often people will think a downhill marathon is easier, but in fact, is often harder than an uphill marathon. Or conversely, both kind of suck.

I used to wonder about that, and not entirely believe it, until I did the Salt Lake City marathon which starts on top of Big Mountain, and drops 5000 some odd feet vertically, a good 3000 of it in the first 8 miles. It really wacks out your quads, as Berin Loritsch in his answer noted you have to catch yourself on every downhill foot plant.

(Did not help that the race starts at 5:30AM, at 55F, and by the time you finish it can be closer to 110F in the city, in July).

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Running downhill is the BEST way to strengthen your quad muscles. Often we build muscle imbalances by continually running uphill which does great for glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors. Downhill pounds the quads but strengthens them.

How to downhill run effectively
1) Focus on being tall and relaxed
2) Slight forward lean
3) Use the "big muscles" to cushion the landing as opposed to pounding your shins.

Based on the work by Arthur Lydiard I recommend short downhill strides coupled with uphill "sprints" to fully maximize your running strength (which does wonders for endurance, coincidentally).

Sample Beginner Workout
Week 1 - Short hills 10 seconds up a steep hill at 90-95% effort (almost all out). Walk back down. (Walking backwards down the hill can eccentrically stress the hamstring meaning more strength). Rest 2 minutes. Repeat 2 times total. Can do this AFTER an easy run.
Week 2 - Long hills 30 seconds up a gradual hill at a medium hard to hard pace (not all out), walk back down halfway, gently run the last hall focusing on using the big muscles for cushion. Rest 2 minutes. Repeat 4 times total.
Week 3 - Short Hills 4 times
Week 4 - Long Hills 6 times
Week 5 - Short Hills 6 times
Week 6 - Long Hills 8 times

Additionally, add a half mile to a mile of a gradual hill to your long run each week to help with aerobic power.

Finally with hills, recommend no more than 2-3 times per week and always try to keep a minimum of one or 2 days between hill sessions. You will be sore, especially in the early going but by focusing on form and using your glutes, hips, hamstrings and quads, you will get stronger quickly.

Good luck.

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Great recommendations, thanks! I guess I just always assumed running downhill was "easier", but you're right that it does take extra effort to stay in control. I supposed it could be easier if you don't control your motions, but then you might be prone to hurting yourself (pounding the shins like you said). –  Lauren Dec 7 '11 at 14:32
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