When I first got into trail-running, I discovered that I was a natural on the uphills. On training days I flew up the hills; when racing, this is where I overtook people. But on the downhills I would be wasted by many of those same people I had overtaken on the way up. I soon realised I needed to work on this. I had never tried to run fast downhill, but it looked like fun! How hard could it be?
As trail runners, we train for running uphill. We do numerous hill repeats and slog up huge ascents with purpose. It’s easy to ignore downhill training because it’s perceived to be easy.
Downhill running is fun. It’s exhilarating and exciting. But to master the art of downhill trail-running takes a lot of practice. Get it wrong, brake too often and your quads get a battering. Or get carried away, lose your balance, trip and fly superman-style down the trail and flat on your face. Run a mountain trail race and it’s easy to see who’s comfortable on the descents and who isn’t. But it’s definitely something we can all learn.
Let’s take a look at the key components to proper downhill technique.
1) Quick Foot and Leg Turnover
If there’s one thing that sets apart a strong descender from a weak one, it’s their cadence. Fast, controlled downhill running requires you to be light on your feet, landing on your mid/forefoot, with quick leg turnover and your feet underneath your body. Extended, heavy strides, landing on your heels, will leave you unbalanced, and create a braking effect that wears out the legs and quads.
Through quick strides, your contact to the ground is short and light. Even if you were to hit an unstable rock or land awkwardly on a root, it shouldn’t matter because the next foot is there to quickly bring you back to balance. At first this will feel unnatural, and short choppy steps that move all over the trail may seem like a waste of energy. As you get more efficient and confident in your downhill running, it will save a lot of the stress and strength by absorbing all the impact.
2) Lean Forward, Not Back
When you’re running down a hill, it’s natural to feel timid and lean back. But by leaning back and trying to brake with your heel, you’re creating unnecessary strain on your legs and quads.
The good news is that we have the benefit of gravity, and proper downhill running let’s gravity do all the work. Instead of leaning back, you want to lean forward into the hill, to increase stability. Lean forward so that your body creates a T shape with the trail, leaning from the ankles rather than the waist. This enables you to lift your legs up, instead of out in front of you, and will keep your foot strike light and on the mid-foot, instead of throwing all your weight and force into the heel.
3) Look Ahead, Not Straight Down
When doing any downhill sport, you’re always looking ahead at the line you wish to follow. Where you look is where you point your body, and thus where you go. The same thing will happen with running, however when running downhill, especially on technical terrain, the natural thing to do is look straight down at your feet.
Instead you should keep your gaze a few metres in front of you, to pick your line and see what needs to be considered up ahead. Your brain does amazingly well at addressing each obstacle, even if you aren’t looking straight at it.
4) Use the Upper Body for Balance
Use the upper body for balance, and let the arms flow in the air as if you’re gently flapping them up and down. Don’t tighten the shoulders or keep the arms tucked in close to the chest. Relax, and use downhill periods to give your upper body a bit of a break.
5) Descend With Confidence
The second you lose confidence when running downhill is the second you tighten up and slam on the brakes. Attack the descent just as you would the ascent, with confidence and intention.
How to Train for Descents
Reading these tips and watching a pro do it makes downhill running appear easy. But as you probably know from experience, it’s not. It takes a lot of practice to gain confidence, and many hours of training to gain speed. So what can you do to encourage improvements?
Just a few weeks of focused downhill training can show significant results. And a good pair of trail shoes are essential to maximise grip and support.
When done properly, speeding down a hill is not only a blast, but it’s a great way to make up time and pass the many runners who don’t take it seriously. So go out and dance with that mountain. She’s ready to tango.
Sam Brooks is one of the founders of the Adventure Running Company. She loves running both up and down hills.
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