Mental Strategies for Downhill Running

Going fast on downhill trails takes some courage, and a fine-tuned set of mental skills. Here’s how to use your mind to run faster downhill on trails.

Photo: Getty Images

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What goes up, must come down. Sometimes that’s the only thing that gets runners through a grueling climb. But the work is not over once you get to the top.

In fact, running downhill may even take more effort compared to chugging up—when you’re doing it right, that is. Yes, you can let gravity do all the work, but your joints won’t put up with it for long. Slamming into the ground with every step and flailing around like a limp noodle not only looks ridiculous, but it’ll turn your legs to Jell-O far before the finish line. And besides, the Gumby approach holds runners back. That’s no way to hit top-end speed.

Runners owe it to themselves to take back control from gravity. But that means putting in more physical and mental effort than you might be used to, especially on what’s supposed to be the “fun part.” Fear can also creep in as runners begin to push the pace on techy, unsteady descents. It’s easy to fall back into autopilot and plod your way to the base. When the temptation arises, remember the consequences of such carelessness. Fight the intimidation by changing your attitude.

Instead of tuning out the second you crest the hill, try these four tips to keep your head in the game the whole way down.

Put It In Perspective

Running uphill feels much harder than going back down, but as far as your body’s concerned, the downhill packs the real punch. “Downhill running is much more often where people get injured,” says Sammie Lewis, physical therapist and coach at Golden Endurance in Colorado. “Your body is having to absorb heavy eccentric forces over and over again.”

Proper form holds the key to reducing the impact of these forces. “You have to get comfortable with leaning forward and not leaning backwards and braking every step,” Lewis explains. “This can be scary because you feel at risk for face-planting, but it allows for a more fluid stride while minimizing eccentric forces on your quads.”

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To counter the fear of leaning into the gradient, take a second and zoom out. As opposed to running uphill, when a shortened focus helps keep runners from getting overwhelmed by the steep slope looming before them, confidence in downhill running comes from a more broad focus. Fellow mental performance consultant Neal Palles acknowledges that running downhill is “legitimately scary, with much higher consequences than its uphill counterpart.” For that reason, it pays to pay attention to your surroundings.

“Look ahead, survey your surroundings, create a sense of safety, and put everything in perspective,” Palles suggests. “If you’re looking straight down, it’s going to look a lot more daunting. But by looking ahead, your brain can process the slope more slowly. This helps reduce anxiety.”

Practice broadening your perspective with this concentration training drill. While looking straight ahead, use your peripheral vision to take in as much of your surroundings as possible. Make a mental note of all the objects in the area and where they’re located in relation to one another. After a minute or two, break your gaze and sketch out what you remember. (Quickly; no need to go Picasso here.) Return to the scene to check your work. Keep practicing until you can consistently plot out an accurate map of your surroundings. This tests both the power of your peripheral vision as well as your ability to pan out and absorb the big picture.

Get Psyched

There’s a lot to think about when gunning downhill. As important as it is to prioritize physical form, a lazy brain won’t do you any favors. It’s important to stay alert so you don’t eat sh*t the second you catch your toe on a stray rock.

If calm and collected is the best remedy for anxiety on the uphill, the opposite holds true here. Aim for an amped and energized mindset. This way, you can be sure to stay one step ahead of whatever might cross your path.

World champion mountain runner Grayson Murphy also notes that “technical downhill running is like a game of hopscotch or the tango.” By this, she means that it’s all about being light on your feet. “Take lots of steps,” she advises. “The quicker you can move your feet, the less likely you are to fall, because if something starts to slide or if you land weird you’re already on your way to your next step.”

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Lewis agrees, for the sake of better impact absorption. “Making sure to take small steps and not reach out in front of you will help to decrease forces on your quads and anterior knee, as well as help you become more agile and less clunky,” she adds.

Psych up your mind with energizing images such as an ever-expanding ball of fire or a mental snapshot of an exceptionally speedy training run from recent history. For those who run with music, opt for fast rhythms (that you’ve practiced with in the past, since some upbeat songs can cause unexpected anxiety). Sans headphones, tap out beats in your head. Match the quick cadence of your steps for the added benefit of pairing your mental and physical states.

Be Your Own Coach

Downhill running requires gumption, but also skill. Maintaining proper form, while navigating rocks and roots at high speed puts a big ask on the brain.

It’s unlikely that your coach will be at your side the whole way down, but imagine what they would tell you if they were. You don’t necessarily need help with motivation in this case; that’s where gravity does make things easier by forcing you to keep up the momentum. What will help are simple reminders of how to best execute your skills. Boil down everything you know about running well downhill into instructional self-talk phrases like “lean in,” “pick up your feet,” and “use your arms.” Treat these as cues for staying strong as you go.

Build Your Résumé

Above all, put in the work. Nothing builds confidence more than practice, but approach that practice with intention. Murphy says that “it can be really helpful to follow someone downhill that’s better than you. You can watch their lines and try to match their tempo.” She also uses ladder drills as a way to train quick coordination since “it’s a lot lower risk than trying to go practice on actual techy downhills all the time”.

Use all of your senses to capture the sensations involved in these practice runs. These memories of how it felt in your body, from head to toe, to navigate each slope can serve as powerful reminders of your capability on downhills. Once you build your résumé, it all comes down to belief. Rely on vivid imagery to evoke everything you’ve learned.

It’s true. Running downhill can be daunting as hell, and something few people actually train for as they drift deeper into the sport trail running. But by incorporating these accessible tenets — broaden your visual field, engage with dynamic form, incorporate self-talk, and practice — downhill running can become less an unconscious part of your run and more a highly satisfying component of a well-rounded trail athlete. Now go forth! It’s all downhill from here.

Lucie Hanes is a competitive ultrarunner, avid climber, creative writer, and mental performance consultant for outdoor athletes. She lives in the Western Slope of Colorado with her partner in all things adventure and their extraordinarily vocal cat. She holds her MS in Applied Sports Psychology and helps outdoor athletes engage the psychological side of sports performance so they can stop leaving half of their potential on the table. Follow along at @luciehanes and @insideoutathlete

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