Mastering Downhill Technique
Running downhill fast can be scary. But if you practice the right technique and build up confidence, you'll by flying in no time.
One of the toughest things for new trail runners to learn is that moving fast downhill requires two different types of running form. Let’s call them the angry hippo and the dancing mountain goat. Here are our tips for mastering downhill running technique on trails.
FALLING IS OK
You can do everything right, and you will still occasionally taste the dirt. The key is to accept that you will fall and not let it deter you from having adventures. Remember when you were a kid, and you’d come home with a few scrapes, and your mom would ask you what happened? And you probably didn’t even remember? Once you get used to playing like a kid on the trails, it’ll be just like that. You’ll finish an incredible trail run with a bit of blood on your knee and not a clue where it came from. But you’ll have a huge smile on your face, and you’ll know exactly why.
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The hippo is best on slight downhills without too many big rocks or girthy roots, such as fire roads or typical Northern California trails. On these hills, the most efficient form is one that eats up the ground with slightly longer strides. A slight heel strike is natural on these downhills, but try to land as flat footed as possible to distribute the load away from your knees and toward the big shock system in your quads and butt. To train your musculoskeletal system, do relaxed, 30-second strides on gentle downhills, emphasizing a powerful stride and rearward hip extension that engages your glutes.
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Steep and Technical Downhills
The mountain goat is reserved for the steep, rocky descents common in Europe, Colorado and much of the eastern United States. Imagine a vertical line drawn from your hip bone to your ankle, and try to keep it from moving forward or backward. Run with short, choppy strides, raising your knee rather than kicking back powerfully. This technique will lead to a soft, high-cadence stride that reduces impact while lessening the risk of tripping. To practice, there is really no substitute for finding steep, technical hills and running down them as often as you can.
Training to Improve Downhill Technique
More than any element of trail running, downhills take practice. Downhills have a potent mix of unique muscle contractions that only happen when running down, variable running mechanics depending on the specific trail and faster speeds due to the gravitational assist. If you don’t train the downhill properly, you will have worse performance and a higher chance of injury. In other words, you are going down one way or another.
A few simple training techniques can prime your legs for shredding downhill trails:
1. Run the downhills with purpose on your long runs. During long runs, you have the chance to get moving and prepare for the unique stimulus of race-paced downhills. By running downhills purposefully during long runs (as if you are running a long race), you are targeting the most difficult part of downhill running—cumulative fatigue from impact forces. A long run is when you maximize impact forces, and adding a some faster downhill ensures your body is ready for whatever is thrown at it on race day.
2. Downhill strides. A hard element of downhill running is the motor coordination of moving at faster paces, especially on non-technical downhills. The body has a tendency to want to slow down, and it needs to learn that it’s OK to take off the brakes. To cut the brake line, find a downhill between six and 10-percent grade, and run eight repeats of 30 seconds fast, jogging back up slowly for recovery. Doing these repeats just once a week will teach you how to let go and allow gravity to do its thing.
3. Up-down-up workout. If you’ve been trail running for a while, you have probably experienced Jell-O legs, that horrifying feeling when your legs go from being strong to feeling wobbly and weak almost instantly. Usually, that feeling comes from being unprepared for the muscle damage associated with purposeful downhill running mixed with fast uphill running.
To avoid Jell-O legs, adapt to race pace in advance by doing a tempo run at your goal race effort with ups and downs. Ideally, you’d have a small loop with a few-minute uphill and downhill you can repeat multiple times. Doing a tempo between 20 and 40 minutes at race effort a couple times in the month before race day can keep you Jell-O-free when it counts.
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Embrace the Dirt
One of the big reasons trail running is so fun is that it is dirty. Unlike the road or track, it involves mixing up your stride over and over again, with different technique needed on different types of trails. There is no one-size-fits-all trail runner, because there is no one-size-fits-all trail. Roads are clean. Trails are messy.
With that in mind, embrace what makes you unique as a trail runner. Your form can be dirty and messy just like the trails. You can be successful on the dirt as a hippo or a mountain goat, a short-striding waterbug or a long-striding gazelle. Start by applying these principles, then find the form (and the animal analogy) that works for you.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.