7 Downhill Running Tips for Any Descent
By Isaac Walker and Will Lind
Image © Schurr / Dollar Photo Club
Downhill running can be the epitomy of the love/hate relationship. You love it because it’s not going uphill, but hate it because it jars and hurts. You can change this with practice, technique and training. You might not ever love it, but it doesn’t have to be a painful experience. For starters, don’t leave it it all up to gravity and don’t expect to get a super easy ride. The speed comes easy, but control over your downhill run means you must still work, especially as the duration of your downhill, or the total number of them in your run, grows. So how do you stay efficient with downhill running while maximising your pace? Here are some tips to help you on your way:
1. Tap dance: When things get technical during a downhill descent think like a tap dancer. You want to spot where your foot is going to go and lift off immediately. A nice and quick cadence will both decrease the impact of your stride and keep your legs turning over so your pace stays reasonable. Tappa tappa tappa.
2. Train for speed: Interval training on the flats will increase overall speed and leg speed. This transfers to control and confidence as the speed picks in downhil running.
3. Anaerobic fitness improvements: (intervals and circuit style strength training) – Fast downhill running is very anaerobically taxing as you accelerate to your speed limits in mere moments. Technical downhill running then introduces a lot of stopping, starting, leaping and bounding. Better fitness will allow you to cope with this.
4. Don’t Fight It: Don’t fight the natural forces here on earth by pulling back when downhill running. If you lean back you will most likely start to heel strike, which will smash your legs to pieces. It is a horrible experience. Ideally maintain your neutral position and both shorten and quicken your stride. Gravity will take care of the rest. A slight lean forward will dramatically increase your pace if you really want to hit the accelerator.
5. Keep your cadence: Realistically in longer distance races your cadence shouldn’t vary a great deal between uphills, flats and downhills. For downhill running, unless you are negotiating some very ‘sketchy’ terrain then your cadence should stay about the same. The things that will change is the angle of your body (leaning forward from your ankles not your waist) and your stride length. If you keep the same cadence (even a touch quicker) then you use your muscles more efficiently and you decrease the impact on your leg muscles – especially your quads.
6. Spot your next hill: When running longer distances, in fact any distance, then any little boost helps you keep charging on. If you happen to be running downhill and you spot an uphill straight afterwards then use it. Use the momentum from the downhill to keep your pace and energy levels higher so you can attack at least the start of that approaching hill. Just remember not to go too hard as the last thing you want is to start a hill completely spent after smashing the previous descent.
7. Strengthen and lengthen: Running downhill at speed requires some mighty leg strength and often quite a bit of dexterity. Walking lunges, single leg step ups and stair walking can help develop the quads. You’ll also want to work on your hamstrings, so look to exercises like deadlifts or kettlebell swings. Finally, some plyometrics can help with the ballistic nature of the more technical descents that demand quite a bit of jumping and leaping. Add core work, perhaps Russian twists and bicycle kicks, to help with core stability and strength in that midsection (which will go into overdrive with all the breaking, accelerating, changes of direction and balance). Finally, stretch and lengthen tight muscles so they’re not taught and bunched when what you really need is fluidity and reach.