Downhill running tricks
Welcome. This is a guide to the main techniques for efficient and fast downhill running.
Trunk lean is fairly universal:
This might be a surprise to you. It certainly was to me. For moderate slopes, almost all runners keep their trunks perpendicular to the slope. They are leaning to match the slope. After high speed video analysis of many downhill runners, both fast and slow, this was consistent.
So where does the sense of lean come from?
Given that the trunk remains matched to the gradient, the forward lean to accelerate comes from the hips. Technically, moving your hips (pelvis) forwards shifts your centre of mass accordingly. With this, you will sense a forward lean and you will begin to tip forwards. This is how to accelerate downhill.
Brake by moving your hips backwards. This moves your centre of mass backwards and encourages braking through your legs and body. This position can be felt as a slight crouch. Not too much though, just enough. A great practice drill is to accelerate, brake and repeat. Interval training is one smart option. That way you can train with friends, choose your gradient, recover on the uphill, think about your next run, use the principles of reps and sets and so on.
Braking is your safety net. If you know that you can stop on a dime, then you can explore your limits more boldly. It is worth practicing your braking.
When the ground is sloping away from you, almost all runners will find that a heel strike is most appropriate. After your heel touches, your forefoot comes rapidly to meet the ground and braking begins. Even for runners who, on flat ground, have a midfoot or forefoot strike find that a heel strike is most appropriate for downhill running.
Let your feet flick up off the ground:
Letting your foot naturally lift off the ground lets you move your leg through the air quicker. This is possible because as your knee bends, the length of your leg (lever) is made relatively shorter. You can then whip your leg through and get it back on the ground. As you learn to turn your legs over quicker, you will feel more in control; you won’t feel as though you are toppling forwards. It is important that you let this movement happen, rather than try and make it happen.
During running, your arms are mainly used for balance and running efficiency. For downhill running on trails, balance becomes most vital. As the terrain becomes more difficult, you will notice your arms lift like wings. You are unconsciously using your arms to keep your weight over your feet. This is something that you can let happen without much thought.
There is no benefit to holding excess tension through your upper body. You want just enough muscular effort to keep your head steady. After all, your head receives lots of sensory information which is key for balance.
If the slope is only slight, you may find that you use your arms as if you are running on the flats. This is helpful.
Confidence is a key ingredient to the pinnacle of (enjoyable, fast and reasonably safe) downhill running. Confidence is trained. You can make positive experiences stack together to grow yourself into a descending thrill seeker.
Let it happen:
Running downhill is about your body interacting with the planet through gravity. Once a slope is steep enough, you don’t have to try and run, you let it happen. It is this relinquishing of control and going with it that makes efficient downhill running. Your role is to let go, adjust to the terrain, control your speed and enjoy the thrill.
Find your efficient pace:
For each downhill run (gradient, surface, weather, shoes, fitness, confidence, etc) you will have a most efficient pace. Notice that your most efficient pace is often a bit quicker than your intuitive pace. This is because most runners are in the process of growing more confident. Practicing different speeds will help you find your efficient zone. Run too fast and your legs, particularly your quadriceps, will use more energy and you might be tuckered out before you reach the bottom. It makes for a gruelling uphill.
Play with different parts of downhill running. But, remember that running is fun and it is nice to lose yourself in the run. Being too focussed on technique can steal some of the fun. That said, learning to be able to fly downhill offers a great thrill. Find your balance of focussed practice and just running.
The fastest runners have high cadence and a long stride. This can be practiced with speed training. Note that you can lose efficiency if you stretch your stride further than what you are ready for. We will cover this in a future post.
Keep your toes comfortable by using your laces to hold your foot snug, but not constricted. The extra eyelet at the top of many shoes can be used to minimise forward slipping in the shoe.
Thank you for taking the time to read this guide. Call or email us if you have any questions or comments.
Adelaide Running Physio