31 Jan 6 Tips To Master Downhill Running
Do you ever watch someone running downhill and wonder how they make it look so effortless?
I remember distinctly one adventure race I took part in, I was one of the first to the top of the mountain, I felt in control, I had the power and strength to get me there in a good position.
But what let me down all those years ago was my downhill skills.
Runner after runner came past me like I was stood still. Yes, it was on strange terrain in Ireland, I had no experience of the course. In fact I’d never descended on rocky terrain before.
But my downfall wasn’t limited to the terrains I wasn’t used to, it was limited to everything going downhill.
So one of the first things I did back in 2012 after this event was look into why I was so bad a running downhill. As a road runner, I was fine on the road descending, but my skills stopped there.
Below, I’ve written 6 key tips which will help your descending, whether on road or if you find yourself tackling something more advanced too. We cover these key tips and many more on our Trail Mornings (next date is listed here).
What is the solution to these downhills then?
I mentioned this same idea in my post about Uphill running… (you can read that here)
But not just doing hill reps over and over again.
Practising the right technique – Purposeful Practise.
Running downhill is a constant battle between running fast enough to make sure you cover the distance in a good amount of time and balancing this speed with control, as one wrongly placed foot, or getting a little carried away can have some disastrous effects.
I’m sure we’ve all experienced that feeling of running a bit too quick downhill and feeling out of control.
Not only are you out of control, but you are also placing a lot more impact (and force) through your legs as they work extra hard to slow you down on each step you take (even if you think you aren’t actively trying to slow yourself down, chances are your body actually is trying to slow you down in an attempt at self preservation!)
So what top technique tips can you begin to implement to help with your descending skills? We’ll it’s a little more complicated than simply “striding out” or perhaps shortening your stride, which I’ll aim to explain now:
Running Downhill Tips
- How To Tackle a Steep Descent.
With a steep descent, the impact through your quads will skyrocket, long periods of doing this will without a doubt leave you feeling tired in the short term and long term (i.e. the next day) feeling very stiff through the DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
To help with this, short steps are required to keep control of your pace and reduce the impact through the body and knees. This is really important for long distance runs/trail events where you want to preserve your muscles for as long as possible. Descending with long strides is a very quadricep (your upper thigh) dominant thing to do and will tire these muscles out very quickly, which is fine if you are running a shorter event, but we wouldn’t recommend this strategy on longer runs, the time you gain with the added speed will be lost over the course of a long run.
- Running a Shallow Descent.
On shorter runs/events we’d recommend using a longer strides focusing on kicking backwards as you propel yourself forwards.
This should naturally happen, but increase effort here with caution as you will pick up speed very quickly. Don’t sprint the descents as you will find your heart rate picking up very quickly. The speed running downhill should come without too much added effort, so don’t force it to come. Relax and enjoy the free speed!
Again, things to note, even on a short descent, you’ll pick up speed very quickly, so to slow down, take more frequent steps. The more frequently you step the more able you are to avoid obstacles ahead too, you can adjust your course quickly and more easily should a pothole appear on your radar or you see that tree root looks a tad dangerous.
Remember, it’s not always about speed, more often it’s about descending in one piece and not requiring any flashing blue lights to get you home…
- Where To Place Your Feet?
Foot landing point should be slightly ahead of your hips/centre of gravity – this helps with control.
It’s also a good idea to use this technique if you are running on a course which requires a quick change of direction or to stop quickly.
The further your foot lands in front of you the more control you’ll have, but also the harsher the journey will be on your ankles/knees, so use this technique tip with caution and judge for yourself how to balance between the two.
At all times we want to maintain a nice quick running cadence (think fast and light feet).
You want to remain tall whilst running, keeping the chest lifted. This will help with breathing and therefore keeping the heart rate controlled.
Tall posture also helps to ensure your spine is absorbing the impact of running downhill more effectively (imagine a tall, neutral spine vs a curved spine absorbing the impact of the descent).
Keeping your chest lifted also ensures that you are looking forward at what’s coming at you. Often runners fall into the trap of looking at their feet and reacting too late to obstacles.
In an ideal scenario, we should be looking around 5-8 steps ahead of us to see a perfect route down the hill. But not only looking at the ground ahead, but also what’s overhead too, the last thing you want to do is have a head on collision with a tree.
- What should you do with your arms?
Use them/swing them, but with downhill (especially off road) you’ll want a wider elbow/arm position to control balance. Keep the arms around 90 degrees but if required, using your arms for balance and having them out to your side or having your hands lower down can be advantageous.
You’ll often see trail runners flailing their arms as they descend for extra balance, this works, but only if you have practised it first.
Downhills are often overlooked when it comes to training plans, but they can prove beneficial especially due to the extra work your muscles will be doing – downhill training = great strength training for the legs.
- Lean in or lean back?
Leaning in will help pick up speed, leaning back can help to slow you down.
So for general running tips, we’d recommend leaning into the hill, keep the hips pushed forwards and use the momentum gained from running downhill.
Use this tip with caution as you will pick up the pace very quickly like this and you will start to feel out of control – so again, practise before putting it into your event/race, but it is a very good way of increasing your pace without adding any extra effort (free speed if you like).
- How To Tackle a Steep Descent.
There you have it – 6 key techniques for improving your downhill running.
Start by picking out just one, and on your next downhill session (or hilly run), practise this ONE thing.
On the next session, add another thing to it, week by week you’ll bring in another aspect and eventually you’ll start to feel things click into place.
But for downhills, it’s not about how FAST you descend it, but getting to the bottom in one piece! We will always encourage a safe and efficient journey downhill before adding speed, and always work to your own limits.
You might find that your running friend is always faster running downhill than you, this might be because they are that bit more fearless, but with practise, your confidence will grow and soon your speed will follow it.
For more details on Hill Running Technique, grab our Hill Running Guide which is included for FREE in the Runners Treasure Chest, plus, you’ll also be able to grab a copy of our 50 favourite running sessions too which contains plenty of hill training ideas too. All for free!
Enter the treasure chest by clicking HERE
We like to look after our running family.
P.S. For more tips on hill running, check out our Running Weekends where we can take you through techniques like these in far greater detail. Check out the details by following this link: https://runcamp.co.uk/home/running-weekend-by-runcamp/
P.P.S. If you know runners who could do with a helping hand on hills, make sure you hit the share buttons below and tag them to let them know – thanks 🙂
Ant is the creator of RunCamp. Everyday his goals are to educate, motivate and inspire runners and triathletes to make themselves better than they were yesterday.
Running in his eyes is a journey, and through his coaching he aims to make everyone’s journeys more enjoyable.
As well as running, you’ll find Ant regularly taking part in triathlons, from sprint distance up to full Ironmans.
He also has a big weakness in the forms of Papa John’s pizza and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, so if you ever want to get an easier session, thats one way to get one!