Ever get passed in a trail race on a downhill? If you find yourself plodding down mountains with sore quads and wondering about the secret of all the graceful runners bounding past you, you are not alone. Downhill running ability – especially on technical trails – is a rare and coveted skill. But more often then not we see runners moving very inefficiently while descending. Here are 5 ways you can improve your downhill running right away.
Your strides are too long.
It can feel great to open up your stride when you’re running downhill. While it may be fun to take long, leaping gallops, doing so can also take a severe toll on your shins and quads. The sheer force of impact on your body from a longer stride—especially when tackling downhills—is significant. Longer strides also leave you less wiggle room to out-maneuver obstacles in the trail at the very last second as well.
Instead, keep your strides short, with rapid turnover. Sometimes it feels like a rapid shuffle. A good way to do this is to try to land on your midfoot or forefoot with every step, rather than on your heels; wearing a pair of trail-running shoes with a lower heel-to-toe drop—i.e. 6mm or less—is a great way to support this landing pattern. If you’re landing on your heels on mellow descents, that’s a good sign your form is holding you back.
This may feel awkward at first, but with practice, it’s an exercise that can pay off in huge dividends by reducing fatigue to your quads and increasing agility on technical terrain.
You’re riding your brakes.
Many runners are terrified of falling—and for good reason. Falling is no fun at all. However, this fear also leads many people to (often unconsciously) “brake” with every step—that is, to try and control their speed by landing hard on their heels and leaning backward, rather than forward from the ankles.
It can feel a bit scary at first to lean into gravity’s pull on a downhill—you’ll gain momentum rapidly—but if you can keep your foot turnover quick and nimble beneath a strong, engaged core, it’s possible to have gravity work for you, rather than against.
The less you try to “brake” when running downhill—especially on gently graded, runnable hills—the more you’ll ultimately save your leg muscles from unnecessary tension and the damaging effects of poor running form. Make sure the lug pattern on the soles of your trail-running shoes supports smooth, confident handling of the terrain.
There is one exception to this rule; on the very steepest or most technical downhills (i.e. gnarly roots or talus fields), you might be better off hiking at a fast clip or even side-stepping your way down, rather than trying to maintain a constant running motion.
You’re looking in the wrong place.
Many trail runners have a bad habit of looking directly at their running shoes when cruising downhill. However, this doesn’t always leave the brain enough time to process the obstacles ahead and coordinate accordingly with your feet. The best place to focus your gaze when running downhill is several stride lengths ahead of yourself.
Practice doing this, and you might be pleasantly surprised by the newfound confidence you feel when bombing down rugged terrain.
Your trail-running shoes might be too loose.
This is one of the simplest fixes of all to any struggling downhill runner’s woe. If your toes tend to bang into the front of your running shoes, if your feet regularly suffer blisters, if you’re prone to taking spills, or if you simply feel slow on descents, you might give this a try next time: snug up your shoelaces significantly more than usual, especially around the midfoot.
While a more tightly tied trail-running shoe may be uncomfortable for long uphills, it can be a real boon when hitting cruise control on the downs; you don’t want any unnecessary shifting, sliding or sloshing around in your shoes when you’re tackling technical terrain at a fast clip.
You’re taking the descent for granted.
Like any aspect of a sport or pursuit, practice makes perfect. For some people, downhill running comes naturally. For others, though, it takes a concerted effort for their bodies to develop the muscle memory for proper downhill form.
Especially if you fall into the latter category, make time in your training schedule to seek out hilly or mountainous trails. Lace up your running shoes extra well and, on the descents, practice taking short strides, leaning forward (downhill) from your ankles, and gazing at the trail well ahead of your feet. Accelerate for short bursts so you get more comfortable with speed and agility on your descents.
Above all, keep this in mind: when done right, downhills can be a wonderful opportunity for your heart, lungs and legs to recover from the hard work of uphills and flat sections of trail.