Descend with speed, grace, and fewer face-plants.
I do most of my long runs on trails, but I never really bothered to address my weakness: long, technical downhills. If I’m on my own, who cares if I tiptoe down a rocky descent? There’s nothing wrong with a slow walk break! And if a woman who bolts nimbly down the trail like a ponytailed mountain goat passes me in a race, well, I’ll catch up to her. Later. Maybe.
But after getting dropped repeatedly on a group run, I decided it was time for improvement. So I talked to two expert downhill runners to get their top tips on descending faster without blowing out my quads or face-planting in the dirt.
1. Practice to Grow Your Confidence
“You just have to do it a lot,” says Dakota Jones, a professional ultrarunner from Durango, Colorado, who logs countless runs in the area’s San Juan Mountains. “You have to put yourself outside of your comfort zone to improve at anything. So just do it a lot.” Simple enough.
The more you practice, the more you gain confidence in your ability. To improve your technical downhill skills, practice running on relatively tame downward trails and work up to technical beasts. “You’re not training physiology,” says Ethan Veneklasen, Salomon athlete ambassador, and longtime ultrarunner. “You’re working on getting comfortable, getting into a flow, and working on skills.”
2. Strengthen Your Legs
Descents of all types stress the quads and lower legs. The braking effect that comes with downhill running causes your quads to contract eccentrically, which slows down the elongation of the muscle. Eccentric contractions mean muscle soreness and a sad end to a long run or race.
To prevent late-race quivers, many coaches, including British Athletics coach Brian Mackenzie, suggest a few downhill repeat sessions: Find a moderately steep fire road with at least a quarter-mile hill of about an eight percent grade. Run easy on the uphill and push the downhill. Aim for 6 to 10 repeats.
Rebekah Mayer, national training manager at Minneapolis-based Life Time Run advises in an article for Runner’s World to start with one downhill session every other week, early in a training block. Build to weekly sessions, using your recovery as a guide.
3. Work Your Core
Core strength is crucial when powering down hills. “If your core isn’t strong, you put the wrong forces on your legs,” says Jones. “You may also start compensating at the end of a race, and that’s magnified when running downhill.”
Do two to three core sessions, targeting your abs, hips, and gluteus medius, each week. Incorporate staple exercises, such as planks and side planks, as well as exercises that target the hip flexors and extensors. Here’s an example of a simple, all-around core routine.
4. Lean Forward
It sounds counterintuitive, but if you lean forward from your ankles, you can better keep your legs underneath your body. Center your bodyweight over your knees so you strike with the ball of the foot rather than the heel. This position is not only faster, it puts less strain on your quads and knees. “Resist the urge to lean back,” says Veneklasen. “Do what’s totally unnatural—lean into the problem.”
5. Don’t Look Down
Keep your eyes focused 10 to 15 feet ahead of you. Pick your line to avoid any large obstacles. Your body will know where to go, even when you’re not staring straight down, says Veneklasen.
6. Speed Up Your Feet to Spare Your Quads
Take short, quick steps and stay light on your toes. “Imagine you have hot coals under your feet,” says Veneklasen. Heavy strides will create the quad-killing braking effect you don’t want. Your downhill intervals (See #2) will help the faster cadence feel more natural.
7. Balance with Your Arms
Keep your arms up and out to the side, but focus on relaxing your shoulders. (Imagine flapping your arms like a bird.) “It’s fine if they’re flailing all over the place like windmills if it helps you balance,” Veneklasen tells Trail Run Project. “Keeping your arms up allows you to use gravity more effectively.”
As you get faster, even with efficient form, you may wipe out. Everyone does. “Handheld water bottles are great buffers!” says Veneklasen. But as your skills and confidence improve, you may find yourself hollering with joyful abandon when the trail plummets.