Masterng The Downs

Get this right, and downhill running changes from a cautious, knee stressing, potentially ankle smashing, lower back pain inducing and quad shredding activity into something more akin to hang-gliding from the top to the bottom of a mountain.

Those of you who have attended one of my trail running workshops will know the importance of good technique for managing the descents. Today’s article will explore some of the finer points of tackling ‘The Downs’.

For a lot of people, downhill running equals a lot of hard work. We work so hard to get to the top of a hill/ridge/mountain, only to head back down and discover that it can be even harder on the body than the climb was. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Tip #1. Engage the core – downhill running has a tendency to want to tip the pelvis forward due to the braking force that happens as we contact the ground. If you core is not active and strong, your pelvis dumps forward, your lower back arches and you put a lot of stress through the facet joints in your spine and through the hips and pelvis itself. Activating and maintaining a strong core is incredibly important particularly in downhill running, but also in running in general. Core activation is not about doing 100’s of sit ups or crunches, it is about a coordinated “switching on” of the deeper abdominal muscles that help to stabilise the pelvis and lower back. I’ve made this process as simple as possible in this program called the Runner’s Core.

Tip #2. Decrease stride length – by shortening the stride length and landing more under your body on your lead foot, rather than out in front, you will also automatically increase your cadence (steps per minute). In doing this, you will decrease the amount of stopping force your contact foot generates when it hits the ground and thus decrease the impact forces on your body. This will help to save your ankles, knees, hips and lower back from potential injury.

Tip #3. Lift Lift Lift – focus on getting your feet off the ground as quickly as possible rather than putting your attention into landing with each step. The less time your foot is on the ground after each ground contact, the less stress your body will sustain and the softer the descent will feel. Imagine you are running that rocky downhill in bare feet. Tap at the ground rather than smash into it.

Tip #4. Don’t be shy – by this I mean, don’t shy away from the descent. A lot of people lean backward to help control the motion of descending. Leaning backward increases the load on the quadriceps and the knees and slows your momentum. This is fine if you actually want to slow down, but the goal should be to descent as fast and efficiently as possible. Instead, try leaning forward just enough so that you feel slightly anxious about falling forward. Practice this on safer downhills and eventually you will be able to feel more comfortable moving faster and offloading your quads.

Tip #5. Enjoy – running should feel like the most natural thing in the world. Running downhill should be fun and exciting extension of that natural feeling. Remember to smile, remember to breathe and take the descent as an opportunity to let your body fly. Get this right and you may never look at a hill the same way again.

These 5 tips form the foundation for feeling strong while running the downs, there are several other things that can improve both your speed and control while descending, but start with these and practice each tip one at time and on hills of gradually increasing difficulty.

Apart from being a fantastic experience, fast downhill running is a great way to gain ground and position in a race. From an effort V’s reward perspective, being able to charge down a hill at full pace will reap a much greater reward than being able to run fast up a hill.

Enjoy the hills everyone!


Run long,

Shaun Brewster.

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