Downhill Rhythm

It’s been nearly two years since I last ran without compromised health. I have been able to get myself back into decent shape in the past couple months, but for the most part I have felt ‘out of shape’ on every run I’ve done since August of 2012. I’ve learned a lot of things about running in this time. Genetic make up and fitness account for a huge percentage of our performance as a runner. There really are no secrets to being an elite-level runner. If you don’t have the genes for it or you are not in shape, you will never be able to compete directly with those who have both of these things in their favor. This said, there is one area of running that doesn’t have nearly as much to do with genetic make up or how in shape you are: technical downhill running. Through my experiences of running out of shape for nearly two years, I have come to realize that technical downhill running is the area of running where many of us can improve the most as runners. You don’t need the best genes, or to be in the best shape to be a much better downhill runner than others you might compete against. It is instead a matter of technique, experience, and practice. We can probably all think of examples of people we know who can’t run nearly as fast, or can run much faster on technical downhills than their overall abilities as runners should allow them to. Why is this the case, and what then can we do to improve our downhill running?

First, I think it is very important to realize that downhill running is a lot more about learning how to not slow down than it is about learning how to speed up. This is to say that you don’t run fast downhill by simply running faster, but instead by avoiding the times when you are running slow, or stopping all together as we are tempted to do when the terrain gets really rough. Gravity will keep us in motion going down unless we put on the brakes and choose to stop. It is this stop and go which uses extra energy and slows us down considerably. We always need to fight gravity to some degree when running down steep hills, but the fastest downhill runners among us are the ones who learn to fight it the least.

There are a few techniques I like to use to avoid losing my momentum on a technical downhill. The first, and most important, is to shorten my stride. A shorter downhill stride allows us to stay much more balanced and in control of our bodies, and it leads to much less wear and tear on the body, especially when running long downhills. It also allows for a much larger range of foot placement when you are running on technical terrain and you really need to find the perfect placement for each step. If you are already running with a long stride and you need to improvise to not step on a sharp rock you will only have the option of a shorter stride to avoid that rock. Hopefully there isn’t another sharp rock directly before the one you are shortening up to avoid. When your stride is shorter you can always improvise with either a longer or shorter stride to avoid obstacles.

This choice of foot placement is another very important aspect of downhill running. Even on the steepest descents there are almost always places to put our feet that are somewhat smooth and flat. As often as possible this is where we want our feet to land. In this regard, vision and foot eye coordination becomes a huge part of how well we can run downhill. This is most certainly something that we can develop and improve over time. Use steep technical downhill sections in training to work on constantly scanning the surface and try to anticipate a few steps ahead of time where you are going to place your feet. Unlike running on flatter, smoother terrain you will almost never take the same length and style of stride two steps in a row. Over time you can learn how to make the irregularity of this feel regular.

Don’t be afraid to use the same foot for two steps in a row (a skip-like motion) or to take steps that only move you to one side or the other, and not necessarily down the hill. I know this may sound counterproductive to getting quickly down a descent, but again, I think keeping your feet in motion on a descent is always better than stopping. These are only techniques you are going to use when you are on a very steep technical trail where the only other option is to stop and re-start after you have re-positioned your feet. It always takes more energy and time to get moving again than it does to continue downward after a skip, very short, or sideways stride that was used to re-position your body, but didn’t stop your feet’s motion.

When running downhill we are generally running faster than on flats or uphills, and for this reason I think it is much more important to know the route and the terrain on downhills. Obviously a lot of the running we do is on terrain that is completely new to us, and we just need to take it as it comes, but if you are ever going to scout part of a race course, or if you simply want to run any stretch of downhill as effectively as possible it is very important to know the trail. The faster you are running, the less time you have to assess the trail as it unfolds in front of you. I think the best way to learn to run faster downhill is to practice on a descent that you know very well. This will give you the opportunity to really get in a rhythm and work on your footwork. It’s a lot easier to place your feet in the correct place when you know what’s coming ahead in the trail. This will give you confidence that you can then apply to any trail you are running.

We have probably all taken a fall when running downhill. If you are anything like me you also might find yourself to be more clumsy in the few minutes after you do take a fall. It has taken me several years to acknowledge this, and to respond properly to it, but I think it is very important to give ourselves a few minutes to ease back into running fast downhill once we do take a fall. Confidence plays a huge part in running, and downhill running is no exception to this. When we get in a downhill rhythm, and feel like we can really let go of fighting gravity it is because we are confident and feel in complete control of our bodies. When we take a fall we almost always lose this confidence for a period of time, and until we regain it, we are almost certain to be in less control. After a fall I really like to shorten my stride even further and give myself a few minutes to regain this confidence. I know this can seem counterproductive in a race setting, but in the long run (pun intended), we will almost always be better off if we take it easy for a minute or two after taking a fall on a descent.

More than anything it simply takes a lot of practice to be a fast descender, but unlike uphill and flat running you don’t necessarily need to be genetically gifted or in phenomenal shape to be a great downhill runner. To me this makes technical downhills the most appealing and exciting part of trail running. With enough practice and determination almost anyone can run faster down technical descents than what they ‘should’ be able to do based on their ability on flat terrain. I’ve always known this to be the case, but certainly my experiences of running out of shape these last couple years has made all of this even more obvious to me. I can’t run nearly as fast in totality as I could a few years ago, but gravity still has the same effect on my body as it always has, and thus I am every bit as capable of a downhill runner as I ever was.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you a proficient technical downhill runner? If so, where or how have you acquired the skill?
  • Which element of technical downhill running are you better or worse at?
  • When you need to practice technical downhill running, where do you go?

There are 15 comments

  1. senelly

    This is good! One of the most common complaints heard at aid stations in any mountain ultra is "my quads are shot", or something similar. Perhaps this is at least partly due to how folks run downhill. Succumbing to the temptation to "blast" downhills for whatever reason can be a quad killer. Some years ago, I had the pleasure of pacing a very good uphill runner (multiple winner of Maui's Run To The Sun, a 10,000 ft. hill climb) at his first and only WS 100. He arrived at Foresthill exclaiming those very words (yup, shot). He had enjoyed his downhill experience a bit too much and was done. I lied to him and told him it was all uphill… after the river which was just ahead… He finished, but his lesson has remained with me. It's very OK to enjoy… even dance… downhills. Just beware of the lengthening stride and quad blasting braking that often beckon!

  2. barwic01

    After a tough recent weekend I was reading a lot about running downhill and this article helps a lot but it still leaves me wondering, is there a video that shows good downhill running form vs. bad form when running downhill?

      1. Chris C.

        The beginning of that ain't downhill running, that's skiing! haha Awesome nevertheless! He gets on a roll a few times there.

  3. @ChocoNico

    Great pointers Geoff!_Although I am a slow runner, I can really speed up on the downhills and I do not feel constricted by fear of falls. I feel I have a sure foot no matter how technical the terrain is._Here are the few additional observations I have made:_1/ I look like I am batting the wind, i.e. my arms automatically spread out, like for a balncing act, moving away from my body. They remain very fluid in their movements to create counter-balance and equilibrium, but become often further spread from the body the more technical, the faster I run downhill._2/ I never look right in front of me or under me, where I will place my foot. Let me qualify this: I look ahead and read my running line 10-20 ft ahead. Once I am above a rock, it is too late to make that decision if you want to be fast. _3/ very quick turnover, small steps, as you described allow for feather impact and fluidity.___

  4. @ChocoNico

    Where did I acquire the skill? _I believe it was learned from:_1/ numerous mountaineering hikes/climbs either on trails, glaciers (w/ crampons) or rocks in the French Alps as a kid and teenager. I learned to trust my body, to use the slope to my advantage and to pick walking/running line ahead of me. Peripheral vision plays a big role in the skill. Although my eyes scanning 10-20 feet ahead, I still see and process what's right in front of me. I learn to use side trail inclines, no matter how steep, rocks, root tops for foot placement, often swinging sideways from leg to leg._2/ lots of downhill skiing early on to my young adult years, where your shoulders are always facing forward on the slope and let your lower body (hips down) move in 3 dimensions fluidly.__Interestingly for me, it is easier to run fast (or much faster than most) on a technical trail than it is on a smooth downhill trail. I have fallen more often on the latter ones.__I don't practice it consciously. I love it so automatically I will choose these running lines.

  5. runsnotsofar

    I used to ride my Mountain Bike a lot. I find that especially the "looking ahead on the trail" from those downhill rides help me a lot to get down a hill at a decent pace now.

  6. RandySavaged

    I have horrible genetics and I am out of shape and as a result I fall down a lot. Last year at a race I knocked myself out falling down. You know what has helped? I've learned to like falling down. I embrace it! I have improved my technique and I now can say that I can fall down with the best of them. Better than the town drunk walking home and he hits the storm drain and falls flat on his face. You just gotta let gravity take you down and go limp. To practice please try 10 sprints into a brick wall at 5k pace. Go limp just before you hit the wall. If you don't have a wall find a tree. Throw it in to your routine every 3 weeks or so.

  7. Katahdin5271

    I live near Acadia National Park – not known for long-distance trail running, but it's surprisingly easy to put together a decent loop with 5-7,000 feet elevation gain. Our trails are very often straight up and straight down over some very rocky terrain. My biggest improvements in technical downhilling have come this year – I started using Strava and found several others in the area who have been competing (for time) on these trails. I'll go out and blast down something (for example, a segment that loses 1,100 feet at 40% grade) as fast as I think I can manage, then someone else cuts 15 seconds off my time. So I put together another loop with this segment and give another go. You really become a student of the trail. I agree with lots of the advice above. I sometimes repeat "flow like water" to myself as I race down. Things are going too quickly for conscious thought, so holding a concept like that seems to help. I know I'm doing well if I get my arms up, throwing them around to help with balance. I think it was Caballo Blanco who said, if you're trying to decide to take 1 or 2 steps between obstacles, take 3. Stepping lightly, being ready always for the next step in case one foot slips or a rock moves, mentally focused but body relaxed. I tell people that I run up hills so I can run down. Totally FUN.

  8. Marty_KC

    I'm horrible at downhills. Yet I know, going slow only adds exponentially to my race times. Not only from losing the time running the downhill, but using my own energy from fighting gravity. Especially late in races. Yet, the only way to get better, practice, practice practice. Learn, yes. Then apply, adjust, and adjust. Thanks Geoff for a great article (I like the statement about gravity having the same effect as always.)

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