Downhill Rhythm

A discussion about how to run effectively on technical downhills.

By on July 30, 2014 | Comments

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?
Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.