Downhill Running

Having claimed downhill running as one of my strengths, it is probably worth delving into the details. In most of my races when the course heads down I tend to move faster than most of those around me. Often I close gaps or make a move on the descents and it tends to feel relatively easy. That said, there are some aspects of downhilling I don't think I'm at the required standard.

Before I get into my thoughts on the topic, I recommend visiting the following two links if you want to improve your downhill running.
  1. Ultra168: The Art of Downhill Running
  2. Mile 27: Downhill Running
Preparation

The obvious needs to be pointed out. If you want to improve you have to put in the effort. Without concentrating on improving technique, without conditioning, and without proper recovery the gains won't be much. That said, improving downhill running does not require as much volume as most other aspects of run training. A bit of prehab and rehab work can go a long way when targeting downhill running. Expect DOMS, expect a higher degree of muscle and other soft tissue damage. Watch the repair process and don't allow tightness and adhesions to build up to cause problems. Stretching, massage, hot/cold therapies and other soft tissue treatments help. Learn what works for you and don't skip it.

Not All Descents Are The Same

Different surfaces, grades, goals and types of races. All means there are different types of downhill running. There are differences between trying to run very fast on bitumen in a 10km race, gain some recovery and conserve energy in a 100km event or just get down a stupidly steep, slippery and technical trail in one piece without stopping or walking.

Speed - Non-technical

First up let's take a look at getting speed on the non-technical declines. These can be in races from 5 to 50km, with a surface that provides reasonable footing and almost any grade that most people would consider runnable. This is where I am at my best. The principles are simple, but can take a while to click if not there yet. Once that click is made, a little bit of focused work within any faster training session should progress this skill. Time for the basics:

Treat it is a controlled fall. Gravity is your friend here, use it and don't fight against. There is no place for using up energy by braking on each step. Instead let yourself go, and the foot strike is just to keep you from actually falling over. So how do we do that?

  • Lean forward into the decline. Take that slight forward, overall body lean that is used for fast running on the flat and transfer it to the downhill. The lean should be about the same relatively to the road, but will feel like you are leaning further forward.
  • Keep your foot strike under your centre of gravity. I don't care whether your a heel, forefoot or other type of runner, but keeping the landing underneath and not in front of the centre gravity prevents any excessive braking.
  • Push through the toe off at the end of each stride. This adds length to your stride without extending the legs out in front of you and builds on what gravity is already offering. It does change the timing of your stride somewhat. I feel it requires a bit of leg speed for the recovery phase, but feels like there is an extensive of time during the time the foot is descending and looking to make contact with the ground.

This style of running hits the legs with high impact. Conditioning is required. Really pushing the speeds forces a lot of eccentric force through the muscles when they are trying to contract. In particular, the hamstrings can take a battering here. Be aware.


Efficient - Non-technical

Taking away the need for pushing up the speed and looking more towards gaining a reprieve or just conserving energy as in a longer race there are only some minor adjustments to be made.

  • Extend the relaxation. Nothing is gained by forcing the technique or tensing the body. Look for the feeling of relaxed control.
  • Watch the lean. Feel comfortable, relatively slightly forward, ensure you avoid the backward lean that many runners tend to adopt.
  • Gravity does the work here. Aiming to conserve energy, but still get some good speed here is about letting gravity take you down. No need to emphasise the push off.
  • The stride should feel smooth, the timing should be natural, with only a slight feel of extension of the very last portion before foot strike only on the steeper descents.


Technical

When it all gets technical and ground underfoot is uneven, slippery, a variety of surfaces and just difficult to keep your footing, then things change a bit. You will also notice a common theme.


  • Relax and let gravity do most of the work.
  • Absorb the impact and allow that moment extra to adjust to the changing footing. I find letting the hips sit a little lower and taking more bend through the knees achieves this. Thinking of my legs as a softer cushion that then transfers the power out of my core helps me.
  • Cadence tends to slightly faster when things get technical. Smaller steps always seem a little safer and big strides seem to force me into situations where I have to find a way to slow myself down and gain control.
  • Find the flow. Even if every stride is different, there is always a rhythm to find on each trail. Practicing on familiar technical trails to find this rhythm and then transferring it to others gain you a lot in these situations.


The Ridiculous

Stupidly steep and technical is where I lose my abilities. Here I think the techniques are considerably different. Braking now plays a role and body position has to vary a lot more, including side and backward lean. The heal will have to take some impact. The legs will have drop further, bringing the centre of gravity much lower. Finding the that fine line between controlled falling and actually falling is quite difficult for me. Erring on the side caution drops the speed dramatically and I have lost plenty of time in this area. So at the moment I don't have the answer, but I do have my theories and am working on my physical ability and technique to make them work better for me.

  • Give a safety out, including using trees or other solid objects to steady against while moving or on the extra steep allow a lean so you can use your hand behind you.
  • Pick your line. Making use of the variety underfoot to create a quick path that also keeps you the right way up. Raised edging or banking can keep the fall in check. A slight slalom style can flatten out the trail slightly.
  • Look for dynamic balance. Allow your body to lower a long way. Let the legs bend a lot. This absorbs the impact over a longer period, gains that little bit of extra time and control to choose where your next step lands. Plus it tends to lower your centre of gravity which gives you more margin for error.
  • The prerequisites in fitness include a high level of agility, leg speed and flexibility. This is very different to thrashing down a moderate steep bitumen road in a city half marathon. The requirements quite different and require specific training.



Final Thoughts

There is a lot to gained from just getting out into the steep terrain and playing. Not only do you gain plenty of conditioning aspects, but you will gradually find it easier to work your way through the technical. Not every run has to be a super intense focused effort. There has to be room for fun. This is why we do it in the first place. Of course if you really want to improve something you do have to work directly and progressively on it.

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