If you don’t feel confident running tricky or technical downhill trails, it might be tempting to slow down. But the irony is that steep descents are often actually harder to walk than they are to run. So it pays to work on your downhill running technique, in order to both gain confidence and avoid falls. Here are some tips:
You would think that running downhill would be easier than running uphill, because you are going with gravity. But running downhill, whether on the trails or on pavement, is actually very hard on the muscles and on the knees. Running downhill can cause one of the most common running injuries: patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS, aka “runner’s knee”). So before you attempt anything too technical, make sure that your legs are up to the stress.
Strengthen your knees: The knees take a pounding when running downhill. Exercises such as one-legged and two-legged bunnyhops can help prevent injury. Be sure to do your bunnyhops on an uphill section of trail. You don’t want to over-stress your knees by doing them on flats or downhills – and definitely don’t do them on pavement. Do twenty hops uphill on both legs, then ten hops up on each leg. Work three to five reps of these exercises into your trail runs once or twice a week.
Train your quads: Downhill running is very hard on the quads, as they contract sharply with each footfall. This can lead to extreme muscle soreness a day or two after a hard downhill run – and, if a muscle imbalance develops, it may trigger knee problems such as PFPS. Gym exercises such as squats and leg-lifts can strengthen quads. But incorporating downhill repeats into your training runs from time to time will also help. Find a downhill slope, not too steep, and about 200 to 300 yards long (non-technical trail or pavement). Run the downhill hard, aiming for four to eight repetitions. In particular, if you know you have a big run with downhill sections coming up, running downhill repeats twelve to fourteen days before will help prepare the quads, while allowing adequate recovery before the event.
Work on your running form
Good running form will both help you avoid injury, and help to prevent falls.
Lean forward: Just slightly. Keep your weight over your knees. Less confident runners tend to lean backward, but this makes them more unstable. Keep your weight centered, and avoid over-striding.
Watch your foot-strike: Even on downhill runs – in fact, especially on downhill runs – it is important to avoid shock to the knees by making sure you strike on the ball of your foot, not your heel. Try to minimize contact time with the ground.
Use your arms: The more technical the descent, the more your arms will move to keep your body balanced. Keep them loose. Move them laterally as you round curves, and raise them as you go over small drops.
Look well ahead: Don’t focus only one foot-strike ahead. Look beyond on the trail, watching for obstacles, noting upcoming curves, and anticipating the route you will take.
Go with the terrain
Start slowly. As you gain your confidence on different types of terrain, you will be able to move more quickly. Soon you will find that you are starting to work with the terrain rather than against it.
Plan your route: Enter curves on the outside, cutting across them on the inside, so you are always cutting a line that is slightly straighter than the actual trail. On tight switchbacks, however, the inside of the curve may be very steep – it may pay to stick to the outside of the curve.
Keep your feet quiet: The ideal is to feel like you are flying over the ground, not hammering it. If you notice the sound of your feet pounding below you, try increasing your turnover rate: shorter faster steps will give you more control and better reaction time.
Let it slide: This is hard to do until you build up confidence – but on steep, loose terrain such as dry gravelly slopes, it can be more challenging to go slowly (or even walk) without skidding out. Try running, being sure to use short, fast steps. As you gain confidence, you will find that you can even allow yourself to slide along with the terrain, to tear down those slopes.
Finally, make sure you wear appropriate shoes. If you are running downhill trails, be sure to use proper trail runners. The smoother soles of road runners will have you skidding out, and put you at risk for a fall.
Running downhill is one of the most difficult parts of trail-running. But, if you work on your strength, pay attention to your running form, and work with the terrain, flying down a technical slope can also be one of the most fun and rewarding parts of a run. So get out there and run down some hills!