Lessons learnt in downhill running
When I started running in the mountains about ten years ago I despised going downhill. I could do it, if I absolutely had to, but it left me sore and battered for days or weeks afterwards. Following my very first trail race, the 2005 Summer Roundup Trail Run 12k (see newspaper cutting below), I had trouble walking for six days. The fact that I’m now attempting to give advice on downhill running techniques is not without its irony.
Since 2005 I’ve learned a lot about mountain running and downhill in particular. The biggest lesson has been that there is no secret. Yes there may be some techniques that can be helpful to learn but in my own experience what has helped me the most is doing more and more downhill running. It sounds simple, because it is.
Wild abandonment vs muscle conservation
I think that one of the biggest misconceptions people have is that the top runners are out there sprinting down mountains and jumping off cliffs -the way mountain running is often portrayed in advertisements. Although that type of wild abandonment looks good for a 15-second clip, it’s not the way you’re going to win a 3+hour race.
Good downhill running is all about conservation. The muscles and tendons in our legs have limits and if we stay within those limits we can keep running longer and faster. Acrobatic running will tire out even the strongest runner, so efficient and well-placed foot strikes will always lead to the best results.
Mastering technical downhill terrain
Another misconception is that technical terrain requires a special type of athlete to run down it successfully. While it is true that some people are more coordinated than others, my personal experience has been that I run downhill technical terrain much faster when I am feeling strong and relaxed. When I tire, my footing suffers and bad things happen.
So then of course the question is how do you avoid getting tired on a downhill? The answer: Train more. I’ve worked on my leg strength for years by doing hard downhill repetitions in training so that when I do race a technical trail I will be fresh enough to handle it. When my legs are still feeling good I have a better chance of picking the best lines and handling the pounding without making a mistake.
Hard work, perseverance and commitment
In addition to downhill intervals I also try to seek out some of the steepest and rockiest terrain I can find and make sure to incorporate that into my training. Each time I come back from successfully descending a new trail I feel just a little bit more comfortable in my abilities.
But possibly the most important part of my downhill improvements have come from subjecting myself to more and more difficult races. I’ve learned a lot from racing and every time I finish a skyrunning or technical mountain race I always come away having learned something new.
So there you have it, my ‘secrets’ to downhill running. It has taken a lot of dedicated training for me to go from six days of soreness to handling 4000+meters of descending over the course of a race, like the Mont Blanc 80k Ultra. My best advice is to work hard at it. It took me a long time to reach the point where I am at now, but it wasn’t impossible. With enough commitment everyone can improve their downhill running.
Related blog: UK fell runner Tom Addison’s top-10 downhill running tips.