Some runners love it. Some runners hate it. Downhill running, it’s fair to say, splits opinion. Whether on the trail, the mountain or the fell-side, to descend quickly requires skill, strength, technique, bravery and a whole lot more. Want to improve your own downhill running speed? Check out these tips from top runners and coaches:
Dave Taylor (running coach and guide): When it comes to downhill running I coach something I call the S Factors:
1. Skill – You need to be agile with fast reactions and be able to read the terrain ahead. This will allow you to choose where you plant your feet. These skills are gained by repeated practice, so make time during your training runs to include some short, technical downhill sections and repeat them several times.
2. Strength – Your muscles need to be able to absorb the impact of the increased forces associated with running quickly downhill. Seek out technical terrain in training and practice taking off and landing on your weaker leg. Add some core and leg strength exercises to your training.
3. Shoes – If you haven’t got decent tread then you’re going to struggle – no matter how good you are! Invest in running shoes for soft and muddy ground and/or harder paths and trails. The new X-TALON 230 with STICKYGRIP rubber is great choice.
4. Once runners have the first three nailed, they can then run downhill without thinking too much about it or, as some top runners say, switch off the brain and let the legs take control.
Kenyan hill sessions
Damian Hall (one of the world’s best ultra trail runners and 1st Veteran aged 40+ at the 2017 UTMB): As well as standard hill reps (where you might work hard on the up but recover on the down), also do some Kenyan hill sessions.
The idea is to keep a consistent effort on the up and the down. Pick a testing slope you can run up for 30-60 seconds. Attack the hill, but maintain your effort on the way back down, turn and go up again without rest. Continue without rest for 10 minutes, trying to keep a consistent pace. After 10 minutes, allow yourself a rest for three minutes. Then repeat. Then repeat again. Do this and you’ll become a better runner, both down and up hills.
Concentration is key
Peter Maksimow (US international mountain runner): If you take your attention off the trail to see a pretty view, even if only for a split second, you might find yourself face-down in the rocks! You need to anticipate every rock, tree root and mud patch. And to do that you need to have hyper-concentration on where your foot is being placed and where it will land five steps down the trail. This is even more crucial in the latter stages of a race or hard training session when your mind and body are fatigued.
I’ve noticed that this extreme focus has lead to considerably less falls and near-falls in my own training. Your body will only move as fast as your brain moves. Once you are done you can stop and take in the amazing views, without being covered in blood!
Get into race-mode
Ben Abdelnoor (former winner of the Lakeland 50 trail race and Lakeland Classics Trophy in fell running): In a race, or if you are running with a group, take the opportunity to drop in behind someone who comes past you on a descent. Try, even if it’s just for a minute, to stay within a few metres of them and keep up. Often it can be easier to have a ‘leader’ to give you the confidence to go that bit quicker.
And don’t forget to practice, practice, practice your downhill running. This is often overlooked for uphill repeats or speed work, but it shouldn’t be. If you don’t practice it, how do you expect it get better at it?
Pretend you’re a windmill
Tom Addison (ex-English Fell Running Champion) said: It’s important not to forget that your arms also have a key role to play if you want to run downhill faster. Push them out, as high and wide as you feel comfortable, and use them to aid your balance – as if you were a windmill. You might think you look a bit silly doing so but it definitely works. Imagine you are on a tight rope, what would your arms do? Now replicate that when running downhill.
Also think about your downhill route choices. I am always looking for the best, fastest lines, though these may not always be the most direct. Avoiding wet rocks in favour of a grassier, albeit slightly longer, alternative route can be quicker. I try and recce race routes in advance so I know the fastest lines and various alternatives.
Finally, make sure you work on your leg strength. One exercise I use a lot is the squat. Put your back against a wall, with your knees at a 90-degree angle. Push off your toes and force your back hard against the wall. Keep your knees at 90-degrees and hold for as long as possible. Yes, it hurts… but it works! No pain, no gain.
*New for 2018, the X-TALON 230 and X-TALON 210 running shoes are our first to feature new STICKYGRIP rubber on the outsole, helping you get improved, confidence-boosting grip when running downhill. Discover more about the new X-TALON shoes and STICKYGRIP in this technology blog post.