There’s no greater buzz in running than nailing a downhill. It’s you versus the terrain. To win that battle feels amazing!
Being able to descend with confidence is crucial, especially when racing. You can be the best in the world at running uphill, but if you can’t descend then it will seriously hamper your chances of winning races, be that on the fells, mountains or trails. I have had to work hard to improve my downhill skills but that dedication to doing so paid off when I won last year’s English Fell Running Championships for the first time. Here are my top-10 tips to improve your downhill running.
1 Switch off your brain
Runners worry about falling, slipping and hurting themselves, which is understandable. However, to think like this will only slow you down. It’s not easy, but what you have to do is, at the top of the hill, switch off your brain and let your legs take control. The less your brain is working, the better. Empty it of fear and you will run downhill faster. Because it has less time to think about things, my brain switches to no-fear mode much easier when I’m racing. So, when training downhill I often pretend that I’m racing, tricking the mind!
2 Keep strides long
The most common mistake runners make -and I’m guilty of doing so myself when tired -is shortening their stride. Longer strides equal faster downhill running. I practice downhill running a lot and the focus is always on maintaining a longer stride. It takes time and a degree of bravery to improve your downhill running but the end benefits are huge.
3 Lean forwards
Whenever you can, especially on gradual downhill, lean forwards. This will lengthen your stride and ensure your brakes remain switched off. On steeper descents, I try to lean forward but tiredness can mean I lean back slightly. This does in turn give you a little more control in your downhill running but you won’t go as fast.
4 Look ahead and pick the best lines
Rather than looking directly at the terrain under your feet, look slightly ahead at what’s coming in two strides’ time. When racing, think more about your route choices and the lines you are going to take. 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.
5 Do repetitions in training
Find a gradual off-road downhill gradient and do sprint repetitions down it, ensuring you use a long stride length. Each repetition should be about a minute to a minute and a half in effort. Jog back up the hill after each repetition to recover. I try and do 10. Ensure you stretch well, especially your hamstrings, both before and afterwards.
6 Bend your legs
Try not to run downhill with straight legs, as this could potentially result in knee complaints. Your legs should be slightly bent, which will in turn will give you more spring in your step.
7 Squat for strength
Leg strength is crucial for fast downhill running. 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!
8 Pretend you’re a windmill!
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. 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.
9 Trust your feet and footwear
If you don’t have trust in your own feet and your footwear then you are in trouble. I like shoes with a really aggressive tread and wear inov-8’s X-TALON, MUDCLAW and OROC shoes when wanting the best grip.
10 Adapt your technique to the terrain
Be ready to adapt your technique to the different terrains you encounter on a downhill. Loose rock and scree can often work with you as it moves forward under your feet -just ride it! Wet rock is the most difficult to negotiate -the less time your feet are in contact wet rock, the better, so stay light-footed and springy. When running downhill through mud, dig your heels in a bit more.