Downhill Running

In recent episodes we’ve been exploring how you can train your mind and train your body. The third area for training is craft. The craft of ultra endurance running comprises all of the other aspects, factors, and features that go into your abilities to be successful and act skillfully your adventures. Everything from pacing, to hydration strategy, to gear choices, to foot care are part of your craft. Today, the part of craft we’re going to explore is downhill running.

Downhill running is a skill. It requires deliberate practice and can not be mastered just by training the body or running downhill a lot without putting at least some thought into it.

Take short strides, keep your feet approximately under your hips (your center of gravity), and take a lesson from the legendary martial artist Bruce Lee to "be like water" flowing down the trail. You want glide, flow, and smooth not bounce, leap, and pound.

Assess the upcoming terrain to identify major obstacles, roots, and rocks so that you the information necessary to plan significant choices for good foot placement. You can’t move fast downhill without knowing what terrain is coming. You don't need to really plan every step precisely, just the general flow and the major obstacles. If you want to move fast, then you have to look further down-trail. But you mustn’t lose appreciation for what’s underfoot. So, your eyes should be constantly moving between what you're about to step on and what’s coming further down the trail. With practice, you’ll be able to look further and further down trail but it really does take practice even if that requires initially slowing down a little more. Try to first cast your glances 4 steps ahead, then 7, then 10, until you can comfortably assess what you’ll encounter far enough ahead that you’re never surprised and suddenly need to slow down.

Try to brake as little as possible while staying in control. Gravity is working for you, let it. Moreover, every time you slow your gravity-fed progress, you give your musculature an eccentric stress, which is more prone to causing micro-trauma that leads to subsequent leg fatigue. Zooming downhill involves risk. Embrace risk in practice. Wear long-sleeves and perhaps gloves so you don’t end up impersonating a mummy for the next week should you fall.

Keep a relaxed body. This is critical. A relaxed body sways with the terrain and unexpected slips. A stiff body crashes hard.

Stay alert and focused. You're working, memorizing the terrain to come and skillfully descending the hill. There is no room for thinking about anything else. As soon as you do, injury risk climbs a lot faster than you’re descending. As soon as you start thinking about dinner, Mother Nature will feed you a mouthful of dirt.

There is nothing you can do that comes close to time on feet practicing running downhill. No amount of other types of running or any sort of cross-training is the same. Downhill mountain biking can help you learn to look further down trail. Some eccentric weight lifting might - emphasis on might - give you a tiny bit more resilience to eccentric loads for downhill. But, really, your time is much better spent actually running downhill.

Your strides should be quick and light. Think about lightly touching the ground and then getting your feet back off the ground as quickly as you can. You should be quiet and your body should not jar; light and smooth are your objectives.

You'll never become a race car driver by driving your local roads under the speed limit, you have to go fast and push to the limits of your comfort zone. Similarly, you’re not going to become faster at running downhill if you gently and slowly jog all your downhills. You have to push the edge of your comfort zone. It’s dangerous to go beyond the point of a little bit of fear, but it is necessary to be just a bit uncomfortable in order to get faster. As your abilities improve, that comfort zone will naturally move to faster paces. Practicing by pushing that threshold is, therefore, self-recalibrating.

If you begin to slide, don’t tense and resist it, but rather stay loose and work with the slide. If you want to slow down, don’t pound and brake. Instead, take shorter and more frequent steps with the same braking force per step.

Footstrike on downhill is a non-issue; even the best downhill runner in the world, Killian Jornet, lands with all footstrike patterns (forefoot, midfoot, rear foot) when running downhill as the surfaces change even on the same hill descent.

Use your arms for balance, downhill running is a full body activity. Let your arms naturally reach out to the side and move around; they shouldn’t be moving in the same fashion as they do when you’re running smooth level terrain.

It's okay to run the same downhill over and over as you work to learn technique but as you acquire the basic skills, subsequent improvements will not translate as well to running down other hills. So, definitely repeat a hill section if you're very new or very unskilled at running downhill but as you gain a basic competence seek out as much variety in your downhills as you can find because you'll be better at taking on unknown downhills, for example in races, after deliberately practicing variety.

There's no good reason to hammer your legs on downhills in training. There's an idea in running mythology that pounding your legs will prepare them for the rigors of running ultra-marathons. All it really does is risk injury, increase recovery time, and give you practice at how not to run downhill skillfully. You don't want to practice poor technique. You become a faster downhill runner through mastering the skill of downhill running and learning to glide smoothly downhill with mimized impacts, not by becoming stronger or harder through some masachistic 'hammer your legs' approach. Running downhill is all about skill, not strength.

In my opinion you don't ever need to create downhill workouts if you run on hilly terrain, even for training your body. Just run your downhills with purpose, deliberately, as I’ve described. Pay attention to the two key elements of quick and light foot steps while looking ahead and planning your route as far as you can. Once in a while, push your speed to the edge of your comfort level. Over time, you'll develop your downhill running skillset alongside your physical abilities for fast descents.

What if you don't have downhills to practice on but you'll be racing in that kind of terrain? Well, honestly, you're a little out of luck. There's no way to create technical downhill if you don't have it. Creating your own by putting your kid’s and dog’s toys on your stairs is not a good alternative - don’t try that. However, the vast majority of people have at least some version of a hill, even if it doesn't have a trail. Awkward terrain on a slope in the woods can be great, just be careful the first few times to assess for dangerous things that may trip you. Running down stairs can help you with the sort of leg movement patterns you need while also giving you the opportunity to practice smooth descents with little braking. But look around as you go about your day, your work commute, your errand running, you may be able to find terrain that can work. I coached an athlete who lived in a very flat area who discovered they could park on the side of the road and then run repeats of the hillside slope off an overpass. I'm sure she got a lot of crazy looks from passing drivers but it gave her some level of competence at running down awkward terrain.

I won’t do an episode on technical terrain. The basic principles of what I’ve described for practicing the craft of running downhill also apply to the skill of running over technical terrain. It’s all about practice, pushing to the edge of your comfort zone, looking ahead, using light and quick steps, being prepared to crash once in a while, and approaching it as a learning opportunity.

After writing this episode, I was out on a run in the afternoon - it was my second of a double day and I do most of my runs first thing in the morning - when I was reminded of another important consideration when learning to run over any challenging terrain. The time of day presents different shadowing of the ground in front of you, not only more or less defined rock and roots but, as was the case that day, casting my shadow - the shadow of my body - directly in front of me. The bright ground 10 paces ahead was in total shadow for the 2-3 strides before I actually stepped on that section of trail. With my eyes adjusted for the brighter terrain all around me, the transition of rocks into my own shadow along with my quick pace made my next couple of steps almost blind. Knowing what was coming by looking further ahead was essential to navigating some tricky terrain on that run. The take-home message here is to practice running over challenging terrain at different times of day.

The same goes for different weather conditions. It’s good to practice running in all sorts of weather if there’s any chance you’ll be racing or adventuring in similar conditions. That means it may sometimes be the best choice not to get your run in before that predicted rain storm but to go out in it - safety first of course. If there’s hale, thunder or lightning, stay indoors. Getting battered by hale or dodging lighting are not things you should practice.

craftShawn Bearden