After taking a recent poll on social media it seems a lot of people lack confidence in running downhill. I totally understand it and just telling people to ‘disengage their brain’ or ‘just let gravity do the work’ won’t help to build that confidence either. So, I wanted to cover some points I think can help you build the strength, skill and ultimately confidence to run downhill effectively.
Eccentric Strength/Single Leg Work
We already know that when we run, it’s essentially a series of 1 legged jumps with our muscles and joints absorbing 2-3 times our bodyweight each step. More specifically, muscles such as the quadriceps and calves contract eccentrically to help absorb such impact as well as aid in hip, knee and ankle stability. When we run down hill these forces are even greater so it makes sense to a) strength train and b) add in some eccentric/single leg work focused on the quads.
Exercises such as single leg squats to a chair/box under a 3-5 sec lower per rep are a great place to start. Adjust the height of your platform to allow for eccentric control (lowering phase). Decrease the height as you get stronger.
Alongside this we want to build maximal strength in each leg to give us even more confidence in our ability. Weighted lunges and split squats are my go to with some hamstring work in there to balance things out. The focus here is on weight lifted with good form, so keep reps to 6/leg for 3-4 sets. Increase weight as you get stronger. A goal would be to be able to lunge at least half your bodyweight spread across two dumbbells (25% bodyweight in each hand). However, shoot for ¾.
Our core is designed to aid in stability by resisting excessive movement at the spine as well as help transfer forces out to our extremities (hands and feet). So it’s a key player in downhill confidence and helping absorb those greater impact forces over running on flat ground.
Most runners are already good at doing things like planks and glute bridges, so I’ll focus on getting you to add in more anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion core work into your routine. This will allow you to keep the pelvis stable, especially on rough terrain.
Once you have built a good level of strength, you want to be able to express that strength a bit more specifically to what you’ll experience on a downhill run. I’ll go through technique in more detail shortly, but we want short, quick strides with as little time in contact with the ground as possible. So again, we can build this skill in a more conformable environment using some ladder and plyometric drills to improve coordination and foot movement, build elasticity in areas such as the calves and Achilles and develop power to be ‘lighter’ on our feet.
Start off with some simple drills covering forward and backward (sagittal plane) movements.
On those more technical descents we will also need to be confident in changing direction quickly whilst being light on out feet. So, adding in side to side (frontal plane) movements is the next logical step.
All of the above should be a year-round endeavour, maintaining or progressing strength and skill based around your race schedule. This lays the foundations for a whole host of benefits besides descending skills. With these foundations we can progress onto addressing the technique itself.
Downhill running is a skill just like running technique itself. It takes times and practice to develop. I get it, you just want to go out and run, get miles in and enjoy yourself. However, if you’re not dedicating some of your training time to just working on descending, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Whilst there are many arguments against downhill intervals from a performance perspective, we’re looking at this from a skill and confidence perspective, so a session dedicated to downhill practice is a must. It only needs to be once a week or once every other week, but it needs to happen.
Start off easy, keep the gradient, terrain and length of descent comfortable to allow you to focus on the technique of running downhill. Progress in the above variables as confidence improves. Take your time with it!
So, on that note, how should we run downhill? It’s not overly complicated, but there are some key points:
- Gaze: Look at least a couple of metres in front of you rather than at your feet. You’ve built strength and power in the gym, have the confidence in that as you pick out the route ahead.
- Airplane Arms: Yes, that’s what I call them. Don’t be afraid to ‘flail’ your arms to assist with balance, holding your arms out to the sides and allowing them to react to the speed and terrain really helps with confidence.
- Stride Length: Keep your stride length short with quick turnover of the feet to allow for optimal speed. Now you’ll see top runners really open their stride on descents, especially fell runners. However, speaking from experience, this borders on the line between control and literally falling down the hill. A skill that makes all the difference in winning races. We want to build confidence and consistency so keep your stride length short with your feet under your hips.
- Ground Contact Time: You should be light on your feet spending as little time in contact with the ground as possible so that you’re not just putting the brakes on every step. Quick turnover with more of a midfoot landing will allow this to happen.
- Weight Shift: We should have a slight forward lean from the ankles to allow us to descend efficiently and execute the above technique. If we lean back, the brakes are on and we lose that speed.
So, there you have it. Build strength and elasticity in the gym, develop the technique and most of all, practice! Start on terrain that allows you to focus on the technique points above without fear of the descent itself. If that means a slight gradient on a road, then that’s where you start! Don’t go straight into tackling rocky descents off mountains.
Finally, the last piece of the puzzle. Grip.
A good pair of grippy shoes can go along way to developing downhill confidence if your descents are more boggy trails and technical mountain rock. So, you want shoes that really lock your foot in place to avoid excessive movement and ideally have at least 5mm lugs (grip) on the bottom to really hold you on that challenging terrain. Innov 8, Salomon, Scott and VJ are good brands to look at. Most brands also do wider fitting options too.
Another consideration for those who mostly run and race on mountains/fell is the use of poles. Developing correct technique on the use of poles downhill for which there are lots of courses/tutorials online could help with downhill speed. Alpkit do some great sets of poles that will do the job.
To running downhill like a boss!