Hal Koerner's Training Advice for 50Ks and Beyond - Page 3
Descending can be great fun; for many runners, it is their favorite part. An aggressive descent can make up a lot of time in a race, especially if you really step on the gas and push it. As for myself, I feel most alive when I’m running downhill fast. It’s an incredible feeling, a beautiful dance. But you need to practice to get it right because it’s a lot harder to master a good downhill than a good uphill.
The number one thing to bear in mind—and perhaps the hardest to master—is to allow gravity to do most of the work for you, at points even all of the work. This sounds easier than it is. It is difficult to master due mostly to twin inherent fears most humans have of falling and of going too fast. Becoming confident with fast descents takes training. But trust me, it is something that will evolve and improve over time if you work at it.
Although I love the descent, to be honest, I’m still not a great downhill technical runner. But, that said, I won the Hardrock 100 in 2012, which is widely considered one of the most technical ultras in the world. I know my descents can be my weakness, and so I practice to make sure they don’t hold me back.
Training for Descending
Runners often end up slowing down, leaning back, and braking on descents, creating more work for their bodies. Staying relaxed is key. Again, as with ascents, set your gaze 5 to 10 yards ahead, and even farther when the footing is smooth or after you gain enough confidence. The moment you start braking is usually the moment you start looking too closely at your feet; suddenly you cannot see what is ahead or around you, and this prompts an instinct to slow down. To avoid this, keep that optimal gaze out in front of you and try to let your weight carry you down the trail.
As with skiing, white-water kayaking, and mountain biking, the ability to move quickly down a grade is about finding a line through the rocks and terrain. You see ahead of where you are, and that allows you to set up, preparing your body with gyroscopic anticipation, adjusting your weight for the next several steps.
As I go down, I am constantly searching for the best place to land my foot. I am gauging whether a rock will move or if it is a safe plane, or I am seeking a flat area between the rocks. If you are keeping a fast pace and are light on your feet, the rocks won’t move when you land on them because you are not putting much force on each step. It is only when I begin to brake and plant my feet that the rocks start to move and cause instability.
Practice with short downhill sprints. Choose a steep downhill section to focus on. Run 2 minutes downhill, hard, then stop and recuperate. Repeat.
Technique Tips for the Descent
- Landing on your midfoot or forefoot is ideal for a quick cadence and leg turnover. You can slow your pace by taking more rapid steps, a kind of double step, if you will. More contact with the ground, even when quick and light, serves to control your downhill speed with little impact.
- Landing on your full foot means a lot of surface area on the ground strike, which is yet another gear for you, like a downshift that slows you down. This can be a very good thing, for example, when footing is sketchy or when you feel fatigued. It’s reassuring to know you can go back on your full foot and slow down quickly when you need to. Practice this to gain confidence.
- If the terrain is technical and rocky, try rotating your foot laterally, or outward, into something like a duck stance. This increases stability and can prevent an injured ankle. When you roll your ankle, you usually roll it laterally. Opening up your stance makes that less likely.
- Maintain breathing and concentrate on staying relaxed. In particularly gnarly sections, I often find myself tensing up and not breathing. This means less oxygen to the brain and, for me, often a consequent fall. Remember to breathe!
- If wind or speed makes your eyes water, as they do mine, particularly at altitude, wear a visor and/or sunglasses to help block air as you speed along.
- Spread your arms wide and hold them out to maintain balance—think of an airplane. Holding your arms in this way also helps you feel the flow and rhythm as the trail kicks you one way or another. You’ll need to make sudden lateral moves to keep your balance, and wider elbows will help you maintain your center of gravity.
- Look where you want to go; your body will follow.