One Dirty Magazine

How To Run Steep Downhills

3 form tips to conquer steep and technical terrain

David Roche December 5th, 2017

How To Run Steep Downhills

Learning how to run downhill is like learning how to dance. When you start, you are like a pimpled seventh grader hoping not to make a fool out of yourself. Over time, though, you can learn to bust a move with the best of them.

Just like dancing, downhill running requires you to commit, relax and get your mind out of the way. Any trail runner can learn what to do, if you let yourself.

Downhills are not that complicated, but they take practice. Good downhill running starts with three general rules, which you can use to gain comfort on any terrain.

1. Take short strides

On downhills, runners tend to use gravity and open up their stride, bounding over the trail with heavy footfalls. That is a bad approach for two reasons.

First, a longer stride gives you fewer opportunities to course-correct as you go. Each footfall that lands in front of your body is a risk, because a larger percentage of your weight is supported by that footfall. Step wrong with a loping stride, and you’ll probably taste dirt before you have a chance to say, “Oh fudge.”

With short strides, each step involves less impact force and thus gives you a chance to adjust on the fly. Step badly, and you might already be on to the next step. Sometimes, the best downhillers are really just the best controlled stumblers, able to misstep and recover constantly without any issues.

Second, long downhill strides increase eccentric muscle contractions, which can lead to soreness later. Eccentric contractions are the controlled lengthening of muscle under tension. Imagine your leg extended in front of you. As you land, your knee will bend, causing eccentric contractions and associated muscle damage.

Shorter strides will still cause some eccentric contractions, but since the muscles aren’t under as much load with each stride, the next-day soreness will be less pronounced.

2. Practice appropriate posture

Essentially, you want to keep your feet under your center of gravity, rather than leaning too far forward or backward. Lean forward excessively and your momentum will increase, limiting your ability to adjust to the terrain as it comes. Lean back, and your leg will land in front of your mass, causing eccentric muscle contractions and problems from over-striding.

Instead, try to keep your shoulders, hips and ankles aligned at impact, using the hips and knees as key indicators of proper form. Run tall through the hips, and avoid “sitting down” in your stride. Because of forward momentum, maintaining upright posture through the hips may actually feel like leaning forward a few degrees.

At the same time, focus on a relaxed knee drive, lifting your feet from the knee, rather than kicking back. That will help you avoid kicking rocks and will contribute to a quick, soft stride.

3. Relax and let it flow

People sometimes describe good downhill running as making love to the trail. Others treat downhill running like a job interview.

The informal downhiller jumps over rocks, lets his/her arms go above his/her head when that seems to help and doesn’t worry about a misstep or bad line. The formal downhiller stiffly views each rock as an obstacle and each steep section as a competitor.

If you relax and flow, you’ll run downhills faster because you are not putting on the brakes unnecessarily, but instead letting gravity do the work. This practice can be learned over time, like anything in life.

If you consider yourself a bad downhill runner, let that thought slip away. Anyone can become an expert downhill runner if you work at it and avoid self-judgment. After all, gravity is a constant for all of us. Make it a constant companion, rather than a constant enemy.

 

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

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13 Comments on "How To Run Steep Downhills"

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Keith Petersen
Guest

Good advice. Especially the short strides. Too many hidden rocks, branches and mud under those leaves!

David Roche
Member

Thanks so much Keith! Increasing cadence can make a huge difference for some runners. You rock!

Davis
Guest

Hi David, thanks for the article, it addresses one of my biggest weaknesses. Any tips on how to train for downhills for us in vertically challenged areas of the country? Lack of regular practice really hurts me when I do get to travel to the mountains. Would you consider maybe making a video breaking down the technique like you did with the uphill hiking so we could get a better visual of your tips?

David Roche
Member

That is an amazing suggestion Davis! The training tips are especially important when you don’t have steep hills to train on, and mixing strength work with whatever hill you can find can work wonders. Expect an article in a few weeks 🙂 Thanks for the inspiration!

Tripp Knightly
Guest

I think “minimize ground contact time” is part of the dancing metaphor and deserves its own tip here. It’s a controlled fall, really. You probably should have emphasized more this is better advice for steep downhills. Gentle downhills are different.

David Roche
Member

Thanks for the feedback Tripp! The hope is that increasing cadence and focusing on soft and light strides will provide people the mental keys to unlock minimized ground contact time. I appreciate your comment!

Paul
Guest
Great summary of the right frame of mind for embracing the joy of downhill running and harnessing gravity instead of fighting it David. One thing that helps me is remembering to breathe slow and full breaths. The tendency is to choke up and hold one’s breath when anticipating the impact of each step. Focusing on my breath helps me relax and keep my center of gravity low, visualizing my hips traveling on a constant downhill path (not jumping up and down) and letting my knees lift to clear the terrain while my body glides smoothly down the slope. It’s like… Read more »
David Roche
Member

Wow, that is so insightful! A wonderful addition, thank you!

TJ1
Guest

Skiing is my analogy too. Keep everything lined up to the fall line, in rocky terrain think moguls- hips on line and “fast crazy feet” stepping on or between rocks and quick stride length adjustments

Connor
Guest

Love this! Tiny correction: “Eccentric contractions happen when a lengthened muscle shortens under load” should be “Eccentric contractions happen when a shortened muscle lengthens under load”.

Keep up the great articles, David.

David Roche
Member

Thank you! Correction being made now 🙂

Elizaveta Ershova
Member

Great article, as always, David! From my personal experience, I would add: on technical downhills, be especially mindful of the trailing foot. Whenever I fall it’s usually not because I land wrong, but because I let my concentration slip and my trailing foot catches a rock or a root. In other words, lift the knees a bit higher!

Clark
Guest

Another awesome article! Being a tall person I tend to have a long stride and try to use it to my advantage but I can see how that would increase damage to muscles. I often cramp or have a hard time on downhills at the end of races. Any tips on downhills once the quads start to burn and its hard to maintain your form but you still want speed?

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