Trail Running - 10 tips to run downhill faster

Line. Flow. Rhythm... Descending skills are what separate exceptional trail runners from good ones.
By Lieuwe Boonstra

I think it was Isaac Newton who said: “What goes up must come down”. Red Bull LionHeart is no different. If you want to conquer the lion you have to be able to run downhill…fast. Here are 10 tips for becoming a downhill racing snake:

1. Strengthen those legs
Leg strength is crucial for fast downhill running. There is a month left before the race so get to the gym. One exercise that works wonders for downhill running are one-legged squats.

2. Do downhill repetitions in training
You do hill repeats right? Downhill running is no different and needs to be practiced. 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. Depending on your level of downhill fitness, start with 4-6 repeats and build it up to 10.

3. Keep your strides long
The most common mistake runners make is shortening their stride. Longer strides equal faster downhill running. It takes time and a degree of bravery to improve your downhill running but the end benefits are huge.

Ryan Sandes running downhill in South Africa
Live and die by your line © Kolesky/Nikon/Red Bull Content Pool

4. Lean forward into gravity
Avoid leaning backwards and jamming on the brakes, causing serious damage to your muscles. Tiredness can mean you will lean back slightly, which will give you a little more control in your downhill running, but you won’t go as fast.

5. Scan 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. This will allow you to make choices especially in the LionHeart where the shortest option is not always the quickest. Avoiding wet rocks in favour of a grassier, but slightly longer, alternative route, which could be quicker.

6. Keep your legs bent
Don’t run downhill with straight legs. Not only could this result in knee pain or injury, but slightly bent legs will give you more spring in your step.

Ryan Sandes demonstrates the long stride you need for downhill running on Table Mountain
Go log your time © Kolesky/Nikon/Red Bull Content Pool

7. Flap your arms
Your arms play key role if you want to run downhill faster. For balance, especially around corners, spread your arms out to the side using a slight windmilling action. Don’t worry about looking like the village idiot, it definitely works. Imagine you are on a tight rope, what would your arms do? Now replicate that when running downhill.

8. Switch off your brain and lose control – a little bit
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. When you get a little out of control, your brain is forced to think in overdrive mode which actually speeds up your ability to make decisions on where to step next.

9. Trust your gear
Lion's Head is rocky, sandy and can become very slippery early morning with dew or mist. Choose shoes with an aggressive tread and trust them and your feet.

Ryan Sandes negotiates a dry and dusty couloir in in the Cederberg
Ryan Sandes threads the needle in the Cederberg © Kolesky/Nikon/Red Bull Content Pool

10. Adapt to the terrain
Be ready for anything you might encounter on Lion's Head. When clambering down use your arms and legs. Loose rock will move forward with you underfoot, so ride it out and don’t fight 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.

Bonus tip for downhill beginners:
If you are a novice downhill runner completely ignore the above. Take small steps and go sideways when in doubt. You won’t win, but will live to run downhill another day.

Ryan Sands in the Drakensburg Mountains
Ryan Sandes picks his line © Kolesky/Nikon/Red Bull Content Pool
Ryan Sandes
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