Do these 10 things to run downhill faster

Half of the challenge of downhill running is in your mind – and by that, we mean letting go of it.
By Lieuwe Boonstra

It was Isaac Newton who said: “What goes up, must come down”. Here are 10 tips for becoming a downhill racing snake.

But remember, these are best for those with strong mileage base – not your standard novice jogger!

Master all of this stuff, and you'll be ready for Red Bull Lionheart in South Africa. 

More: Check out Ryan Sandestips for running at altitude here

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

1. Strength means speed
Leg strength is crucial for fast downhill running. One exercise that works wonders for downhill running is one-legged squats.

2. Do downhill repetitions in training
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 four to six repetitions 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 demonstrates the long stride you need for downhill running on Table Mountain
Go log your time © 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. It will give you a little more control in your downhill running, but you won’t go as fast.

5. Scan ahead
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 where the shortest option is not always the quickest. Example: 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 negotiates a dry and dusty couloir in in the Cederberg
Ryan Sandes threads the needle in the Cederberg © 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. 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
Choose shoes with an aggressive tread and trust them and your feet.

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

10. Adapt to the terrain
Be ready for anything. 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 with wet rock, the better. 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 Sandes
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