8 tips for learning to run downhill fast
© Miles Holden
It’s not just a case of pointing yourself downhill and letting gravity take its course. Here's our guide to getting from top to bottom effectively.
Don't get us wrong, there’s a lot of benefit from hill repeat training and few feelings are sweeter than overtaking runners on a grindingly steep ascent. But running downhill is not simply a time to recover – there are seconds to be gained if you can learn the skills and confidence to go full pelt, too.
There’s a lot more to it than simply 'disengaging your brain', as the fell-runners’ mantra goes. Dave Taylor is a UK Athletics coach and experienced fell-runner, specialising in fell and mountain running. Here, he gives us his expert tips on how to improve your descending style.
1. Shift your body position forward
“The natural instinct when running downhill is to lean backwards and land on your heels,” he says. “This might feel secure, but it isn’t very efficient and has a braking effect. As you run downhill try to lean forwards slightly to stay perpendicular to the hill, this will bring your centre of gravity forwards, allowing you to land with your weight over your feet.”
2. Take short, fast strides
“Long strides and landing out in front of your hips has a braking effect and results in your quadricep muscles absorbing a lot of force, which can quickly lead to fatigue and ‘jelly legs’. A better way is to shorten your stride and land with your foot closer to your hips and with a slightly flexed knee.” This fast cadence is particularly important on rough and uneven terrain. “Short, fast strides reduce the impact of running downhill and allow you to react quickly.”
3. Loosen up your arms
“Let your arms relax from the shoulders, rather than holding them rigidly. If you watch good runners coming downhill you’ll see that their arms ‘windmill’ or flail around like a rag doll. This isn’t them being out of control, they are actually using their arms for balance.”
4. Look two metres ahead
“Just like driving a car or riding a bike, you should learn to read the ground that’s coming up. Try to focus on the floor about two metres ahead of you rather than looking down at your feet. On easier sections, quickly scan the ground farther ahead so that you know what to expect before you arrive.” That way, you won’t be tripped by any unexpected obstacles.
“Running downhill is a skill and, like any skill, you improve with practice. It’s no coincidence that the best downhill runners are those who do it most often. Seek out sections of downhill terrain and spend 10 minutes working on your technique. Start with a gentle slope and run down it for 20 seconds. Repeat this several times getting faster as you gain confidence then move onto a steeper slope. Gradually move on to more difficult ground over several weeks as your skill and confidence grows.”
6. Get the right shoes
“Trainers with a good grip are essential. Even the best descender would struggle to cope with a steep muddy slope while wearing a pair of road running shoes. There are plenty of models to choose from, with Inov-8, Salomon and Walsh being some of the most popular brands.”
7. Do strength and conditioning training
“Add some strength training into your weekly routine, targetting the lower body. Include exercises such as squats (including single leg), lunges, glute bridges and deadlifts. Drills that focus on developing fast feet and lateral movements are worth regularly including, too.”
8. Don’t simply disengage your brain
“I often hear phrases like ‘disengage brain’ or ‘brain off, brakes off’. This isn’t particularly helpful advice for an inexperienced runner. You should build up the skill set of balance, coordination and fast reaction time while also having the core and leg strength to absorb the impact of downhill running. Only when they have these attributes will you gain confidence and be able to relax on descents.”