Slippery, downhill trails can seem intimidating and scary, but it doesn’t have to be that way, says Alison Hamlett. We reveal seven ways to speed up when running downhill.
Many of us find running downhill just as physically and mentally demanding as tackling a tough uphill, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By mastering a few key descending techniques, you’ll be able to take any slope at an agile scamper, rather than a limb-busting lumber. Here are our top seven tips on how to handle – and embrace – every descent like a trail-running champion.
1. FOCUS FORWARD
You should constantly plan ahead when you’re running downhill on uneven terrain. ‘Keep your eyes focused a little ahead of you, so you register any stones and tree roots. This will mean there is enough time for the message to get from your eyes to your muscles,’ says Dr Lizzy Hawker, five-time winner of the epic Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (www.lizzyhawker.com). Aim to focus on the ground around four metres in front of you, and don’t worry if this doesn’t come naturally to begin with: it’s a skill you will develop with practice.
2. WEIGHT MANAGEMENT
How you use your body weight will make the difference between flying downhill with ease and descending jerkily. ‘If you’re nervous when running downhill, the temptation is to lean backwards,’ says running coach Sarah Russell. ‘But this will cause you to heel strike heavily, brake and increase the force through the body – not to mention slowing you down.’
Russell suggests instead that you try to lean slightly forwards, keeping your body weight over your hips and ankles. ‘It needs to feel like you’re leaning forwards just a little,’ she says, ‘which can feel scary to begin with, but with practice and confidence becomes more natural.’
3. CORE VALUES
A weak core will be magnified when gravity pulls you downhill, so it’s essential you develop strong abdominal, hip and glute muscles if you’re to stabilise and control your body efficiently when descending at speed.
To strengthen your core, include functional exercises that replicate the running action. ‘One-leg squats are a perfect example of this,’ says Russell. She also recommends curls on a Swiss Ball, one leg alternating bridge and the plank and side plank. ‘Build the foundations first then build the miles from there.’
You could also consider taking a yoga class. ‘Yoga has become an important supplement to running,’ says Hawker. ‘It is very important to me, not only for the strength and flexibility, but for the focus and philosophy.’
4. ARMS RACE
Holding your arms away from your body will give you better balance on descents. ‘While the legs need to be kept under control, the arms can be used more freely,’ explains Russell. ‘Watch good fell runners run downhill and you’ll see their arms come out to the sides to help them balance and stay upright. Don’t control your arms or try to emulate the pumping action needed on the uphills. Downhill arm action is the opposite and it’s fine if they’re waving all over the place.’
5. TRAIN FOR THE TERRAIN
We’ve said it before, but that’s not going to stop us saying it again: if you’re planning to tackle a race that includes plenty of descents, make sure your training also features plenty of downhill running. When you run downhill, your quads act as brakes to hold you back, and if they’re not used to it, they’ll start screaming for you to stop. As well as training on hills, lunges and hops are a great way to strengthen quads. If you don’t live near any hills, find a treadmill and set it to a downhill slope for a steady run.
6. STRIDE RIGHT
When you’re descending at speed, shorten and quicken your stride so you move lightly down the slope. ‘When you run, you hit the ground with a force of more than twice your body weight and that increases by 14 percent on the downhills, so try to avoid heel striking, which creates a braking action and increases impact even more,’ says Russell. By aiming for a quick cadence, you’ll avoid leaving your legs behind, which can cause your stride to lengthen too much. ‘Try to bring the knee through quickly so you’re ready for the next step,’ Russell adds.
7. LOVE EVERY MINUTE
You’ll become better at descending if you learn to love the hills. Sure, steep ups and downs can feel like daunting obstacles if you’re new to running or lack experience at tackling climbs and descents, but they’re well worth your time and effort. ‘Have the courage and confidence just to try; to take opportunities and see where they lead,’ says Hawker. ‘The most important thing is always to run for the love of it, with your heart and soul as well as your head and legs – because then more is possible than you might imagine.’
Words by Alison Hamlett