When we think of running down a hill, what comes to mind?
Many runners consider them reprieves from long, uphill grinds. They’re breaks. They’re a chance to run fast after tough climbs. They’re free miles involving less effort. They bring on a flush of relief as you think “thank God, I’m at the top.”
Those things can all be true on a road. But not on a trail. No trail runner considers the roots and rocks of steep downhill single track a break.
Downhill trail running will never be easy. But with practice and the correct technique, you can conserve a little extra energy, keep from blowing out your quads and maybe even save yourself from face-planting in the dirt.
Here are a few tips and tricks for efficient, fast and safe downhill running.
Engage Your Core
OK. I’m not the first person to preach core engagement. You’ve heard it before. But have you have taken the time to understand what that means?
Our core is comprised of several layers of muscles connecting the upper and lower body.
From the most superficial to the deepest, there is rectus abdominis (AKA abs), external obliques, internal obliques and transverse abdominis (or TA).
The TA connects to the pelvic floor muscles, which give support from the bottom of our pelvis and are critical for stabilization.
The outer part of the hip is also a critical part of an athlete’s core. It houses the following hip stabilizers: gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, piriformis and several deep lateral rotators.
These deep muscles work together to provide much-needed stability while we continually impact the ground and propel forward.
If those muscles are either underdeveloped or dormant and just not firing at all, our larger muscles compensate by trying to provide stability. Imbalances and weaknesses in the deeper, smaller muscles groups lead to muscle tension at best and alignment issues and injuries at worst.
Proper core muscle tension ensures good posture, which keep our hips and center of gravity forward on the hill. As surfaces change between stable and unstable (think snow, rocks, roots, mud), a stable core enables us to move nimbly as if we’re on a solid road. A few one-minute planks before you head out for your run is the perfect exercise to get your core activated and engaged during your entire workout.
All descents stress the quads and lower legs. The braking effect that comes with downhill running causes your quads to contract eccentrically, which slows the elongation of the muscle. Eccentric contractions mean muscle soreness and a sad end to a long run or race.
To prevent late-race quivers, add a few downhill repeat sessions to your training. Find a moderately steep fire road with about an eight percent grade. Run easy on the uphill and push the downhill for 10-30 seconds at a time with full recovery. Aim for 6 to 10 repetitions.
Eyes Off Your Feet
Looking as far down the trail as possible gives our brain and body ample time to respond and puts us in the best position to use gravity to our advantage.
Take a minute to stand up and look four to six feet in front of you. Next, bring your gaze back to your feet and feel what happens to your hips. Likely they are now behind your center of gravity in a mini squat.
Looking down at your feet tends to contract your quad muscles before even moving and, therefore, takes more strength in the hips to stabilize joints to keep proper alignment to prevent injuries. By looking down, you’re giving your body permission to use the bigger muscle groups—quads, hamstrings and glutes—to move.
Keep your focus 10 to 15 feet ahead of you. Pick your line to avoid any significant obstacles. Your body will know where to go, even when you’re not staring straight down.
Practice Makes Perfect
When I started trail running, I was about as graceful as a giraffe on a treadmill. But after spending a lot of time running technical downhills, often chasing someone faster than me, I’ve moved past that initial awkwardness and grown confident and fast.
The more you practice, the more you gain confidence in your ability. To improve your technical downhill skills, practice running on relatively tame downward trails and work up to technical mountainsides and talus fields.