How to run downhill

Having finally had a chance to test myself on some giant alpine descents with the Trail Team recently, it was great to see that the time I’ve spent learning to run fast and efficiently downhill was well spent – I had an immense amount of fun.

I’ve always enjoyed learning about being a better runner and trying to improve my technique because I know having better technique than someone of comparable fitness to me will nearly always give me an advantage in a race and downhill running is definitely one of those areas where this rings true.

Julia, Our guide in Chamonix gave us a number of tips and reminders of how you can run fast and efficiently downhill and how you can train to become a better downhiller even if you don’t live on an epic Alpine mountain.

Why learn?

Simply put, the better your technique, the faster you’ll go with the same effort level. You’ll also find that a massive number of people are hopeless at running downhill and especially on technical trails and I’ve found in races in the past I’ve taken minutes per mile out of people of a comparable fitness level so it’s a cheap and easy way gain time on your fellow runners. Want to see the difference technique makes even at an elite athlete level – take a look at the gap Kilian Jornet opens on Tim Olsen in the recent Hardrock 100 in the space of one descent.

The other reason of course is that if you do it badly, it hurts! You’ll be spending your time leaning back and using your quads to brake and basically make mincemeat of your legs over time.

How to do it right

It’s relatively simple to do right and practice can certainly lead to massive time gains in relatively little time. I’ve found that some parts of my technique vary depending on terrain but the fundamentals are pretty consistent:

  • Lean in an engage the hill – shoulders forward a bit and make use of gravity.
  • Take shorter fast steps
  • Make your steps as light as possible – the lighter you tread, the less likely you are to injure yourself with a twisted ankle on uneven terrain for example
  • Arms a little wider than normal to aid balance
  • Stay loose and as relaxed as possible

For technical trails and fells with lots of rock, roots or lumps and bumps the faster your feet – the better you’ll get because you’ll be able to glide over mixed terrain that much easier simply because you’re in contact with the ground less and therefore you’re braking less so the hope is that you’ll be in less pain and moving faster!

For longer and easier trails I nearly always point people to this video analysis by Dana Katz of Iain Sharman because it shows very simply how it’s done and the key takeaway for me was how high his feet go – try it on a nice easy slope and you’ll be amazed at the pace difference that slight tweak makes.

Video Credit Sometimes, I let my arms flail on fell and technical trails because having them a bit looser allows me to adjust my centre of gravity that much easier. I believe it may look a little like this should you follow me down a technical trail in my next race …

A couple of tips to help you train anywhere

One of the other things Julia was keen to emphasise in Chamonix was that you can train and improve your technique without needing epic Alpine trails or technical singletrack. You can do a number of things even in a short lunchtime session.

  • Train your feet to move faster – Ladder drills are a nice easy way to work on that
  • Practice on a short piece of technical ground on a local trail and practice repeats picking a tricky line if you can

The last thing to really mention is to enjoy it and try not to be too fearful – for most, it’s going to be the fastest you run and even (or especially) in the later stages of ultras, good technique will help you preserve just a little more strength that you’ll need but you’ll find at the end of longer races, that superior technique can translate into minutes and positions very quickly.