Downhill running

In my focus races for the last couple of years, stage races, I didn't have to be a good downhill runner (or a climber). Usually stage races are relatively flat races that have challenges coming from other aspects of the race rather than from running in very mountainous areas. Now that I'm focusing on running in the mountains and looking towards some tough mountain races in 2015 I've had to learn how to handle steep terrain and the long downhills in these races. This is what I've learnt so far.

I believe that there are two competencies in running downhill fast: strength and technique or skill. A great downhill runner will appear to flow down the mountain without any effort or uncertainty and this come from acquiring both of the downhill running competencies. However, making gains in one area of downhill running can greatly increase downhill speed.

Running down a huge dune in the Atacama with Vlad.


The ability to run a long downhill or a downhill at the end of a long race depends greatly on leg strength. Independent of the level of skill a runner possesses, speed on a downhill during an ultra-marathon can fall far below skill level due to sore legs or a lack of mobility that has arisen from the pounding of the kilometers already run. Very often in ultra-marathons I see runners hobbling or nursing their quads and running downhill much more slowly than they are capable of. I would suggest that strength is the first place to start developing downhill speed and fortunately it can often be done even if long descents and big mountains are not available to train on.

Pure strength and muscle capacity can be improved through gym or free-weight training. I favor doing body-weight exercises and TRX as these have worked well for me and don't require a gym membership. Good exercises to include in a training program for building leg strength are:

  • single leg squats
  • lunges
  • TRX single leg squat
  • TRX sprinter start
  • TRX crossing lunge

When I first started doing these exercises I did 2 sets of 15 per leg and two sessions a weekly. Gradually I built that up 4 sets of 15 per leg and extended each of these basic exercises to be more dynamic with jumps. The key to remember with this training is that a little goes a long way. Two sessions of 20 minutes a week can lead to solid improvement.

The second step that I took to improve my strength was to include downhill intervals in my training runs. My hill interval workouts in the past were some variation of 200m to 400m at a hard effort uphill and then running down slowly to recover. I changed these sessions to be 200m to 400m hard uphill, a minute rest recovery, then 200m to 400m hard downhill. This helped me to run downhills hard and learn to handle the different stresses that occur when I'm tired and running downhill.

Finally, if possible I run my long runs on routes that include long downhills and lots of climbing. This is the specific work to put the strength work to the test and to practice a sustained pounding of a long downhill.

Technique and skill

I found that a few small changes to my technique on the downhills made a tremendous change descending confidence and this improved my speed. It's not hard to learn good technique and only takes a little time and practice to improve. The steps for good downhill running are:

  • tighten up a pack, stow bottles and poles so nothing is moving
  • lower the body's center of gravity slightly (a little like a skier)
  • use the center of gravity to control the pace: lean forward to go faster
  • use arms for balance and to "lean" into corners
  • look far enough ahead to anticipate potential trail hazards
  • increase cadence to keep each landing as lightly as possible
  • land flat-footed to provide maximum traction and minimal braking force
  • [open your legs wider than shoulder width for more stability] - I haven't tried this yet
  • [run with a high knee lift to keep stride rate high] - I haven't tried this yet

The bosses taught me a lot about running downhill.

Good technique helps, but doesn't always remove fear from previous falls. The best way to do this is keep in mind what happened to cause the last fall and be wary of this during descents. I've fallen a few times from trying to turn out of a steep descent and losing traction as my foot is no longer parallel to the slope. Another issue I've had is trying to slow down on a wet and steep downhill and losing traction as I tried to brake too hard. Now I make sure that I'm running with good technique and that I'm looking ahead for potential turns or points that I need to slow down and either slowing before the situation where I fell previously or finding a way to avoid it.

Working on my strength and skill have helped me improve my downhill running so that it's now a strength. I still have a long way to go to be a "great" and "fearless" downhill runner, but I'm working on it. Any suggestions to improve are welcome in the comments.


Unknown said...

thanks for all this information, i´m scared now, you know all the "secrets" for a perfect mountain race, a big hug my friend!

Daniel Rowland said...

Thanks Moi!! I learnt the secrets from the best mountain runners in Chile my friend! I hope you are recovering well from your ITB issues.