There’s a lot of fuss about running uphill, it’s the downhill bit that is all too often neglected, but it actually requires skill and technique to appreciate the art of downhill running. Tackling steep climbs can be an energy sucker, and hilly race courses tend to cause fear—the uphill is seen as the hard part, with the downhill as the reward.
Whether your goal is to prevent injury, improve your speed on the downs, or simply become a more well-rounded runner—there are some important elements to learn if you want to improve your downhill running skills.
Strengthen Your Legs
If the thought of running downhill makes you wince with pain—the knees! the quads!—then you might want to hit the gym before you hit the hills. Strong legs are key to preventing injury and enjoying the process of downhill running.
Strong hips, glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps will help you run downhill better and reduce your chance of injuries. Plyometric exercises incorporate strength training with movement—the perfect combination for conditioning yourself for downhill running. Think box jumps, single- and two-foot hops, jump squats, and jumping lunges.
The Lily Pad Hop
Picture this: you need to cross a pond and the only way to get across is to hop from one lily pad to another. If you stand on one lily pad for too long, it will sink—you merely want to graze the lily pad before taking off to the next one. You need to be quick and light on your feet if you want to make it to the other side.
The lily pad hop is the perfect visual for understanding how to run down a hill. Land lightly on the balls of your feet, and spring right into the next step before you really sink into the ground.
It’s natural to want to lean away from the hill you’re running down, but it’s actually much faster—and easier on your body—to lean into it. When you try to lean back, you end up digging your heels into the ground. Not only will this slow you down with each step, but it also puts a lot of pressure on your body.
It is tempting to keep your eyes on your feet as you run downhill, but it is actually much more efficient to keep your eyes ahead of you. Some experts suggest pretending that you have an object, like a baseball, tucked under your chin. This prevents you from cranking your neck down and helps you keep your eyes up ahead.
Keep your eyes up is a quick way to correct your posture and lets you scan what’s ahead of you for any potential hazards. This is especially helpful when running on trails. Seeing roots, rocks, and other obstacles ahead of time gives you the chance to react before you reach them. This allows you to keep up your pace without risking an ankle roll or face plant.
Use Your Arms
Arms are an underrated element of running. Not only do they help you keep up your speed, but they’re great for maintaining your balance.
Keep your arms moving beside you to stay in a good, quick rhythm. Relax your arms and shoulders as you make your way down steep hills. Let your arms move naturally. It is perfectly normal for them to fly and flail while they help you keep your sense of balance. Although your arms might look out of control, they are actually key for helping you maintain control.
Practice, Practice, Practice
You can watch hours of technique videos and you can perfect your form at the gym, but the best way to become efficient at downhill running is to actually do it. As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect.
To become a well-rounded downhill runner, switch up the terrain. Try long hills and short hills, steep ones and mellower ones, paved hills and technical trails. Each will require different strengths and skillsets. Over time, you’ll hone your running toolkit until you can tackle any downhill with confidence.