Trail Running: The Art of The Downhill

running downhillThere’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.

Embrace Grav­i­ty

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.

Look Up!

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.