It’s very rare that trail running doesn’t involve a lot of running up hills. The good news is that what goes up usually comes down and after a steep climb, you will usually be rewarded with a descent. For many of us, the thought of downhill running is very welcome after we’ve puffed and panted our way up the hill. It’s not always as easy as it sounds though and downhill running can often hurt as much, if not more, than the ascent, with more risk of falling and some technical skills required. We take a look at how to get better at downhill running and perfecting the technique on those steep descents.
A punishment for the thighs
When it comes to the muscles in the legs, mainly the quadriceps and calves, running downhill can be punishing. Often, you will experience the worst DOMs you will experience. I will never forget my first run over 30 miles. It was the Butcombe Ultra in 2020 and was 56 miles in total with 7,500 miles of elevation. I was going really well, hiking the climbs and running the flats and descents feeling like I could go on for miles when I reached Fry’s Hill in Axbridge. Fry’s Hill is at mile 38 of the route and is a steep gradient of 19.4% which requires some serious focus to run down, only really feasible when the ground is dry and you are feeling confident.
I started to run down (it was my first descent for a few miles) only to be greeted with the most burning, aching feeling in my quads. I was stunned. I had never endured pain like it and inched my way down gingerly (I am a decent descender generally) wincing with every step and nervous of every downhill that was still to come in the next 12 miles.
That was my first real lesson in just how much downhill running can take out of you.
The science behind it
When running down hill, especially steeper ones, the quadriceps and calf muscles are trying to shorten but are being forced to lengthen as your foot hits the ground each time. This causes damage to your muscle fibres and leads to fatigue, DOMs and, as I discovered, pain during longer hilly miles if you are not used to it.
It burns energy too. You may think that you are actually conserving energy when descending but generally, if the gradient is around 20% of more, you are going to be braking continuously and burning energy.
If you do it enough though, running downhill will improve your running as your muscles adapt and strengthen. Needless to say, the next time I repeated the aforementioned ultra, the pain was not there at mile 38 and I had become much stronger after another 18 months of hill running.
Tips for downhill running
While it may seem that running downhill should be easy, and on a tarmac hill it probably is, trail running requires two things – technique and confidence. There are many obstacles when running downhill on trails – tree roots, rocks, stones, gravel, uneven ground. All of these things are a trip hazard so merrily just throwing caution to the wind and running down the hill at full pelt could see you face plant the ground. That hurts, trust me, I have done it! Let’s talk about technique and our 5 top tips:
1. Look where you are going
Don’t look at your feet – you need to see what is ahead. Look about 5 steps ahead to see what is coming so that you can plan your route and have more of a reaction time if you do see an obstacle.
2. Shorten your stride
It’s almost impossible to run effectively down hill with a massive stride and stay upright. Shorten your stride to improve your balance and stability and give yourself more contact with the grand. This will also help to prevent muscle damage and avert injury.
3. Keep your arms out to the side
This will help you to stay balanced. Now we aren’t suggesting you go bombing down the hill with your arms out like an aeroplane but if your arms are out to the side, this will help you stay balanced. Lean slightly forward from the ankles too. Avoid the temptation to lean back.
4. Consider your foot strike
If you are a toe striker and you run on your toes, this is going to hurt if you do it repeatedly. Instead play around with varying your foot strike to switch between the foot strike patterns. This will take the load off of the same muscle groups and switch it up a bit.
5. Practise running downhill
A better word may be to train for it but practise makes perfect. The more hills that you run down, the better you will get. Once you have perfected the technique the confidence will come and, in turn, the speed.
Improving your downhill running technique takes time and the more you do it, the better you will get. Try and incorporate some time to practise this within one of your training sessions. Pick a hill and do some hill reps. This will not only help you with your ascending – but also descending.