Running Downhill | May 15, 2013
Hills and ultrarunning go together like peanut butter and jelly, shoes and shoelaces, sweat and tears. Many ultras feature jagged elevation profiles. For these races, running downhill well needs to be part of your arsenal. Norm Klein, Western States Race Director from the eighties and nineties, famously estimated that 80% of the dropouts at Western came from quads being trashed by the race’s many long, gnarly downhills. Norm was probably exercising a bit of hyperbole there–Western has many other ways to mess you up that have to account for more than 20% of the drops–but the point is well taken. Confident, effective downhill running requires training and conditioning.
First of all, downhill running technique is not necessarily one size fits all. Some runners attack downhills aggressively with the goal of gaining an edge on the competition and posting fast race times. Others focus more on efficiency in descending, getting to the bottom as quickly as possible, but with the least effort. Still others are trying to chill, let gravity do the lion’s share of the work, and get safely to the bottom feeling well rested and ready to tackle the rest of the course.
The keys to the aggressive style of downhill running is a forward lean, quick rotation or stride rate, landing forward of the heel on the foot, and a kamikaze pilot’s mindset. I saw this style in action at Leadville once when the frontrunner went by me on the lower part of the Hope Pass trail, where you basically have a jumbled, boulder staircase of two and three foot drops. His pacer was frantically yelling, “Trail! Trail!” as the guy came bounding down the rocks at a dead run, leaping the obstacles, legs turning over furiously, headed for either a fast time or a terrific crash landing. The runners chasing the leader were doing the same thing.
A less aggressive style uses the same basic elements but to a lesser degree. You want to run with a slight forward lean to take advantage of gravity. Use a short stride with a quick turnover, which gives you plenty of control to handle the speed generated by the forward lean. Pick your feet up as soon as they hit the ground. Avoid landing on your heels which will just accentuate your tendency to brake. You want to allow the momentum to carry you down the hill as much as possible. If you tense up, lean back, or engage your muscles to slow you down too much, you’ll waste energy and eventually trash your quads. Stay loose and relaxed but keep the feet quick. As you practice, your confidence will build and you’ll be able to maintain a good flow down the hill while using the quick, light step and fast leg turnover to dance around obstacles.
Runners who are mostly unconcerned about speed and view the downhill as an opportunity to rest and regroup in preparation for the flats and the climbs coming up will want to adjust the technique. You still want to take advantage of gravity and avoid excessive braking, but you don’t want to generate a lot of speed that can take work to manage. Cut back on the forward lean to the point where you feel mostly upright, but not to the point where you feel like you’re sitting back. Keep your stride short but don’t be too quick on your leg turnover. Land more on your heels to break your momentum slightly without a major engagement of your quads. If you stay loose and relaxed, you will feel the gravity pulling you effortlessly down the hill but your upright position and slight heel braking should keep your speed in check.
More technical sections of downhill present special problems but also special opportunities. A light, fast step will allow you to dance down through obstacles and help you react quickly should you misstep or if loose rock gives way. Spread your stance a bit, point your feet slightly out, and hold your arms away from your body to help maintain balance. Don’t be afraid to take a break once in a while and walk down through the worst rock gardens or major problem areas in the trail.
A running buddy of mine David Nakashima, who had a lot of success in ultrarunning when he was active, used to practice getting into the “zone” when he ran downhill. He would concentrate on flowing down hill, picking a line well out ahead of where his feet were landing, and rushing down through obstacles with a very light, quick step. The loose rock and gravel would tumble down the trail behind him, but he would always be beyond the trouble zooming around the next switchback or flowing down the next steep slope. I worked at picking up this style and found once my confidence had built up, I flew downward feeling very comfortable. Once I was firmly in the zone, I would feel totally relaxed even going down rough, technical sections of trail, and I would have this almost mystical feeling that things would work out. It was strange and exhilarating.
Time on task is important in developing your downhill running skills no matter what technique you employ. Make hills part of your regular weekly runs. Add some hill repeats to your repertoire of workouts. The more downhill running you do, the more your legs will adapt to the particular stresses you’ll encounter. Some runners also recommend strength training, weight training, speed work, squats, and lunges as ways to boost your downhill running prowess. As with any targeted training that you are doing for the first time, start slowly and add duration and intensity to the workouts only a little bit at a time.
Spend enough time working on your downhill technique and conditioning your legs to downhill running and you will find yourself in this situation. You’ll be near the end of a hilly race feeling pretty human and getting ready for a strong finish. You’ll see some other runners up ahead. They might even be runners that usually finish well ahead of you, but they’re walking down the steep hills and complaining bitterly about their sore quads. As you blow by them, you’ll be thinking to yourself, “What’s all the fuss?”