Tips for the Trail – Downhill Demon


©iancorless.com_Matterhorn2015-0893Running downhill is a skill mastered by the greatest fell / mountain runners. Watching someone descending at speed can leave the average runner in awe of the effortless speed and control. Technically if you’re running downhill it should be easy right? Gravity is pulling you down the hill so it’s all free speed… right? Unfortunately not.

Why is it so difficult?

1. When you run downhill you have to ‘brake’ your speed. Each time your foot hits the ground you use your thigh muscles to brake your descent. This braking places a specific stress on your muscles which causes a lot of damage, (that’s why they are so sore the next day).

2. Part of the reason for this ‘braking’ is the fact that you naturally land heel first and you are in effect ‘leaning backwards’. Ok, so when you’re actually running, you’re not ‘leaning backwards’, you are vertical. But, if you think about the angle of the slope away from you, then technically you are leaning backwards!

3. The braking takes place when your feet are on the ground, so the less your feet are on the ground, the better! If your stride is quite slow and your feet stay on the ground for a long time, there’s a lot of braking and a lot of strain on the muscles.

So what’s the plan?

1. Lean forwards slightly, this reduces the ‘lean back’ position and encourages you to land on your forefoot rather than your heel. By doing this, you reduce the braking effect.

2. You need to increase your cadence and get your feet moving quickly. By leaning forwards you’ll naturally gain speed, your feet and legs need to be able to keep up with that speed or you’ll end up braking again.

3. Relax and stay in control. Running downhill quickly, contrary to popular belief, is not for the brainless and brave. It’s not about ‘letting go’ and descending out of control with legs and arms flailing in all directions. It’s a purposeful forwards lean, mid foot strike with a fast cadence and minimal ground contact.

If I speed up, won’t I cause more damage?

1. People think if they run slower down the hill, it’ll cause less damage. Unfortunately that’s not always the case as the ‘braking’ is the cause of the damage. If you brake less, then you save your legs and you go quicker! However, be sensible about this, if you’re running a trail marathon or ultra race, perhaps descending at top speed (in particular the early stages of the race) is not the best plan.

Practice it this weekend, it’s all downhill from here!

Marc Laithwaite

About Marc:

Sports Science lecturer for 10 years at St Helens HE College.

2004 established The Endurance Coach LTD sports science and coaching business. Worked with British Cycling as physiology support 2008-2008. Previous Triathlon England Regional Academy Head Coach, North West.

In 2006 established Epic Events Management LTD. Now one of the largest event companies in the NW, organising a range of triathlon, swimming and cycling events. EPIC EVENTS also encompasses Montane Trail 26 and Petzl Night Runner events.

In 2010 established Montane Lakeland 50 & 100 LTD. This has now become the UKs leading ultra distance trail running event.

In 2010 established The Endurance Store triathlon, trail running and open water swimming store. Based in Appley Bridge, Wigan, we are the North West’s community store, organising and supporting local athletes and local events.

Check out the endurance store HERE

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2 thoughts on “Tips for the Trail – Downhill Demon

  1. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News, Thurs, July 23

  2. Great info. Always enjoy hearing Marc on Ian’s podcast. I have question about Kilian Jornet. Now before we all say he’s “unique” and “superhuman” (which he is)… I notice he runs downhill with a very different technique. Forget for a minute why (ski mo background, whatever)… My question is — is there perhaps a different way to descend that we should practice? That sort of sit in an invisible chair, with your weight back, center of balance low, feet and hands fluid…etc. I NEVER hear him complain of blown quads and he’s one of the best one the planet.

    Thanks and looking forward to Talk Ultra 91

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