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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Downhill Demon – Emelie Forsberg

Emelie Forsberg at Trofeo Kima 2012 copyright Ian Corless

Emelie Forsberg at Trofeo Kima 2012 copyright Ian Corless

What goes up, must come down. If we are talking about racing then how quick you come down can make or break a race. Ask any fell runner in the UK. Going up my hurt the lungs, heart and legs but coming down requires a different skill. A skill that needs to be fine tuned and practiced. However, that ‘natural ability’ will always shine through and set one runner apart from the rest.

Emelie Forsberg has gained a reputation of being an incredible downhill runner. In this video filmed by Greg Vollet (Salomon Team Manager) we get an insight in how to move quickly.

We should mention here that Greg Vollet is a great downhill runner himself and comes from a world class biking background.

Greg Vollet’s YouTube channel HERE