Watching experienced trail runners glide downhill is a beautiful sight. They seem to fly effortlessly, soaring over rocks and obstacles seemingly without fear of falling; even over the gnarliest terrain. However, many runners struggle to shake their fears on downhills and can become uncomfortable when they try to increase their pace. Listed below are my top five ways you can gain confidence and speed while running downhill on trails.
For an example of expert downhill trail running, check out this video of Kilian Jornet at the 2018 Mont Blanc Marathon.
1. Spend Time on Different Types of Terrain
One of the best ways to improve your downhill running is to spend time running and hiking on terrain that challenges you. You may possess the necessary skills and techniques to run downhill quickly, but your mind sends signals to your body to tense up and slow down when you encounter terrain that makes you uncomfortable.
Once every two weeks, choose a hike, or run that puts you on terrain slightly outside your comfort zone. Practice on mud, snow, ice, steep grades, ski slopes, rooty switchbacks, boulder fields to gain familiarity with the challenges of each terrain type. The more time you spend on a particular type of terrain, the better your body (and mind) will be able to adapt to it. If you are training for a race, make sure you practice the kinds of terrain you will encounter on the course!
2. Speed Up!
Pushing ourselves to run downhill quickly is not always easy, especially on intimidating or technical hills. It’s not a natural reaction think “speed up!” when we encounter steep hills, but this is what I encourage you to do. Many runners get into the habit of running downhill only at a comfortable pace. They push themselves on flats and uphills and recover on downhills. This leads to plateaued speed running downhill, even if speed on flats and uphills improves.
One way to improve downhill running speed is to include intervals at speeds beyond your casual downhill running pace. One of my favorite workouts to encourage runners to speed up on downhills is the short burst interval. For this workout, choose a trail that has a continuous downhill, or at least 5 short downhill sections spread throughout your run. As you begin running downhill, notice the pace you settle into. Then, pick an object, a tree, a rock, a sign, roughly 100 yards away. Ask yourself: “How quickly can I run to this object?” Run as fast as you can and gradually slow down as you pass the object. Continue running at a comfortable pace. Repeat this exercise 5 times throughout the course of your run. Done consistently, this workout will help you attain faster casual and top speeds when running downhill.
3. Think Less
Listen to your instincts, not your head. Have you ever seen a mountain goat run downhill? They don’t pause and think about where to put their hooves, they just run, and they’re fast! On difficult terrain, runners tend to slow down and think carefully about where to put their feet, or how best to descend so they do not trip. This thinking leads to slower running and can be mentally exhausting. Running instinctually requires intense focus, though you are not actively thinking about obstacles on the trail. Trust your feet will find a proper place to land and find a rhythm in your steps. Practice guided imagery meditation and watch experienced downhill runners to better cultivate your goat-like downhill running instincts.
4. Relax Your Stride
Being relaxed helps you descend quickly with less effort. Let gravity provide your speed. Avoid forceful motions and aggressive push-offs, which waste energy. This is especially important in longer races when you need to be as efficient as possible. As I’m running downhill, I’ll go through a mental checklist from head-to-toe. Am I hiking up my shoulders? Am I tensing my arms and hands? Do my hips feel stiff? Do my feet relax after impact or remain flexed? Am I smiling, or am I grimacing? We’re often not aware of how we tense up on downhills, so practicing awareness of your body and its tendencies will help you relax.
5. Run With Someone Faster than You
One of the ways I improved my downhill running the most was by following an experienced Italian runner descend quickly in the 2017 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Premana, Italy. I made it my goal to stay with this runner for the entire downhill to the finish. Staying with him pushed me to speeds I wouldn’t have otherwise known I could run. After the race, I found myself able to run downhill more easily at faster speeds on my own. Find a runner who can help push you on downhills and train with them once per week. Your downhill pace will quickly improve!