Friday, April 3, 2009

Downhill Running


To the uninitiated, running downhill seems easy, fun and certainly preferable to running uphill.

Au contraire. I would take a net uphill race any day of the week, and I actively seek races that involve little to no downhill running. Downhills strike fear into the deepest recesses of my soul. Sure, it's fun to pound a technical downhill or two on a short training run or race, but the pounding delivered to the quads over the course of, say, 50 miles and 8,000 feet of descent is enough to reduce some of the most hardened runners to a quivering mess.

Of course, there are plenty of great downhill runners out there, and I used to think I was among them, especially on more technical stuff. While I still believe I have good downhill form, I'm learning that I do not have good downhill endurance. Prolonged descents during races consistently leave me with trashed, crampy quads and sundry aches elsewhere on my frame.

I was humbled a couple of weeks back at the Salida Marathon by Ryan Burch and Tim Parr who put 10 and 20 minutes on me respectively over the course of 13 miles of steady descent. This after I had paced with them through the opening 10-12 miles of climbing. Since that experience I have pledged to work the downs, rather than jog the downs in training as has been my MO through much of the winter.

While I think uphill strength is, on balance, more important than downhill strength in long-distance mountain running, fried quads can quickly ruin a race and leave you in perpetual fear of the next drop. The following five points are what I am finding work for me:

1. Consistent downhill training makes you a stronger runner. Ambling downhill is not a form of downhill training, just a comfortable way of getting down a hill/mountain after a long climb.

2. Gravity is your friend. Keep the body relatively straight (as opposed to bent at the waist) with your center of gravity over your feet (slight lean).

3. Avoid breaking as much as humanly possible. Let gravity dictate your pace and attempt to reduce foot contact with the ground by working a higher cadence and shorter stride. Long strides with strong push-offs and heavy ground contact will kill your quads ... quickly.

4. Keep the knees slightly bent in a bid to reduce quad and overall body pounding. Allow your knees to act as shock absorbers. This has been my biggest and most effective change thus far, but it is far from natural and I have to keep reminding myself. I'm fortunate in that my knees are still pretty strong. For those with weaker knees, this is probably not the best advice.

5. Stay focused and pick your line three, four or five steps ahead. Don't be afraid of falling. Be one with the trail.

Whatever works best for you, one thing is for sure, you can't ignore downhill training if you want to run a hilly long-distance race to the best of your ability.


  1. I'll bet you're still way faster than me downhill.
    Downhill is my thing (when I'm not a cripple). I like using the cam-action of my hips to maximum affect.
    People ask me why I wear bicycle gloves - "Do you fall down a lot?" "Yes," is my answer.
    I now have a tiny splinter of bone in my left elbow and something wrong with the cartiledge in my left shoulder, but so far I'm not afraid of falling. One of these days, when I've accumulated more ailments, I'll be more concerned about falling.
    I have to admit, though, that so far my biggest safety device has been "luck".
    I dread the uphills and relish the downs. Steamboat marathon is my favorite, and one of only two paved races I do annually.
    Maybe when you get old and fat like me you'll appreciate the downhills more. I guess I'm over-the-hill, huh?

  2. It's amazing how much skill/technique their is to downhill running. On a trail run last year, my friend would constantly gap me on the downhills, uphill I had no problems, that's when I realized it's not as easy as it first seems.

  3. I enjoyed your post. I'm new to trail running, and when a famous ultramarathoner recently helped me pace my first 20-mile trail run (training for a 50K), I was surprised to find downhill much more difficult than the climb. Since then, I've run several trails on my own and discovered it really is possible to improve footing and body movement with practice. My first 50K comes Saturday, July 11, and I hope I remember your advice!

  4. Dori - sounds like you've been training and racing with some good help there. Glad you found the post useful. I think the most important thing in improving trail running form is consistency. The more you run trail, the more confident you'll feel in running them hard.

    Good luck this weekend!