Everyone loves running downhill right? The wind flying through your hair, the ground rushing beneath your feet and the rocks getting closer and closer to your face when you fall. Teeth are overrated anyway.
Running downhill can be scary, but it is a technical skill that you can improve on. This will happen not just from running down lots of hills, but by purposely working on more technical trails, pushing a little bit out of your comfort zone each time and challenging yourself to go just a wee bit faster.
It’s not about “switching your brain off” and hurtling down – far from it. You need your brain to be working for years and years, building up a subconscious understanding of the terrain, how your feet, ankles and legs react and processing a dozen other things your conscious mind hasn’t even noticed.
Fast descenders may look devoid of fear and reckless, some may even believe that they’re just a bit “crazy” but they’re working at a level that many couldn’t even comprehend. They may have been fearless as a child to begin with but as the years of practice have built up, they have no need to fear because of their extremely high levels of competency. They’re awesome descenders.
Downhill running is the biggest technical skill in running and, as such, is the only aspect you would really apply the 10,000 hours of purposeful practice theory to.
Anytime you are running downhill it is an opportunity to improve. Natalie White is a former British Fell Running Champion and she says: “when your mind wants to lean back, away from the descent, you need to lean into to it. Work with gravity and it can be pretty helpful on the way down.”
Any technical sections, be it roots, rock or reggae, should be thought about and used to improve your skills. “The brain starts to chunk together what it sees and the necessary actions required to deal with what is ahead,” adds White. “And then each year you get more and more effective at running downhill.”
Not all everyone can starting out as a 9-year-old fell runner as White did, but it’s never too late to start and you can start amassing that experience right now and adding to it year on year.
However, White also explains: “people think it is all about going as fast as possible, which is fine when you just run up and down one hill, but for something like the Tor de Geants [a 338km mountain race White completed in 2016] you need to think about efficiency too. It might be about going down a bit slower, saving your legs for the descents in 3 days time.”
Downhill greatly increases the impact onto the muscles and joints – so strengthening your body, especially the leg and supporting muscles is very important.
Exercises such as squats, weighted lunges and box jumps are good to add into your weekly schedule and White also advises trying some downhill reps – although cautiously if you are completely new to the descents.
“During the season, due to the increased damage done to the legs, we used to do 8-10 downhill efforts. Working uphill at about 75-80% we would run up and then turn around and do a 30-60 second hard effort downhill,” she explains. “It was never on super steep or technical terrain, but purely to prepare the muscles for racing hard downhill, same as uphill sprints.”
RELATED: Downhill training sessions
With downhill efforts you also must prioritise recovery and refuel effectively afterwards to start rebuilding any damaged muscles – treat the session as you would a hard hill or track effort.
A common phrase is “races are won on the uphill but lost on the downhill” so as long as you are a competent downhill runner then it doesn’t need too much focus. Just think about the balance in time of how long you spend going uphill and downhill in races and structure your training accordingly.
Natalie White is a mountain runner, remote ultra-marathon coach and award winning photographer.