For off-road runners running downhill is a skill that needs to be mastered. So how do you do it?
Disclaimer: The author is not a top end trail runner. As a latecomer to the sport, I have gone from piss-poor to average and maybe even half decent at downhill running. This has been through a lot of focus on how to improve descending and getting better at isn’t simply a case of doing it lots and lots of times.
That might help, to an extent, but it’s how you practice that becomes important. A little thing called ‘deliberate practice’.
Professor K.A. Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University is internationally recognised as a researcher in the psychological nature of expertise and human performance.
Ericsson is more widely known as the researcher behind the ‘10,000 hours theory’, the necessary number of hours needed to reach an expert status.
Yet that’s not really the key message from Ericsson’s research. To achieve expert status he says athletes need “deliberate efforts to improve one’s performance beyond its current level” and this “demands full concentration”.
The human brain will very quickly attempt to get to an acceptable level and then work as automatically as possible. Like driving, we work hard to get to an acceptable level, then we just drive. If just doing something over and over again made you an expert, every taxi driver would be racing Lewis Hamilton.
So what the hell has this got to do with running downhills?
Downhill running is one of the only aspects of running that really requires deliberative practice. It’s not good enough to keep running down and down and down and down. You need to deliberately try and get better.
A top fell runner once told me “you just need to switch your brain off”, yet I would argue you need to do the opposite. Most accomplished fell runners will have deliberately practised running downhill from an early age. Whether that’s in training, racing or aiming to avoid breaking their neck.
Running on fells is always different. There is rarely terrain that you can attack in an ‘automatic’ fashion, like you might on a road or a non-technical trail. You always need to be on your toes, metaphorically, thinking about that next step.
Running fast downhill on a road or the South Downs, as joyful as it may be, will only take you so far. You will very quickly get to an acceptable level and the brain will happily take over.
So what should you be doing?
Deliberate practice does not have to involve going as fast as you can down technical descents. You just need to make an effort to get better and work slightly outside of your comfort zone.
If you’re challenging your brain to deal with tougher situations then it will learn, adapt and be more effective in computing the trail ahead in future.
It doesn’t even have to be faster than usual, although that can be an aspect.
If there is a particularly technical trail I will often slow down and think more purposefully about each footfall. Where’s the best place for my right foot? Should I jump over that rock and mind that tree root? Slow it down, but really focus on what you are doing.
Then speed up again. Vary it. If your descent is long enough then mix it up on a run, but if you just have a small section of technical trail at your disposal then you can do repeats.
It’s not wise to do off-road downhill repeats too hard too often. The eccentric loading of the muscles can have a high physiological stress on the body. But done gently and irregularly it can help develop your downhill skills.
It’s also about efficiency. When you hit the brakes, your muscles are worked hard. Going side to side around obstacles means you push off and start again. It all adds up. Taking a straighter line may be scarier, but it means less braking and a shorter route. You might have to go slower, but it’s more efficient.
Practice makes perfect
Find a trail to practice on then run down it for the first time. Here are some questions to ask yourself while descending.
1) How often do I brake?
2) Can I take a more direct line and would that make it more efficient?
3) Am I leaning forward, is my centre of gravity low and do I look good?
4) Is that my heel, mid or forefoot hitting the ground?
5) How could I do this differently?
6) Can I improve on this one section of trail and could it replicate my next race?
There is a whole host of additional questions you can ask, but the important thing is to think about is improving. If you switch off the brain then how can you learn to get better?
Look at what the best in the world are doing. This short video shows Max King, Stian Angermund-Vik and Kilian Jornet descending a short hill during the Mont Blanc marathon and even here one can see differences in technique.
Outside your comfort zone
The Three Peaks Fell Race is a famously fast 23-mile event at the end of April in the Yorkshire Dales. Some of the best descenders in the UK – scratch that – the world, have raced at this event. This in itself is another level of ‘deliberate practice’ on my quest to master downhill running.
Don’t be afraid to practice, practice, practice and then take those skills into a race. Watch someone better than you flow downhill, try to follow them (without breaking your neck) and keep pushing out of that comfort zone.
Now go find a hill and run down it, not wildly, but deliberately.