If you want to gallop downhill with the mastery of a mountain goat you’re going to need to practice. Efficient downhill running is a skill to be mastered just like anything else.
Employ these 7 tips to tackle hills with confidence, speed and efficiency.
1. Prepare your body for downhill running. Downhill running requires strengthen in your quads, calves, lower back and core muscles. Working on these areas with a well-designed strength and conditioning program will help. As an example, aim to include different squat and lunge variations, plyometric drills, calf raises and single leg squats into your workouts.
2. Lean forward from the hips, not the shoulders. It's temping to lean backwards as you run downhill in order to slow down and keep control of your legs. In an attempt to apply the brakes, the foot strikes the ground too far ahead of your body.
If you focus on gently leaning forwards, you will be better able to land your foot gently under a flexed knee which will:
Help save your quads from excessive loading
Place less pressure on your knees
Allow you to increase your pace without expending more effort, let gravity do the work.
But leaning forwards is not instinctive, it takes practice.
3. Look ahead of you, not at your feet. When you keep your gaze down towards your shoes, it means your neck is in forward flexion which “turns off” the hip extensor muscles (glutes, hamstrings, back muscles)—the ones which help keep you upright and neutral. This increases your risk of falling forward. Whilst I know its temping to want to see what is immediately in front of your next step but try to keep your eyes up.
4. Keep your knees soft. Runners who tackle downhill sections with a backward leaning, will hit the ground with an over-striding gait hitting the ground on their heels and with an extended knee. This places a great deal of stress and strain on the knees and lower back. Think about trying to land your foot under a slightly bent knee. One of the best ways you can achieve this is to try and drop your centre of mass ever so slightly. Carrying yourself a little lower will encourage you to bend your knees a little more.
5. Use your arms for balance. When running downhill, we don’t need the forward-back arm drive like we do when running flats and up hills. Although it can look ungainly, when travelling downhill flailing your arms out to the side is totally acceptable. Imagine a tight-rope walker needing to hold his/her balancing pole horizontally to create stability. That’s the arm position we are looking for.
6. Keep contact time as minimal as possible. Run as if you are ‘dancing’ over the ground, just lightly touching it with my mid-/forefoot and springing right off again. Increasing you running cadence will stop you from over striding. (Incidentally, this works for flat running as well as downhill.)
7. Being confident and relaxed are key. Running downhill is all about confidence. Without the tools to maintain control, like balancing using your arms, and maintaining short quick strides to keep your stride length under control, nobody can be blamed for being wary of letting gravity take over as you run downhill.
However, with time and practice you can learn to enjoy running downhill. As you become happier with it, your confidence will increase. This in turn will allow you to relax. The feedback loop closes when we realise that leaning backwards, over-striding and tensing-up with the arms often comes as a response to apprehension and fear of running downhill.
So, with some gentle practice, and taking the time to train for running downhill, you’ll find that your form naturally improves as you become more at home with the situation!