DOWNHILL TRAINING TIPS FOR TRAIL RUNNERS
Descending the International Snowdon Mountain Race, arriving at the summit in 5th position and finishing in 2nd place overall
Your first foray into the world of trail running can be an exhilarating yet trepidacous experience. Long forgotten by many, the first arrival at the top of a descent down a trail will likely have been one of two experiences.
A passing dog walker will have spotted the human equivalent of a World War 2 plane being shot out of the sky, emanating similar noises as you career uncontrollably to the bottom with arms flailing and quads screaming, hoping that one day you’ll eventually come to a stop.
You decide to turnaround backwards, take baby steps and shimmy your way down and resume running at the bottom.
Either way, you knew experience or repetition was the only way for improvement, but there are other ways we can help to make our descents down technical trails a little more of a comfortable ride.
TIP ONE: PLAY GUITAR HERO
Read the road ahead – keep the focus 3 -4 meters in front
Or your own mental version of the game, in this case.
As much as we’d like to be taking in the horizons as we descend downhill, we should in fact be looking 3 – 4 meters ahead and processing the ground that’s coming towards us.
As in the game, you’d have a combination of buttons you’d have to press coming towards you in different patterns and differing speeds. It’s up to your brain to register this information ahead of time, relay the information to the body and interpret the right movements to press the buttons.
It’s the same with running downhill, you have a series of grooves, steps, rocks, drops and gnarly terrains quickly arriving at your feet. Your brain will register them, but you have to keep the focus and give your brain enough time to process what’s coming, allowing the feet to register what they need to do.
TIP TWO: TACKLE IT HEAD FIRST
International Mountain Runner Holly Page descending back down from the Switchback Valley Trail Race
It’s natural to want to lead with your feet whilst running downhill, but doing so (especially on wet rock) can lead to some nasty gravel rash on your backside.
We have to work with gravity, and this means putting ourselves slightly ahead of our own centre of it to counter the loose terrain from moving from under us.
However, if you do begin to slip, try to go with it rather than fight against. Often, after a brief moment your foot will become steady once the shoe’s grip takes hold of the ground beneath.
Pushing your chest out, shoulder blades back and trying to keep loose rather than rigid will help keep your balance as you race downhill.
TIP THREE: SHORT STEPS OR LONG STRIDES? IT DEPENDS!
Descending from the Gorple Rocks Trail Race can be technical at first, before opening up into more runnable terrain
You may have been given either advice in the past, but in truth, it completely depends on the speed you’re travelling at, your running style and the type of terrain you’re running down.
Descending downhill in a short vs long distance race will invoke different speeds. Some elite runners will race faster down hill in longer races, but for the average runner this method can leave legs brutalised for the latter end of the race.
Smaller, quicker steps in this instance will help to avoid this from occurring by not overloading the muscles from the impact that comes from longer strides. A short up and down trail race, like Gorple Rocks or Switchback Valley Trail Race will require quick propulsion back down the hill to the finish. Cadence maybe down in comparison, but the technique required will not be the same.
TIP FOUR: PUT YOUR ARMS IN THE AIR LIKE YOU JUST DON’T CARE
Leighton Hall inaugural winner Anna Bracegirdle using her arms to control her balance as she crosses the finish line
Whilst running down hill, it is the intention that we would keep our technique fluid, using our arms to propel us forward. When it comes to technical running on trails, your arms must be used to help balance yourself.
The ground is unstable, no two strides are the same length and the ground WANTS to meet the acquaintance of your face. You need to use your arms to counteract the bounds, leaps and strides that the bottom half of your body is making by counteracting it with your arms.
When the ground becomes a little less technical, you can move back into a more natural running motion. As you travail the more gnarly of grounds, go back into tightrope walker mode and keep the arms elevated to ensure the balance remains corrected.
TIP FIVE: PREPARATION IS KEY
Eccentric quadricep exercises can help brace the impact from downhill descending
We can help ourselves before we’ve even stepped out the door by strengthening the muscles that do the majority of the work whilst descending downhill.
The main muscles used are your quads, glutes and core muscles.
Whether you have a strength and conditioning routine already, or you’re looking to start one, adding movements and exercises that incorporate building and strengthening these specific muscles will help make descending much more smoother and comfortable. It can also help to avoid sustaining injury and niggles commonly found with weak instabilities in these muscles when descending downhill.
There are things to look out for and be wary of when approaching these muscle strengthening exercises from the perspective of downhill running.
When it comes to developing the ideal core muscles, we instantly think of training the six pack with crunches and sit ups. When it comes to downhill running, we want to train our bodies to remain strong with little movement. We’re not intending to bend and twist while running, instead, we want to train our bodies to remain upright and strong.
Exercises such as planks and side planks will help keep the body stable during down hill descending.
When performing glute specific exercises, it’s necessary to look at the chain as a whole. Exercises that target a similar range of motion found whilst running to build the correct muscle – mind connection will help the leg remain stable whilst running downhill, whilst keeping the knees from falling inwards.
Exercises such as single leg step ups, Bulgarian lunges and single leg glute bridges will help target and activate the correct muscles in a beneficial pattern for downhill trail running.
As we run downhill, our quads are contracting eccentrically, which means they are contracting with the load placed on the muscle at full length, rather than at their shortest range. As such, exercises that put emphasis on the contraction at full length, such as slow single leg step downs off a step, or using a resistance band to slowly lower the leg back down to a normal sitting position (as demonstrated in the image above) will help strengthen the quad against the impact that comes with downhill running.