I recently had the opportunity to enjoy a nice training run with a very accomplished ultra runner. Said person is a very successful runner, and fast to boot, having completed a 3:07 marathon in addition to many 100+ km races. Clearly they have much more experience running than I do!
While we were jogging along, however, she told me that she had been passed on a downhill section by a much slower runner, and asked me what were good ways to become a faster downhill runner.
Now, I’m not sure why she asked me, or thought my ideas would be useful, but I actually happen to consider myself a fairly fast “downhill” runner. This is based on a couple things, including my Six Foot Track experience.
As I started listing of ways I thought she might improve her downhill running, I realized I had a pretty extensive list of ideas, and the Better Half suggested I write about it. So here we are. Without further ado, here are my tips for becoming a faster downhill runner.
1. Stay focused:
When I’m running fast downhill, my eyes inevitably start watering, to the point that I can’t see clearly. Why is that? Obviously because I am not blinking – I am staring so intently at the trail, with full concentration. Don’t relax on the downhills – turn your brain up to 10, and concentrate hard. You’ll be evaluating the upcoming trail for foot placements, and this is a challenging job on rough terrain. That mental acuity can be hard to muster after a long run, and so you have to slow it down and be careful not to fall. (And remember to blink!)
Bob adds: “In flight school we were trained to constantly move our eyes, because if you stare in one direction you get that blurring phasing out period and sometimes have blank time lapses… Same sort of thing as active blinking.”
2. Fast feet
I’m short, and so running downhill naturally must come easier to me – a shorter stride length means a faster cadence, and a faster cadence means a multitude of things (that I’ll touch on later.) This is especially important on rough terrain. Most importantly don’t “lunge” for the next good foot placement, don’t overextend to skip rough sections, and don’t forget what you already know: fast cadence means less bouncing, less stress and faster running. Which leads me to:
3. Step lightly
For a given foot placement, don’t assume it’s going to hold. Assume it’s going to slip. Especially on wet rocks or roots, or even dusty / gravel conditions, you are going to slip eventually. Run as if every dubious step is on sheer ice. So don’t put all your weight on a given foot placement. If you’re stepping quickly you are also stepping lightly. As the barefooters say: concentrating on picking that foot up off the ground as quickly as you can. That way when you do slip your other foot is right there to catch you. Of course, you need to put some force into the ground, so how do you know where to step?
4. Learn what sticks
This is where experience comes into play, and practice will be important: Figuring out which surfaces are gonna hold, and which are going to slip. Having 15 years of experience rock climbing, my knowledge of slippery rock is pretty solid. My buddy, a downhill mountain bike racer on Vancouver’s North Shore, is a master of riding slippery roots. Me, I just fear them. But experience hiking / climbing / scrambling has gone a long way toward knowing what foot placements to trust, and which to skim over like ice.
I’ve observed that on rocks that people usually tend to step on the “flat” parts. Don’t be afraid to step on the very tops of rocks. Often the “peak” is going to grip the best, rather than the smooth flat faces. Look for rougher sections, not smooth ones. Hard to describe without being in front of you, but you’d be surprised what kind of subtle mistakes in foot placements most people make. Try things out and see. Or start rock climbing.
5. Choose your line
Mountain biking gives us our next tip: first, we want to choose a line that is as fast and straight as possible. I’ve started doing this in all my trail running, but in downhill it’s even more important. Run as straight as possible! Look for the next corner, or the corner after, and try to run straight through them. Don’t dodge rocks or roots by lunging left and right, don’t round corners wide to skip uneven terrain – you are not a race car or a mountain bike with limited grip, so to shorten your run, hug the corners. That being said, taking sharp corners wide, on downhills especially, will help keep your speed up by reducing the direction changes that your heavy body has to make. Turning is very tiring.
It may seem counter-intuitive to not avoid obstacles, but if you run straight through, you actually have to do less work. With your exhausted brain and reduced mental acuity, you don’t want to be bouncing all over looking for the flattest landings and smoothest dirty – that is when ankles are going to roll. Plus you’re wasting energy running side to side. Obviously this is going to depend hugely on the terrain, slope and situation, but in general try to skip lightly over rough sections if it means keeping a nice, straight line.
Tim (the downhill rider) adds: “Make a mental map of where you’re going to go, and in your case, a general plan of where your feet are going land. On a bike, I imagine where my tires are going to go and what they’re going to be in contact with, where will they slide to, when I should weight and unweight the bike. I suppose you can’t really do much with weight in running, but the principle is similar.”
6. Eyes on the prize
Another mountain biking tip: Look where you want to go, not at what you’re trying to avoid. If you’re a skier, you’ve seen this a million times: a beginner with a wide open mountain ahead of him somehow, miraculously, hits the one other person on the hill. This is because your body follows your eyes. Look where you want to go. That means staring straight head at those corners, looking at the foot placements, etc. Not staring at the roots or the rocks or the huge puddle. A subtle change, but a huge difference.
You need to do this, however, using your peripheral vision. Don’t focus on details, but try to keep your head up so you can take it all in.
Tim adds: “Eyes looking forward is a good one. Keeping the head up and looking ahead. I’ve seen some intermediate riders tape portions of their goggles off to force them to look up.”
This may be less critical at our slower speeds, but still very important.
7. Run fast!
A friend (yikes, another biker) told me once: “I don’t win races because I’m faster than everyone else. I win races because I pedal as hard as I can on the downhills, every time, while everyone else is resting.” Same goes here. My philosophy towards hills is this: “The top of the hill is not the top. It’s 1 minute after the top.” This allows me to maintain that intensity where everyone else hits the top and starts to rest. On any appreciable downhill your aerobic system is going to recover, no matter how fast you run. So run your ass off!
8. Practice makes perfect
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit.”
Get out there, put on some gloves and some long sleeve shirts, and elbow pads if you’re a real clutz, maybe a mouth guard if you’re hopeless, and race some downhill terrain. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone training downhill, but I’ve certainly heard a thousand runners bitch about how hard it is on the legs. Show me the runner who actually runs downhill on his hill repeats or trail runs, and I bet he’s faster. That being said, I’m looking at this from a technique point of view, not fitness, but the truth remains: practice makes perfect.
9. Good shoes
I’m guilty of this one, since I run in practically unlaced Asics road shoes, but in climbing, a tight shoe is a precise shoe. Get a nice, tight, low profile shoe with a grippy sole, and that’s going to help. Run in a street shoe like I do, and you’re going to be at a disadvantage. (Yes, I’m going shopping this weekend for a proper trail shoe.)
10. No guts, no glory
There’s a reason snowboarders and downhill mountain bikers are all young punks: they have no fear. The older we get, the more afraid we get. If you wanna be fast, you gotta be fearless. Evaluate yourself on the downhills. Are you scared? Are you playing it safe? You are going to have to make that decision to put it all on the line if you want to become a faster downhill runner.
These are pretty self explanatory, but it’s probably worth mentioning:
A. Hands up
This probably goes without saying, but get your hands ready for a fall. Put away the gels and the 310xt, get your straps done up tight, and hold your arms higher and wider. When you do fall, you’ll be glad you didn’t have your hands in your pockets.
B. Remember to blink!