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How to run faster downhill

Running fast, efficiently, and confidently downhill is something I hear a lot of runners saying they can’t do. It’s also something I feel well-qualified to comment on – not only have I transformed myself from a complete downhill novice (aka terrified, tip-toeing stumbler!) to actively looking forward to descending – in my non-running life I also teach Physics. And running downhill is really just about understanding the physics of your movement and then practising applying those principles. It is well-worth working on your downhill technique if you aspire to run faster on the fell or the trail – how many times have you been passed on a final descent by a wizened yet sprightly V70 who looks like they’re floating effortlessly down? You can do that too if you put the time and effort into practising it. Here are my tips for faster, more efficient, and more enjoyable downhill running.

Firstly, make it playful! Running off-road is the biggest single thing I do that makes my inner child happy. It’s so important to make time for play in our busy, sometimes stressful lives. When you’re running downhill, if you can treat it less like an important test that you have to pass, and more like a fun playground that you get to spend time in, you’ll relax, you’ll flow better, and you’ll move more confidently. Sometimes you need to slow down to achieve this (although I find speeding up can help too) and that’s ok – you can add speed back in later once you’re feeling more confident. If you find yourself whooping and shrieking like a child on a slide as you fly down the hill, that’s perfect!

Here comes the physics. You probably know about the concept of your centre of mass. It’s the central point in your body where everything balances – if I made you rigid and tried to balance you on top of a see-saw, the pivot would need to be under your centre of mass for you to balance. For most of us, our centre of mass is a little way below our belly button (because we're bottom-heavy, like Weebles). The next thing to understand about your centre of mass is that it controls how we stay upright. Imagine an arrow extending downwards from your centre of mass, vertically towards the floor. This represents your weight. If that arrow touches the ground outside of your ‘base’ (which means where your feet are), you will fall over. You can play around with this to understand what I mean. Stand up, place your feet together, and lean your torso to one side. Take note of how far you can lean before you have to either move your feet or fall over. Now repeat this exercise with your feet shoulder width apart. You should find that you can lean much further, and that’s because your weight arrow (coming vertically down from your belly button) is now hitting the ground inside your base.

I drew this myself – can you tell?

Now, let’s apply this to the idea of running downhill. Whatever angle your body is at, your weight arrow still acts vertically downwards. This means that if you lean backwards (which is tempting to do when you’re scared of the slope) your weight is going to act outside your base, and you’ll fall on your bum. You need to angle your whole body forward (from your feet, not just tilting your torso at the hips) so that wherever you are on the hill, your centre of mass (just below your belly button) remains over your feet. Here are two runners moving down the hill – one is about to fall on her bum, and the other is not!

Another piece of my astonishing artwork

I find that the amount I need to tilt forward is further than I think – it doesn’t feel altogether natural at first. So find a slope to play around on, and see how this works for you. If you’ve got a running buddy, get them to film you from the side while you descend so that you can understand how what you are actually doing relates to what you think you’re doing. If you suddenly get scared that you’re going too fast, you can use your upper body to brake – gently lean back a little, just not so far that your weight is behind your bum. To speed up again, gently tilt forward. Using these techniques, I haven’t slid down a slope on my bum (at least, not when I didn’t intend to!) since 2018. Yes, I do remember all my ignominious tumbles.

Now that you’ve got a good posture on the hill, let’s think about your arms. Keeping with the theme of your centre of mass, your arms can help you to keep your centre of mass over your feet. This is particularly relevant if you’re doing your downhill running off-road – rocks, mud, and tussocks can all conspire to throw you off balance. If your arms are engaged and active, you can use them to bring yourself back to centre – so wave them around, windmill them, generally abandon your dignity, and make like you’re dancing the YMCA as you hurtle down. More seriously, you can even play around and find out what happens when you deliberately put your arms in strange places. On a controlled descent, move your arms into different positions, and see how it can unbalance you. If they have the power to move you off-balance, you can use the same principle to regain balance when needed.

Moving onto another physics principle, we need some friction. A worry a lot of people have when running downhill is that their feet will slip. This is particularly true when the ground is steep, or when the surface is slick – for example lots of wet rock or slippy mud underfoot. What you need in this situation is plenty of friction – the force that acts when two surfaces slide past one another. You want plenty of friction because you don’t want your shoe to slide when it hits the ground – you want it to stay where you put it. The best way to maximise friction is to make sure that your foot lands parallel to the ground – with the maximum amount of the sole of your shoe touching the ground. This allows the tread on your shoe to do its job, and in passing also tends to stop you from heel-striking as you run – this is particularly annoying downhill as it acts as a brake, taking away your speed and sending a huge amount of force up your leg. I’m assuming here that you have a suitable pair of trail or fell shoes, and you’re not trying to run down steep, rocky slopes in your road shoes. If you are, pop down to the shoe shop – a good pair of trail shoes will change your downhill life. To some extent, you’ve also got to learn simply to trust your shoes. Try them out in all kinds of weather and terrain, and at a range of speeds. You’ll learn what they can and can’t do, and then in a race scenario your brain will be better equipped to judge just how fast you can push the pace without slipping. When the ground is very steep, shorten your stride and take lots of little, quick steps. As it becomes shallower, you can move into some longer, bounding strides and feel almost like you’re floating in the air.

We’ve talked about body position, arm movement and foot position. Now it’s time for our head and eyes. Something I see a lot is people anxiously looking at their feet, making sure that the next step is a safe one, and that they’re not going to trip or fall. Your brain is capable of so much more than this, and looking at your feet is pretty much a recipe for falling over! Try to bring your head up, so it’s balanced vertically over your shoulders. This will also bring your natural eyeline up. You should be aiming to look around half a dozen paces ahead on the trail. Although this seems scary at first, you’ll learn that your brain is capable of storing the next few steps for you, and it makes for much more fluid movement. Initially, I found it quite tiring to be constantly processing where my feet were going to land in three, four or five steps time – but persist with this one, as over time the process becomes subconscious, and you’ll be able to run fast downhill without consciously thinking about where your feet are going at all. One mental cue that I have found helpful for this is ‘straight is great’. What this means is that the fastest path down the hill is the one that goes in a straight line – rather than dodging and weaving all over the trail trying to find the smoothest or easiest line. Once I started practising running in a straight line, I found that many ‘obstacles’ became ‘aids’ instead. For example, sticking-up bits of rock that I would previously have tried to dodge around for fear of tripping, I now use as a firm place to plant my foot and spring off from.

How many more body parts can we bring in? Torso, feet, arms, head and eyes…now it’s the turn of glutes and ankles. These are two parts of your body that need to be strong to run well downhill – there’s a lot of force that must be absorbed and controlled by your foot and leg. Make time in your strength and conditioning programme for specific glute strength and ankle strength and mobility exercises, and do these alongside your downhill running practice. You may also find that your quads take a bit of a battering when running fast downhill – so look after them with a bit of gentle time on the foam roller.

There may seem a lot to think about here if you’re not used to using these techniques. I suggest trying them out one by one, rather than trying to think about six different things at once – the more you practise, the more each technique will become second nature, and then you can concentrate on something else. Happy downhilling!

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