Downhill Running Technique
You work really hard to get up a hill, and then it's easy, right? I used to be shocked hearing that not everyone loves downhill running as much as I do. Knee pain, unstable ankles, or blown-out quads are common refrains I hear and after years of thinking through how I feel while bombing down as fast as possible and working with folks on technique, three simple tips can really help: engage your core, look down the trail, and practice a quick turnover.
Engage Your Core:
Ah the ole core card. We hear it all the time, but what exactly does “core” mean and why is it important? Simply put, our core is comprised of several layers of muscles that connect the upper and lower body. From the most superficial to the deepest, there is rectus abdominus (the six-pack muscle), external obliques, internal obliques, and transverse abdominus (or TA). The TA also connects to the pelvic floor muscles that give support from the bottom of our pelvis so I count them in our discussion as well. The outer part of the hip houses the following hip stabilizers: gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, piriformis, and several deep lateral rotators.
Why do these muscles matter? Without going into a full anatomy lesson, those deep muscles work together to provide much needed stability while we continually impact the ground and propel forward. If we those muscles are either underdeveloped or on vacation (i.e. not firing at all), our larger muscles provide the stability (or try to), which can lead to muscle tension at best, alignment issues or injuries at worst. Furthermore, proper core muscle tension ensures good posture to keep our hips and center of gravity forward on the hill. Especially as surfaces change between stable and unstable (think snow, rocks, roots, mud, etc.), a stable core enables us to move nimbly as if we’re on a solid road.
Look Down the Trail:
If I had to direct everything that happens in one second of running, well, I wouldn’t run. But instead, our brain instantly reads what our eyes see in front of us and responds. Proprioceptors in our connective, fascial, and muscle tissue send direct impulses to our brain sharing where we are in space and before we know it, we’re many steps down the trail. Looking as far down the trail as possible gives our brain and body ample time to respond and puts us in the best position to use gravity to our advantage.
Take a minute to stand up and look four to six feet in front of you. Next, bring your gaze back to your feet and feel what happens to your hips. Likely they are now behind your center of gravity in a mini squat. That position does several things: shortens/contracts your quad muscles before even moving; requires more strength in the hips to stabilize joints to keep proper alignment to prevent injuries; and requires more strength in the bigger muscle groups (quads, hamstrings, and glutes) to move down the trail, much like pushing a big gear on a bike is harder than spinning in the granny gear. That increased tension means your legs work more than necessary which over time leads to less efficiency, more tension, and potentially more injury (of the overuse variety). If you keep your eyes down the trail however and engage your newfound core, your hips stay right at your center of gravity where it’s easier for them to stabilize, absorb force, and propel you forward so that downhill running really is “free speed.”
A high turnover of 180 steps/minute (3/sec) reinforces the other two tips to make running downhill more fun and less ouchie. A slower cadence means that you’re landing with your foot out in front of your hips, sending all the landing force of the downhill up through your body; puts undue pressure on your joints; and requires more from your muscles to overcome. Additionally, if you happen to land on a root or rock while your hips and body make their long journey to the next footfall, you’re requiring a lot of time for your muscles to stabilize. If you take quick steps and land right under your hips, though, even if you hit something you weren’t expecting, you have already transitioned to the other foot and your proprioceptors have reacted to keep you upright and stable. Finally, it’s easier to engage your core and keep your hips forward if you are keeping a quick turnover.
By adding core engagement, looking down the trail, and a quick turnover to your technique repertoire, you’ll be well on your way to long lasting downhill running bliss.
How Can You Improve?
In addition to keeping the cues in mind during your runs, practice these drills and exercises a few times a week.
Lateral/forward hops: this helps with a quick tempo and core stability. The goal with this is to stay tall the whole time and keep your feet glued together. This is not a squat exercise. Start with 20seconds, and work up to 45sec. You can also progress this by hopping with one foot.
TV Watchers: this will strengthen your core. Make sure you’re engaging the deeper muscles by pulling your belly button toward your spine. If you're unfamiliar with engaging your core, this is a good preliminary exercise.
Grassy hill repeats: find a grassy hill (golf courses or parks work well) and run down practicing quick feet. Using a hill without additional obstacles to start will give you confidence to look farther in front of you; then you can tackle more technical trails. Start with short repeats (30-60 seconds), as your brain works hard to form new neuromuscular pathways and learn new movement patterns.
Happy downhill running!* I'm planning on doing a technique clinic this winter. If you're interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org or sign up for our newsletter.
*Disclaimer/secret: these technique tips are helpful for all terrain, but since we're talking downhill, I'm focusing on that aspect.
Addendum: We created an 8-week training plan that you can add to your current schedule that helps activate the right core and hip muscles, strengthens, and gives you practice drills and workouts to build your confidence. Check it out.