How to fly down hills…(or at least become more confident & capable with your downhill trail running skills)

Genevie: Personally, my favorite way of making it down a particularly steep and gnarly trail section is to get on my butt and either slide down or crab walk. All the while, my husband Steve gently reminds me that there is a better way, but I can be pretty darn stubborn and risk adverse so my preferred technique hasn’t improved much over the years. 

I am, however, really curious and fascinated by people who run more freely and with a sense of flow when zooming downhill in challenging conditions. 

Since Steve has a long history of being downright giddy and relatively unscathed after coming home from his trail runs, in addition to a longstanding interest in technique and process,  I thought it would be helpful to get his insights and ideas and share them here in case they resonated with others, too. 

What do you love about running up and down the trails?

Steve: I think that running in the woods up and down fun trails feels like being a kid again. It’s play – feeling a bit like a wild animal out in nature versus an urban human at a desk.

I have a feeling of health and vitality being able to do things like that – a feeling of my body being capable and strong. And further, speed and a sense of abandon is a lot of fun. 

Is there any sense of fear running down a challenging trail? 

Steve: There’s always the equation of your speed versus the slope and the technicality of the slope.

The more strong and confident you get with skills, the more strength and experience you gain, the faster you can go. Basically, your speed is dictated by strength, leg speed and experience. You cannot outrun any of those parameters without falling at some point, so just slow down as needed. Some rare folks are fearless and somehow stay on their feet going at breakneck speed, but most of us won’t entertain breaking our necks!

Okay, what are some concrete things I or other downhill running hesitant people could do to improve downhill running confidence and skills?

Steve: Take shorter, quicker steps to avoid losing control on steep or technical descents. And don’t “catch a toe” and go flying! Remember to lift your feet enough.

Run with your elbows flared out and your arms actively finding balance – kind of like mimicking a tightrope walker.

Maintain an upright posture, staying over your feet, versus leaning back. Slouching or hunching over reduces the ability to see further down the trail and maintaining effective foot placements.

If you feel like you need to lean back then just shorten your stride instead.

Trail running, whether it is a gradual downhill with rocks and roots or a steeper slope, calls for maintaining your center of gravity over your foot. You want a perpendicular angle of approach to whatever surface you’re landing on.

Try to be relaxed, not rigid. Build up to getting a sense of feeling light and fluid. Good trail runners look and tend to feel they are “like water” flowing down the hill. Continuously scanning near and far down the trail allows the mind to smoothly calculate the next foot plant with confidence and security.

More people are prone to twisting their ankle laterally so one technique is to flare your toes in a just slightly duck foot orientation on rocky downhills. 

You’ve got to keep the spring in your leg with a bend in your knee as you plant your foot with each stride. People get hurt if they have straightened or locked their knee when they land.

Landing mid- or forefoot provides more proprioception and adaptability to the surface. Landing toward your heel, reduces the sense of control, adaptability and responsiveness to the surface.

With every foot strike or stride, think about finding a perpendicular approach to the surface. Even a slick surface is safe if the landing and takeoff is perpendicular.

With good focus and the anticipation that comes from experience, you are trying to find something stable to land on that can also provide a propulsive platform, i.e. a safe landing and safe take off.

A steep and unstable trail requires that we have more strength and stability to find the balance necessary for safe forward progress. Work on strength and stability from the feet up and you will descend faster.

So if people are slowing down going downhill because they feel unstable or are approaching a sense of being out of control, what are the keys to improving control or sense of it?

Steve: In order to prepare yourself for faster downhill running you need to:

Prepare your body with core strength and stability activities.  

Strength is the limiting factor on moving down the hill with control. If your glutes, quads, abs, and stabilizers through the hips are all firing and strong, you can maintain stability and therefore control while going faster. 

The whole kinetic chain from your feet up to your mid section is crucial to maintaining stability and control. With control comes confidence and confidence improves as your control increases. 

Prepare your mind – 

Run trails in successively challenging stages. Start easy. Just like you don’t start with a 100 m ski jump, but instead might start with a 5 m ski jump. Build skill by running smooth downhills and then progressing to rocky, rooty versions.  

Trail running improves your trail running. Gradually add difficulty and over time your anticipation, strength and skill will improve. Running with friends that model great technique is also helpful.

Anything else?

Steve: Can I go on a run now?! 

Want to see a downhill running pro in action? Check out this great, quick downhill running video from pro Sage Canaday

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Hi, I'm Coach Steve Roguski

Owner of the store with my wife, Genevie. I have enjoyed many years of running, racing, race directing, running club volunteering, reading about running and leading runs and clinics through the store. Happy trails!