Often when us runners think about hill running, whether in training or on race day we think about the demands of running uphill. However, for many of us, it’s the downhill running sections of a running route that provide the bigger challenge.
Before we start talking about how to run downhill, it’s important to mention that every hill is of course different, and you’ll clearly have to approach a steep downhill section of technical trail very differently to how you’d run a long downhill section of a road marathon.
That said, in the video above, my good friend Luke Tyburski and I discuss a number of tips for downhill running technique that will help you confidently conquer any downhill section of a race or training run.
Top Five Downhill Running Technique Tips
Try to remember these simple running cues next time you find yourself running downhill:
- Run downhill leaning slightly forwards
- Bend your knees slightly as you run downhill
- Run with short-quick strides
- Run using your arms for balance
- Stay relaxed and confident
Let’s explore each of these tips in more detail, giving some practical cues you can use to practice your downhill running form…
1. Run downhill leaning slightly forwards
As you feel yourself beginning to run downhill, try to create a whole-body forward lean (rather than bending forwards from the waist). Many runners make the mistake of leaning backwards as they run downhill.
Leaning backwards often occurs as a subconscious strategy to slow yourself down, and will force you to strike the ground too far ahead of your body, landing heavily on your heels in an attempt to apply the brakes.
If you instead focus on gently leaning forwards, you will be better able to land your foot gently under a flexing knee, rather than over-striding. You will notice that with a forward lean you’ll be working with the momentum, rather than fighting it. This will feel rather like “free-wheeling” down hill.
Leaning forward while running downhill will:
- Help you save your quads from excessive eccentric loading
- Place less pressure on your knees
- Allow you to increase your pace without expending more effort (working with gravity)
You will learn with practice, how much of a forward lean you can employ on a given type of downhill gradient before you start to pick up too much speed and lose control. Leaning backwards is a bad trait, but clearly there can be too much of a good thing in leaning forwards!
I like the analogy in saying that your downhill running posture (leaning forwards versus backwards) is rather like the accelerator and brake pedals in a car; lean forward to go faster, lean back to slow down.
It’s one more tool you can use to stay in control as you run down hill.
2. Bend your knees slightly
Runners who tackle downhill sections with a backward leaning, over-striding gait pattern, tend strike the ground heavily on their heels with an extended knee. Put differently, they strike the ground ahead of themselves with a straight leg.
Not only is this type of downhill running for inefficient, but it places a great deal more stress and strain on the knees and lower back.
Think about trying to land your foot under a slightly bent knee. One of the best ways you can achieve this while running downhill specifically is to try and drop your centre of mass ever so slightly… only by an inch or so.
Naturally, trying to carry yourself a little lower will encourage you to bend your knees a little more.
3. Run with short-quick strides
As with running on flat ground, increasing your running cadence will help to stop you from making long over-striding strides.
If you focus on having “quick feet” with a very short contact time, you’ll achieve the foot strike under a flexing knee that I mentioned in the point above.
Aim to make short strides to the extent that it feels like you’re “running over the ground” rather than “crashing into the ground” with each stride.
Unlike running on predictable flat surfaces, it is hard to quote an ideal cadence for running downhill. After all, each and every downhill section is different.
Instead you should be looking to feel your running cadence increase gently as you run down hill, rather than feel it become slow with heavy plodding foot strikes.
4. Run using your arms for balance
Arm action for downhill running can vary a little from running on flat surfaces, as control and balance becomes more of a factor; especially as you grow more confident in running downhill and allow yourself increase the pace!
Particularly if you’re running downhill on a section of technical trail where the surface underfoot may be ever changing and un-predictable, you will want to allow your arm carriage to change a little to help you with balance.
A simple way of using your arms to create control and balance is to let them abduct at the shoulder a little more than usual, effectively creating a wider carriage of the arms.
Imagine a tight-rope walker needing to hold his/her balancing pole horizontally to create stability. This is effectively the same strategy!
5. Stay relaxed and confident
Running downhill is all about confidence.
Without the tools to maintain control, like balancing using your arms, and maintaining short quick strides to keep your stride length under control, nobody can be blamed for being wary of letting gravity take over as you run downhill.
However, with time and practice you can learn to enjoy running downhill. As you become happier with it, your confidence will increase. This in turn will allow you to relax.
The feedback loop closes when we realise that leaning backwards, over-striding and tensing-up with the arms often comes as a response to apprehension and fear of running downhill.
So, with some gentle practice, and taking the time to train for running downhill, you’ll find that your form naturally improves as you become more at home with the situation!
How to Train for Running Downhill
If you want to get good at running downhill, you’re going to need to practice. Efficient downhill running form is a skill to be mastered just like anything else.
In addition, there are various physical demands that your body will experience differently when descending, in comparison to when ascending a hill.
If you know you have a hilly race coming up, here are a few approaches you can take to your training, so that your body is ready to tackle the downhill sections with confidence, speed and efficiency.
Prepare your body for downhill running
All of the training plans I write include strength and conditioning workouts to compliment the running mileage, and help prevent running injuries.
If you know you’re training for an event with significant segments of downhill running, be sure to place a little more emphasis on strengthening your quads, calves and lower back muscles in particular.
These are the specific muscle groups that will find themselves doing a lot more eccentric work (lengthening under load) as you run downhill, effectively acting as your body’s shock absorbers.
Including different squat and lunge variations and plyometric drills into your workouts will be an excellent way to train your body to develop the resilience required for running downhill without trashing your quads or hurting your knees!
You can even combine plyometrics with a single leg squat variation, like this:
Run downhill in training
As simple as it sounds, an important part of training your body for better downhill running efficiency, is to run downhill more frequently.
Throughout the weeks and months leading up to a hilly marathon, for example, your marathon training plan should have you including running mileage comprising of uphill and downhill sections, incrementally increasing as the training plan progresses.
The amount of elevation gain and loss on a given long marathon training run should be dictated by the elevation profile of the event you’re training for.
So, do your research into the details of the race route, and try to replicate it in training!
In addition to making sure your long runs have you running up and down plenty of hills, you can also incorporate sessions like “Kenyan hills” into your running workouts.
Here’s a great video from Keith Anderson, describing Kenyan hills workouts in detail
This type of tempo workout provides high bang for your buck, as it not only gets you working hard from a physiological point of view, but also builds strength and forces you to practice running at a tempo pace downhill.
Kenyan hills can either be run on a straight uphill-downhill out and back section, or on a hilly loop, which is my preference… I get bored endlessly running up and down!
What’s Your Favourite Tip for Running Downhill?
I’d love to hear your experience with running downhill. Is it something you consciously practice?
If so, what are the cues you give yourself?Last updated on March 2nd, 2021.