Downhills for dummies

April 24, 2008

Since I’ll be posing as a trail runner for the next three months, I want to develop some good trail running form to go with my Brooks Cascadias and gaiters.

For me, the hardest part of trail running is going downhill. Somehow I manage to be slow, tentative, and out of control all at the same time. It’s like watching my son learn to walk.

To kick off my remedial course in gravity-assisted locomotion, I gave myself the assignment of rereading an online interview with Scott Jurek. Scott says, “Don’t lean back…. Quick short strides…. Lower your center of gravity by increasing knee bend and slightly flexing the hips…. Let your body ‘fall’ without excessive braking.”

Some of this same biomechanical territory is also covered in a short video by Scott Mason and Karl Meltzer, the so-called Wasatch Speed Goats.

OK, readers, it’s your turn. What’s the best trail running tip or drill you’ve ever encountered?

I miss the pavement!
(Me stumbling down the trail at Western States last year. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.)


  1. Greg – glad to see you are back on the race horse. Be careful; you're going to like the trail stuff so much you might not return to the pavement!My best advice for trail running; look where you want to go (ie, don't look at the obstacles but rather at the path through the obstacles).

  2. Greg,I learned this gem in middle-school cross country practice. When running downhill, move your hands in small, inward circles. You can regulate your speed by changing the size of the circle (bigger = slower).NGS

  3. Greg,There's a couple of posts that may help you facing hills: an article titled 'Introducing hills into your training' and a video from Scott Jurek, 'Teaching efficiency'. I'm not posting the links but you can easily find them at http://trailrunningsoul.comCheers,Ed

  4. I've been thinking a lot about downhill running lately, because I have some hilly races coming up and I'm not very good at the downhill. I've always struggled with technical downhill in various sports. I raced mountain bikes as a teenager and was pretty good at uphill and flats, but always lost a lot of time on the downhill. Trail running has been the same story for me, but I've had a lot of improvement lately with what seemed like a revelation to me. I've always been told to look ahead and pick my line on technical downhill and that's part of the trick, but the second part that just occurred to me recently is to not think much about what your feet are doing right now. You just have to trust your training a bit and let your brain and feet just handle it automatically without dedicating any conscious thought to it. This is hard for me to do. I really have to focus, but when I get it, it's kind of a magical feeling. I'm just scanning the trail 3-4 seconds ahead as my feet just sort of float over the rough stuff. I read an article in Trail Runner Magazine a while back by Bernie Boettcher where he said something to the effect of "You just have to throw your feet down and have faith that something will be there for them to land on." That sums it up pretty well.

  5. My motto: you can't coach height!

  6. This may sound stupid but try running the middle of a set of railroad tracks. This portion of the training would be for your foot placement. Basically you have to land where your foot strikes as you cant change your gait to land on a tie every time. As you run you have to learn to let your foot flex at the ankle, either forward or back, without watching. Doing this you will learn to keep a steady pace and stride without trying to adjust all the time – a real energy killer. I live in an area where the ties are wood and the rocks between them are settled to an inch or two lower than the tie. This makes for a fairly safe run as the risk of turning an ankle is slim. Oh yeah – watch for trains – no Ipods.

  7. +1 for the cross-country tip of hands in small circles. I was taught that too, and have had good results.

  8. Maybe not applicable to you, but for me, having LASIK made a huge difference in my downhill running. Pre-LASIK, even with my glasses, I just couldn't see what was coming well enough to ever feel safe. Now, after years of crappy vision, I feel like I'm somehow cheating…Milo

  9. Falling isn't the end of the world. Surviving a few cuts, scrapes and banged-up knees will provide the confidence to let go a bit more. Teeter on the edge of control. Trust your feet.

  10. For me, these are the key points1 Don't lean back or brake with your heels. Don't overstride. Think quiet footstrikes2 Look well ahead, not at your feet. Rely on peripheral vision and proprioception to control your footstrike3 If I need to manage my speed, I pick up my turnover. I almost have the feeling of picking up my feet before they land. I never really plant hard.4 Pick a good line and commit to it. Don't weaveexcessively5 Relax

  11. Don't chase Farwell — I got into more trouble running downhill when trying to stay with him.

  12. At a WR50 training run last year, Scott McCoubrey gave some useful tips for getting around switchbacks quickly and smoothly when running downhill. The advice revealed his skiing background. He suggested leading with your waist rather than shoulders: get your midsection to spin around the turn and the rest of your body (upper body and legs) will follow. I tried it and it works great! I understand that you are friends with Scott. He may have more trail running tips to share. (Maybe *you* can share the ones that work on this blog!)Best,Balto

  13. also…don't look where you don't want to go!

  14. Hand-held water bottles make good bumpers if you have to fall, even if you do something like a front roll.

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