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Little Known Ways to Attack the Downhills

A recent trip to the Guadalupe Mountains and a few sessions of three mile long constant downhill running had me thinking how to best describe what seems to come so naturally to me: running downhill fast.

It didn’t take me long to leap from trail running to mountain running, which led to a whole new set of skills. My first mountain race introduced me to people who had no apparent problem running UP mountains. They seemed so unaffected by both the altitude and the incline, while I struggled to breathe while walking. It was a real eye-opener. I knew about getting acclimated, but it was more than that.

Funny thing about that experience and many others since then: once on top and heading back down, how fast I seemed to roll while all the fleet-footed up-hillers slowed down. Their focus and effort was going UP while they rested going DOWN. I didn’t know why they all backed off, but trying desperately to make up for all I had lost, I let it rip. Given a few such ups and downs over a period of time and many miles, I tend to pass and get passed by the same people over and over again. Besides getting to meet a lot of people, my finishing place was predetermined by either an uphill or downhill finish.

As unfortunate as I am to be slow on the UPs, I am inversely gifted on the DOWNs. I wish I could say that I planned this out as part of my overall run strategy, but it would be a lie. I slipped into this style without much thought. After a few years running this way, I have tried to explain exactly how you too could run down a rock strewn cliff-side mountain trail in the dark without falling, slipping, or hurting yourself, from top to bottom, over and over again without fail.

There is no doubt that fast downhill running stresses the landing shock systems of your leg muscles. The pounding, stress, and damage comes mostly from hitting the breaks while attempting to slow down. So, remove the breaks. Newton’s first law of motion states that “An object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” The unbalanced force is the ground and how you use it to control your descent. Simply…let it roll!

Strength, balance, and agility comes as a package from time spent running hills. It takes time and your confidence follows. Most people slow down for fear of falling and the fear doesn’t go away until you develop the other skills, so you need to build carefully until you have the whole package. The final layer is aggressiveness because once you have the strength and confidence, you will want to play. When you have arrived, you will attack the downhills: accelerating, tacking side to side, surging, and changing cadence, but never ever hitting the breaks.

But first, if you are new to hills, you need to begin cautiously and build up conservatively. Most people jump right into hill workouts with insufficient preparation, too much volume, and too little recovery. Like anything else referenced to physical training, the build up should be gradual, and the recovery process needs to be followed.

It has taken me a few years, but maybe I can now explain how I run downhill so quickly. Hopefully, my twisted and winding logic translates.

Three mental tricks:

  1. Scan Ahead: Like driving a car. You cannot focus on every foot plant, but instead simply scan left to right about 3 to 10 yards out, so as to see everything without focusing on anything. It works while driving your car through heavy traffic and works equally well on the trails. If you do focus on a specific rock or root…you will most likely trip over it.
  2. Speed Read: The concept of speed reading is not much different than driving your car. You scan the page (the trail) and your mind’s eye collects the information without ever focusing on a single word (rock). Your eyes see most of it and your brain collects it. What’s amazing is that you do understand most of what is processed without even realizing it. And your proficiency in speed reading gets better with practice.
  3. Playing Chess: A chess player is usually three or more moves ahead at each instant, adjusting again as each move is made. A chosen track is taken until it suddenly becomes a bad track in an instant, and then you spontaneously recalculate the new sequence or track. Once you hammer down a trail you have never been on before, you get the gist of it.

NOW, apply all three at once while charging full speed down a mountain trail. Scan ahead, read the trail, and make route plans with constant readjustments.

A few suggestions to control your descent:

  1. Tack back in forth (changing directions) will slow your speed of descent, if there is room to do so.
  2. Use the side banks or rock sides to push off to arrest your speed. Any friction will slow you down.
  3. Terrain determines stride: If the ground is loose or very steep, keep the stride short and quick to avoid sliding out or losing control. If the ground is firm with no concern for sliding, I like to lengthen my stride to grab a bit more real estate. As long as I’m moving fast and my leg spin is in high cadence, my butt will be over my foot quick enough to avoid over-striding. If the ground is constantly changing, I change my stride and style to match.

Scree Descents

This is fun and interesting. Scree is a field of rocks on a high altitude rock face that sits still until you put some weight on it. Once you step onto it, the rocks begin to slide with you on it. So, knowing this happens and not wanting to slide down on your butt in a bed of moving rocks, its best to stand straight up and dig one heel into the rock. As the rocks and you start sliding, take another step and dig the other heel in. A few repeats and you will quickly find the bottom of the scree slope, and without much work. I like to think of this as Surfing the Rocks and it works to perfection. Going UP is an entirely different story!

– Joe Prusaitis

Talk Downhills

  • What are some techniques you have used to add some giddy-up on the downhills?
  • Any good crash and burn stories?

About the author

Joe Prusaitis Joe Prusaitis ran his first trail race in 1996, a 50 miler. Since then, he has ran at least 100 ultras, nearly 50 marathons, and a variety of other odd and various distances. Joe also sits on the USAT&F South Texas board, representing Mountain/Trail/Ultra. For more information on Joe, check out the About page where you can see his coaching and race directing projects.

6 Responses to “Little Known Ways to Attack the Downhills”

  1. on 08 Jun 2012 at 12:06 pm olga

    Shorter steps on stuff steeper than 10% grade and/or loose, longer “leaps” on under and/or firm ground. When the trailbank is narrow, step on its side, pushing off those sides to go down. In general, keep your feet wider rather than under your body, gives more stability (physics, again). Think downhill ski when it’s too steep – either side to side with turns (see “track back and forth”) or put your feet almost perpendicular to the mountain slope and hop sideways. Develop forgiving quads – if long hill repeats are not your option of living, do lots of squats, preferably with lots of weight. Flare your arms wide for balance (that damn physics!). Scan up to 10 feet ahead of you, like Joe says, without straining, just registering. Foot-eye coordination develops with time (I have none for hand-eye, so I never play ball sport, but then again, I never practiced). I also usually suggest that unless you’re in a close race, know what you’re doing and are close to the finish, don’t force the downhills, rather let it go, relax and let gravity do the work. Floating is my favorite description, although leaping is a better style fit:)

  2. on 08 Jun 2012 at 1:52 pm Lisa Gonzales

    Thanks! I really needed this. I would much rather run uphill than downhill. I just have to get over the fear.

  3. on 08 Jun 2012 at 6:08 pm Tony

    “See everything without focusing on anything” that pretty much sums it up. Thanks Joe. I needed the reminder going into my next mountain run in three weeks.

  4. on 09 Jun 2012 at 12:01 pm Jonathan

    Yes, Olga. The key is definitely to relax. When you tense up your body isn’t in a position to be proactive/reactive to what is around you, thus placing you in a position to really hurt yourself. I, too, also flare my arms out for balance. I tend to get comments from people but I just tell them to try it. Joe’s suggestion to tack back n forth helped at Jemez descending to the ski lodge. It was awesome to run down to say the least. I think the key is to relax.

  5. on 09 Jun 2012 at 6:07 pm lori enlow

    PERFECT TIMING!! This is where I struggle…but slightly improving. This weekend I am headed for Ouchita’s specifically to focus on downhill running. 4 hours of power hiking up and running down. I have trouble with controlling momentum…I get faster and faster and start to feel outta conrol and end up with huge strides or breaking stops. Also, I worry that hitting the sides of the trail and widening my gait, cutting back and forth might be harmful/more stressful. Sounds like it is actually helpful and less stress on tendons/legs? Any tips or reassurances?

  6. on 10 Jun 2012 at 3:49 pm Jonathan

    Shorten your stride to reduce the outta control feel. While I am no expert as Joe and Olga are in this terrain, I find that landing on the balls of the feet help in maintaining my stride. Tacking back n forth definitely helps in controlling momentum as well. It all comes with practice and patience.