In high school, I ran with the fastest downhill runner in the city. It’s not as though we ever had a race where we tested exactly that. We didn’t need to! Anyone who went on a run with this guy would just know that they’d be routinely dropped on any steep downhill. There was even one time where he disappeared altogether, and I had to message his step-sister to see if he made it home alive. His name was Ben (still is), and he was my best running mate throughout high school. Together we led our high school team to four provincial championships (appearances, not wins), and had some great memories along the way.
We also made for a great team given the differences in our strengths. I was never a bad downhill runner, but there was just no catching Ben on any steep decline. I’d design routes and races with a net downhill, and then wonder why he absolutely smoked the rest of us. I on the other hand was, dare I say, the strongest uphill runner for our age group (there were really only five of us who ran competitively in the region outside of school competitions). It was always where I made up ground and made my moments count. I typically excelled on hilly terrain with all the ups, and made less of an impact on the flatter courses around the city.
From these early experiences, I’ve long known the secrets to not only successful uphill running, but successful downhill running from watching my friend. The secret sauce is this: lose control. Like Eminem, you just have to lose yourself in the movement. Ben would stop at the end of the downhills and wait for the rest of us while proclaiming “Sorry! I couldn’t control myself!”
This is how to run fast on downhills. Now, you still have to be smart with your attempts to lose control. You’re not going to do this on steep stairs (or any stairs), narrow paths, or near cliffs. But you will find moments, typically on open trail paths and steep roads, where you can just let yourself fly.
Lean forward, take large steps, use your arms, and actively push the pace. You will soar down the decline, and you will likely be surprised as to how safe you feel in the moment. For one, you’re taking fewer steps (often one for the price of two or three). For another, you’re going to be tuned into what you are doing, carefully watching every step (or leap) as you fly.
The main reason why I was never quite as good as Ben on the downhills had very little to do with actual muscular capacity or aerobic speed. It simply had to do with control, and letting myself go. Ben had zero downhill filter, and succeeded as a result of that.
Now effective downhill running is not just about losing control. Most will tell you that the arms are essential to the process, as you readjust your body positioning to the twists and turns. You’re also going to want to skip over roots and rocks (safely) and can often leap from one place to the next to take longer strides.
While you don’t want to be like Stian and jump off a cliff at the Golden Trail World Series final, you can often safely leap and bound down the hill like a gazelle, to no issue at all. Look at the way Anders Kjærevik intermixes tiny steps on technical terrain, and longer steps on the steeper inclines by leaping from one spot to the next.
Terrain is so important to note when it comes to this discussion. It’s easier to leap on pavement, and even snowy, grassy or dry terrain. But you don’t want to leap down the rocky road ice cream cone. On rocky terrain, I’ll take smaller steps as I ensure that my ankles land safely and don’t roll underneath me. On muddy or icy terrain, I’ll stay on the flattest, straightest section of the path. I might even readjust and slow down to carefully select the right patches. But when I’m at my absolute rollicking best on those downhills, I’ll be leaping and cruising with that forward lean and my arms going wild.
Now let’s say you suddenly need to slow down. Leaping out of the way might be a good option depending on what’s happening, but there are a few other things you can do to slow that speed. Rather than leaning forward, lean back. Bend your knees, take tiny steps (the antithesis to the leap), and almost dig your heels into the ground with each step. Once you’ve slowed yourself down, consider grabbing onto a tree or branch and use it to calm your force and come to a halt. While you don’t want to crash at all, it’s better to crash into a bush or tree hands first, than to slip and fall. And if you can do so safely with just one outstretched arm holding you back, that will often be your best approach to immediately halting your progress.
But if you want to be like my friend Ben and dominate those downhills, all you need to do is lose control, flap your arms, and let yourself fly!
Strava Profile | Rhys Desmond
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