• Jillian Beckham

Trail Running Downhill: Do You Make These Mistakes?

How to run downhill, how NOT to run downhill, and how you can work on it.


Most of the time when you hear the term "hill repeats", you imagine sprinting up a hill and walking or jogging back down. But here's the thing. In a race, you're going to want to have strong legs for as much of the race as possible… on both the uphills and the down.


When I first started running, I was a powerhouse up the hills. I would pass countless people walking up the climbs and arrive victorious at the top… just to have every single one of them go flying by me on the way back down.


What was going on here?? I seriously felt if I pushed the pace more on the downhills I would either fall on my face or my legs would give out on me.


So here's the secret no one bothered to tell me during my training for that first 50k... you need to train the down just as much as you train the up.



Why is downhill training important?


It’s true. You won’t end up breathing as hard running downhill as you do running uphill. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier on your body.


Running downhill magnifies the gravitational forces on your body. Think about it. When you run uphill and push off forward, you end up pushing yourself into the hill. When you run downhill and push off forward, you’re pushing yourself straight out into the air… and have a longer way down before your foot hits the ground.


What does that mean?

  • Bigger impact.

  • Greater risk of injury.

  • More stress on the body.


Your muscles, tendons, and joints are having to act as shock absorbers a lot more, and downhill running creates a lot more muscle tears that will need to be repaired after your run. The repair of these muscle tears, though, is what builds your muscles.


If you only ever trained on flat ground, you wouldn’t expect your body to run up all the hills on race day. You know your muscles just wouldn’t be able to handle it. Well, the same goes for running downhill. If you’ve never trained for downhill running, you shouldn’t expect your legs to be carrying you strongly at the end of your race.


Practicing downhill running not only means you’ll have stronger muscles, but it also means your technique will become more efficient and you’ll have more confidence on steep grades and difficult terrain. You’ll learn to trust your feet and your legs.


Make downhill running a consistent part of your training, and you’ll be flying down the hills with the rest of the flock on race day!






How NOT to run downhill


There are a few common mistakes I see a lot of runners making when they’re running downhill. If you make any of these mistakes, don’t worry. You’re not alone. I probably notice them so much because I used to do nearly every single one of these!



1. Don't... Look at your feet


Trust me, I know. If you stop looking down, you’re going to trip on a rock!


But will you really? What if you lifted your head and looked ahead for those rocks? Do you really think they’re going to move before you get there?


Downhill running technique to try instead:


Look ahead around 10-15 feet. Get the big picture. You’ll be able to see every rock and root in your path rather than the two directly in front of you. You learn to be proactive rather than reactive, and feel more confident because of it. Your feet will learn surprisingly quickly where to land and how to plan ahead.




2. Don't... Lean back


It’s true. Leaning forward makes you run faster down the hill. And that can be intimidating. No one wants to bomb it down the hill out of control. Well, there are those special few that seem to get a thrill out of nearly careening into trees, ditches, and fellow racers in their way… but if that’s you, you probably aren’t reading this article.


Leaning back encourages you to heel strike, which can cause some serious knee pain later on in your training.


With your center of gravity behind your feet, you’re also more likely to slip and fall on loose terrain. True, you’ll just fall back on your bum, which is a shorter way down than if you fall forward. But I’m not telling you to lean too far forward, either. The goal is to get to that happy, balanced medium.


Downhill running technique to try instead:


Keep your body perpendicular to the ground. Lean forward from the ankles, not the hips, and you won’t fall on your face. What you’re really trying to do is maintain your regular running form. It’ll just be tilted forward a bit because of the slope of the hill.


Your hips should be in line with your shoulders, and your center of mass should be weighted over your feet, not too far forward and not too far back.




3. Don't... Brake the whole way down


Here’s the problem with putting on the brakes with nearly every stride:


Braking will lead to sliding. Instead of working with the terrain, you’re actively pushing against the terrain.

  • Imagine you’re running down a hill. You see something up ahead and brake quickly. What is the angle of your leg? What are you pushing against? You aren’t pushing against the flat ground. Your leg is extended in front of you and pushing the loose terrain further down the hill. You lose your grip and end up in the dirt.


  • If you’re braking with every stride, your quads are having to fight gravity every time your foot hits the ground. So in addition to fighting the terrain, you’re also fighting gravity. And your quads are going to need some serious TLC after your run.


  • Most likely you’re braking with a straight, stiff leg. Sorry, knees!


Downhill running technique to try instead:


Start off slow. If you’re unsure of yourself, start with a walk. Make your way up to a shuffle with quick, short strides. As you feel more comfortable, work your way up to running.


If you ever feel like you’re getting out of control, don’t slam your leg straight out in front of you! You have a couple of better options:

  • Turn! Try to “slalom” your way down the hill. Make wide, gradual turns from one side of the path to the other. This will decrease the overall steepness of the trail and the turning will help you to slow down as well.


  • Sit down. If you’re really feeling unsteady, bend your knees. A lot. Almost to a point where it’s like you’re sitting in a chair. You’ll still have a forward lean, but your butt will feel like it’s nearly touching the ground. This will certainly be a quad workout, but this is a method of braking that won’t injure your knees and won’t have you slipping and sliding the whole way down the hill.




4. Don't... Be a gazelle


Bounding and leaping down the hill may work for some runners, but if you’re lacking the confidence on the downhills, you may not want to start with this method of downhill running.


The further you launch yourself with each stride, the harder you’re going to slam down with each footfall. In my experience, slamming tends to lead to injuries.


Downhill running technique to try instead:


Take short, quick steps. When you have a quick turnover, you launch yourself forward less with each step, which means your body doesn’t have as far to fall with each step.





5. Don't... Be a rhino.


Thump. Thump. Boom. Boom. Pound. Pound. Injured knees. Need I say more? If you can hear the approach of your footsteps from half a mile away, you’re running too hard.


Downhill running technique to try instead:


Be a mouse. Scamper down. Land light.


Imagine you’re pawing the ground instead of landing on it completely. Other people say to think of your feet as running in a continuous, circular motion rather than a repetitive “One-Two-One-Two” pattern.


This technique will lead to a quicker turnover, be easier on your tendons and joints, and make you steadier on your feet.




6. Don't... Walk every downhill


Walking every downhill was my biggest mistake. I was too glued to my heartrate monitor. I didn’t try to run downhills, so I never got better at them. It took getting some trail running friends and having them fly by me and out of view for me to realize that it’s okay to run downhill!


Downhill running technique to try instead:


Just try it! Find a comfortable hill and find the joy that comes with running down it.


Push the comfort zone a little bit every time. Soon, you’ll be the one flying by those poor souls braking and killing their quads with every step.





Additional Tips for Downhill Running


  • Use your arms for balance. They may be flailing all around, but there’s a reason tight-rope walkers don’t keep their arms glued to their sides. Use what your body gave ya!


  • Start with 1 downhill workout per week. Since downhill running is harder on your body, you don’t want to overdo it. Keep it to one workout per week and allow your body to fully recover. Once you feel your body recovering more quickly from these runs, you can start to make downhill running part of your everyday running.


  • Find varied terrain. If you can, don’t always do your hill workout on the same hill. Find hills with different steepnesses, some that turn, some that are rocky, some that have roots… you get the picture. Not every hill is created equal! And you’ll want to be prepared for every type of hill for your race.


  • If you don’t have hilly trails near you, use what you do have! Is there a park nearby with a grassy hill? Can you run on the grass beside the sidewalk on that one hilly street in your neighborhood? Do you have access to bleachers to practice running down the steps?


  • Lose the sunnies. Sunglasses are great so you aren’t squinting throughout your entire run, but they also make it harder to navigate varied terrain. Ditch the sunnies until you’ve reached the bottom of the hill.


  • Don’t forget to cross-train. Cross-training exercises that work your quads are especially helpful for downhill running. Try some squats or some step-ups with a hop at the top.


  • DON’T FORGET TO SMILE! What brings back the joy of childhood more than the simple act of running down a hill? Have fun with it!


See ya at the bottom!


Happy Running! ✌️😊


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Jillian Beckham is wife to Brent and previous offender of “#3 Brake the whole way down”. She’s also a Health and Wellness Copywriter. Check out more of what she does and how she can help you reach your business goals over at www.beckhamcopywriting.com


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