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How To Crush At Downhill Running

Author: Alison Naney

January 08, 2018

If you’ve ever spent much time running downhill, you’ve probably experienced the dreaded knee pain, unstable ankles, or blown-out quads that often come with it. And after years of thinking through how I feel running downhill—it’s my absolute favorite thing—and working with folks on technique, I’ve learned three simple tips that can really help. Here are my secrets to crushing it on the downhill without letting it crush you.

Engage your core.

We hear it all the time, but what exactly does “core” mean, and why is it important? Your core is comprised of several layers of muscles that connect the upper and lower body. From the most superficial to the deepest, there is rectus abdominus (the six-pack muscle), external obliques, internal obliques, and transverse abdominus (or TA). The TA also connects to the pelvic floor muscles that give support from the bottom of our pelvis, so I count them in our discussion as well. The outer part of the hip houses the following hip stabilizers: gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, piriformis, and several deep lateral rotators.

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Why do these muscles matter? Those deep muscles work together to provide much-needed stability while we continually impact the ground and propel forward. If those muscles are either underdeveloped or on vacation —not firing at all—our larger muscles must provide the stability, or try to, which can lead to muscle tension at best, alignment issues or injuries at worst. Furthermore, proper core muscle tension ensures good posture to keep our hips and center of gravity forward on the hill. Especially as surfaces change between stable and unstable—think snow, rocks, roots, mud, etc.)—a stable core enables us to move nimbly as if we’re on a solid road.

Look down the trail.

If I had to direct everything that happens in one second of running, well, I wouldn’t run. But instead, our brain instantly reads what our eyes see in front of us and responds. Proprioceptors in our connective, fascial and muscle tissue send direct impulses to our brain sharing where we are in space and before we know it, we’re many steps down the trail. Looking as far down the trail as possible gives our brain and body ample time to respond and puts us in the best position to use gravity to our advantage.

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Take a minute to stand up and look just four to six feet in front of you. Next, bring your gaze back to your feet and feel what happens to your hips. Likely they are now behind your center of gravity in a mini squat. That position does several things: shortens/contracts your quad muscles before even moving; requires more strength in the hips to stabilize joints to keep proper alignment to prevent injuries; and requires more strength in the bigger muscle groups—the quads, hamstrings and glutes—to move down the trail, much like pushing a big gear on a bike is harder than spinning in the granny gear. That increased tension means your legs work more than necessary which over time leads to less efficiency, more tension, and potentially more injury (of the overuse variety). If you keep your eyes down the trail, however, and engage your newfound core, your hips stay right at your center of gravity where it’s easier for them to stabilize, absorb force, and propel you forward so that downhill running really is “free speed.”

Photo: Jordan Rosen

Take quick steps.

A high turnover of 180 steps per minute—about three per second—reinforces the other two tips to make running downhill more fun and less ouchie. A slower cadence means that you’re landing with your foot out in front of your hips, sending all the landing force of the downhill up through your body. This puts undue pressure on your joints and requires more from your muscles to overcome. Plus, if you happen to land on a root or rock while your hips and body make their long journey to the next footfall, you’re requiring a lot of time for your muscles to stabilize. Instead, if you take quick steps with your feet landing right under your hips, even if you hit something you weren’t expecting, you have already transitioned to the other foot and your proprioceptors have reacted to keep you upright and stable. It’s also easier to engage your core and keep your hips forward if you are keeping a quick turnover.

By adding core engagement, down-trail vision and quick turnover to your technique repertoire, you’ll be well on your way to long lasting downhill running bliss. You can also practice the following drills and exercises a few times a week.

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Photos by Jordan Rosen and Thomas Woodson.

Alison Naney

Alison is an endurance coach, licensed massage therapist, ultra runner, mom to the cutest girl on Earth, and OR grassroots athlete based in Seattle. When not running her sports massage practice or the coaching business she shares with her husband—Cascade Endurance—she’s probably running for hours with him and their husky Nikki in the nearby Cascades. You can reach Alison at [email protected].