Running downhill can be one of the most challenging – and scariest – parts of trail running. While we may want to chase down the runner in front of us and let gravity have its way with us, our self-preservation instinct often wins out.
Luckily, learning how to run downhill isn’t just about throwing caution to the wind or not caring if you take a digger. With the right skills - from feet placement to what to do with your arms – you can learn how to use the downhills to your advantage.
We recently caught up with two XTERRA trail runners who make hurtling down mountains look easy. Jeremy Johnson is a Colorado-based runner who placed 11th overall at XTERRA Beaver Creek last year and Anna Granlund, who lives in Norway and runs daily on mountain trails, finished second at XTERRA Malibu Creek in May.
Q. Where do you keep your body weight when running downhill?
Jeremy: I like to lean back and brake a bit, but I brake judiciously. If I’m on an open gravel trail with decent footing, then I lengthen my stride to take advantage of gravity and momentum. If I’m on technical or rocky terrain, I like to brake heavy with my outside foot whenever I can and use my inside foot to pivot. I can keep up a sort of two-step rhythm that way.
Anna: I actually lean forward and let gravity help. I find if I lean back, it slows me down and makes my knees hurt because they are absorbing the shock. Try to be relaxed and trust your momentum.
Q. How do you choose your line going downhill, especially if the trail is full of sharp rocks?
Jeremy: I really don’t pick a line. I keep my gaze about eight to ten feet in front of me. Imagine if your eyes were looking down at a 45-degree angle on the trail. I don't think you can do much planning on declines, particularly very technical downhills. Looking ahead or even trying to think ahead can be problematic when you are trying to stay in the present moment. Each step is its own challenge and sometimes its own decision. I think a lot of it is instinctive. You've got to stay really light on your feet and have quick reflexes. I often think of the football players running the tire drill and imagine what a running back or tailback might look like scampering down a mountainside.
I had a veteran trail runner tell me one time: "Unless you're absolutely sure you're going to see a unicorn, never take your eyes off the trail." On that note, I'd like to add: blink selectively. Very selectively.
Q. What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give to someone who wants to get faster running down hills but who is terrified?
Jeremy: For years, I've worn leather weight lifting gloves when I trail run, and I can't tell you how many times they've saved my hands. That's because the instinct when you fall is to throw your arms out and catch yourself. Do this without gloves and you pay the price. There have been times where, because of my gloves, I was able to land in almost a push-up, then hop back up and be gone without blinking an eye.
Obviously, that's not always the case. Even if you catch yourself, there's a chance you're going to skin your knee, fall on some rocks, or land awkwardly. I guess that's the risk of trail running?
Q. What do you do with your arms?
Jeremy: I keep my arms out for balance.
Anna: Don’t think so much about your arms. They’re there to help you balance. So if they’re waving around that’s the reason. Just go with it.
Q. What part of your foot do you land on?
Jeremy: If it's a wide-open gravel trail, I'm coming down mostly on my heels as I extend my stride as far as possible. Over rocky terrain, I'd say it's more of a mid-foot strike, especially if there are jagged rocks. For me, my mid-foot is the least sensitive pressure point and can handle the most "foot tenderizing."
Q. So shoes – minimalist or maximalist?
Jeremy: I’m definitely a minimalist. This can be a tough call because it means that I feel the rugged terrain with less cushion in the shoe. But in my opinion, it's a necessary trade-off for handling and precision. I want to be able to cut, juke and pivot at high speeds, and I feel like this is best accomplished with minimalist footwear that allows me more intimacy with the nuances of the trail.
Anna: I look for shoes with lugs that allow me to grip the trail. The more confident I feel in my feet, the more able I am to relax, lean forward, and fly.
Q. Any final thoughts?
Jeremy: Here’s what's funny to me – I fall more going uphill than going downhill. I can only recall falling downhill twice. Once was because of some loose gravel on a switchback, and I fell on the turn. Another was coming down a fairly standard dirt singletrack and I simply got tired and lost focus. Interestingly, they were both XTERRA races last year!
The truth is, I fall about a half-dozen times a year or so, and it's almost always when I'm going uphill. It's not hard to keep your feet coming down because you're leaned back a little and coming down more mid-foot or heel. But going up, well, that's a different story. Aside from running on your toes uphill, there's also the obvious issue of fatigue. Almost every time I fall it's because I'm gassed and I don't pick up my feet. A toe catches a rock or root, and down I go.
Jeremy and his daughter Cecilia working on their downhill form. Photo courtesy Gabriel Christus.