Improving your downhill running technique starts with understanding the mechanics that make for a safe and speedy descent. Unfortunately, the reality is that most runners choose techniques and training practices designed to slow their descent velocity rather than increase it.
A number of years ago I attended a running camp in Boulder, Colorado. On the first day of camp we were scheduled for an easy pre-breakfast run. After settling in on the run, we were tasked with counting how many times one of our feet made contact with the ground during a 20 second period. We counted our steps several times during the run.
This was my introduction to paying attention to cadence and turnover.
When we returned from the run, the coaches of the camp were surprised that the results of cadence data collection was surprisingly high for everyone. It’s more common for athletes to fall below the benchmark cadence of 180 steps per minute. What was the difference for this group?
The answer, it turned out, was the weather. It was raining, which had made the rolling hills of Boulder’s concrete sidewalks very slick. This created an instinctual response to naturally shorten our gaits, move our feet more quickly, and keep our legs under our hips to maintain a better center of gravity consistent with the demands of the conditions. The result was a higher cadence on average for each runner than was our normal.
In this lesson lies the pathway to more successful and injury-free downhill running. While there is no “one perfect” cadence and ground contact time that works for every person, the ability to increase cadence on demand when descending a hill while running is a key ingredient to improving downhill running technique.
If you want to improve your downhill running, here is a three stage pathway to make that happen.
Phase 1: Improve Uphill Running Technique
It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to start improving your downhill running technique is to improve your uphill running technique. All too often, an athlete’s idea of developing proper uphill running technique boils down to “find a hill and run to the top,” then rinse and repeat. This is often done with little real workout planning, focus on proper running form and technique, or emphasis on building real explosive power.
The athlete should focus their efforts toward developing plyometric strength in uphill running. Use intervals which allow for high intensity demand and long recoveries, rather than an increasingly slow death plod to the top. Not only will this yield benefits through improved uphill running velocity, but the commensurate improvement in overall strength will allow for more rapid development of faster turnover during descents. Strong muscles are flexible muscles and flexible and strong muscles are faster muscles.
Phase 2: Improve Posture, Cadence, and Ground Contact Time
As you work on improving your uphill running strength you should also begin reinforcing your running form with an emphasis on good posture. Stand tall, lean from the ankles, and use your eyes to see rather than dropping the head. Next, begin developing an optimal cadence that allows for a quicker turnover as you leverage the strength gains from your uphill interval training.
One great way to develop a more consistently high cadence with its accompanying faster turnover is to use the running dynamics feature on your training device. On most devices there is the ability to open a GCT (Ground Contact Time) and or GCT Balance window. This allows you to do workouts focused less on pace and more on efficiency.
GCT Balance Workout
- 10 minutes easy warmup — check cadence and aim to get 40 minutes — run only checking GCT Balance. try to keep the balance in the Green
- 10 minutes easy cool down
One of the key ingredients of good running form is the slight forward press of the pelvis so that we create a mild anterior tilt. This “pressing forward” of the pelvis helps maintain the optimal position of the footfall so that at impact with the ground, the foot is under the hips with little overreaching. This a vital component to good downhill running technique. Practice this form on your flat ground running so you can replicate it to improve your downhill running efficiency and velocity.
Phase 3: Put it together to go fast downhill
As we improve our posture and running form it is now time to begin adding downhill efficiency efforts to our run training. Once again, a key ingredient to improving downhill running technique will be maintaining a slight anterior tilt to our pelvis and a lean from the ankles. It can seem a bit counterintuitive and certainly can feel awkward at first to lean in any way forward when descending.
Yet it is a key part of improving your technique. Lean from the ankles with the body standing tall, decrease stride length and increase your cadence. A great exercise for improving this efficiency is to work on “fast feet.” Running in place with a metronome set at increasingly higher cadences is a great way to condition your neuromuscular system to respond to a high cadence output demand.
Because you have built sufficient plyometric strength in your uphill explosive interval training you can now utilize that strength to rebound from footfall during rapid descents without the jarring impact of the typical downhill descent form we see in many age group athletes.
The typical running form for those who are trying to run downhill is to lean back and attempt to control the descent through longer and often very jarring contact with the surface. This is made doubly hazardous since the ground in a downhill descent is by definition falling away from us as our foot makes impact.
The result of this is to exacerbate over reaching during descent, increasing the impact force that the ankles, lower legs, knees, quads, and pelvic structure must absorb. And all of this is actually reducing velocity.
The key to improving your downhill running technique starts with changing how you think about downhill running. What goes up can go down fast. With the proper training and the help of gravity you can improve not only your technique but your velocity during descents as well.
Now go get those hills.
Team MPI Senior Coach Mark Turner is a USAT Level II Endurance and IRONMAN Certified Coach at Team MPI (www.teamMPI.com). Mark also serves USAT as the Rules Education Coordinator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.