In efficient downhill running, gravity is your friend. More often than not however the body is unable to handle the momentum, and in many cases, is forced to put on the brakes to maintain control down the hill. Double whammy! This means a runner will miss out on the advantage of gravity, and will actually have to use some of their energy to fight the force that’s could be helping them downhill!
There are a few factors I believe that come into play during efficient downhill running. It’s not about a different style of running than when on flat ground. Think about it as maintaining your running mechanics and “keeping your legs under you” as long as you can at the highest speed you can handle. To do so you need proper running mechanics, key muscles activated, stability through your joints and strong, elastic muscles.
1. PROPER RUNNING MECHANICS
As in all running, the foundation of running efficiently downhill relies upon maintain tall posture and a strong circular motion of the legs underneath the body which means, in its simplest terms, lifting the knees out in front, footstriking directly beneath the body and then pulling the heel back around to start again. In general, I see many people running lower-leg dominant instead of from their hips, with minimal knee raise. This alone would greatly reduce the ability to keep up with momentum while running downhill and certainly make it necessary to ‘put on the brakes’ very early on.
2. ABS AND GLUTES ACTIVATING
In any type of movement, including running, the abdominals and the glutes are so important to both force production and overall control of the body. Activating and utilizing them properly throughout running mechanics gives the body much greater control over the legs. It also minimizes the impact on the quadriceps and knees that so often take most of the beating on downhill running. Having that control is pivotal in taking advantage of gravity and keeping control over the momentum, especially while having to avoid obstacles if on the trail. Be sure to integrate core strength and stability work along with glute activation exercises in your training.
3. JOINT STABILITY
Your ability to maintain stability through your spine, hips, knees and ankles during each step will be key to controlling you body’s direction and forward speed as you hit the ground. Having strong muscles surrounding the joints that can coordinate efficient movements between the hips, knees and ankles is key. To increase your joint stability, combine single and double leg strength and balance exercises that challenge both linear and lateral movements. Especially for extreme trail running, being able to be stable during those quick changes in direction is not only great for preventing injury, but helps with quickness and agility.
Elasticity is one of the most overlooked elements of endurance performance and I would consider it like icing on the cake for downhill running. “Think of your body as a pogo stick. The metal framework is analogous to your pillar and the springs are like your muscles. We want our bodies to be able to store and release energy powerfully, just like that pogo stick. [Elasticity] is like your body’s shocks and springs.” writes Mark Verstegen in the book Core Performance. You can also think of elasticity as how fast your body is capable of changing the direction of force. In tennis it might be a lateral move to get back across the court. In running it would be how quickly you can get your foot off the ground once it hits, ideally while scooping up all the force you hit with and bringing it all with you into your next stride. It is pivotal to being able to “keep your legs under you” as mentioned earlier. You can train the body to be elastic with explosive exercises, like jumps and bounds, and specific running drills. Opt for fewer reps and make perfect form a priority.
The following video of Chris McCormack enroute to his win at the 2008 Wildflower Long Course Triathlon exemplifies great downhill running. Chris and Eneko Llanos were shoulder to shoulder, both with incredible running form as they approached the final 2km downhill to the finish line. On the downhill Chris easily pulls away from Eneko to win. If you watch closely (pausing the video from time to time helps) you'll see Chris continue to keep his running form intact. He keeps his knees high which allow him to maintain his long running stride down the hill while Eneko's stride shortens. Eneko's knees are not getting as high, so as he extends his leg in his stride, his foot hits the ground sooner than it expects to and there's a bit of a braking effect and definite loss of momentum every stride. What's interesting is that in the video Chris describes his mindset as he's running down the hill in that race and he mentions "forgetting about his technique." Yet you can see that doesn't mean "let the technique go". It's called being "unconsciously competent" and I'd imagine in this case it's due to not to luck but perfect practice making perfect...
Practice smart. Here’s to free speed! Enjoy.