Running down is fun. Technical downhills are the funniest if you have a good technique, is like a dance with the elements. There’s no big secret, if you want to be a good downhill runner you need to train in the mountains, because is not about the strenght but about the feet and the vision.
Well, easy downhills where is not any technical element (dirt roads, good trails, grassy fields) are more about legs strenght so for that it can be good to work speed and quadriceps strenght. Running flat or gentle downhill will be the best training for those easy downhills.
For technical downhills, when steepness or obstacles on the path make us slow down it is another game, it becames about coordination and feet position. The first important thing to realize is the terrain under our feet. It seems obious but can take time to get the knowledge of how we need to put the feet in any surface and to feel that under our feet when we are running.
The terrain can be hard ( rock, ice) soft (mud, soft snow, deep moss) or anything in between, or a layering (rock with mud on top, rock with gravel, ice with snow… or the oposite crosty snow or frozen mud). In any of those terrains we will put our feet and apply the weight of our body on different ways. To have that is not to read in an article but to go and run on different surfaces and see by ourselves what it works the better, and practice until we can feel with our feet if we’re doing on the best way.
In general, in slippery hard surfaces (ice, wet rock) we will try to apply a vertical force (push down, not in front or to the back) to not glide and short steeps without much weight. On the opposite, on a slippery soft terrain (mud, snow) we can use the glissade to move faster, and then the steeps can be long and with a progressive low to stronger pressure. On hard terrain we will go with the middle or frontfood, in soft terrain (grass, mud, gravel…) we can go with the rearfoot. On crosty terrain, we will go light applying a soft pressure (bending the knees when the contact) but short steep to not let the time to the hard layer to break… Go out and play in different surfaces to see how your body needs to be.
The lenght of the steeps will be also depending the terrain and surface, normally more is technical, shorter are the steeps, with a better vision-feet coordination, to put the feet where and how we exactly want.
Fot that is important the visualisation. Where we put the focus with our eyes. The general rule is to look as far as possible. More we anticipate, faster we can go, but for that we need to memorize the steeps to do until where we have our vision, so more is technical shorter this focus will be. On that technical terrain, the focus should be like changing the car lights. Close-far-close-far rather fast, so we visualize far and we got reminders on what is close to us.
To practice this memorisation of the terrain we can do some exercises. Starting on easyier trails and stop look on the 4-5 steeps in front and memorize the obstacles (rocks, turns…) and then think where we want to put our feet and the lenght and pressure of the steeps: “a short one to the first rock, then a big jump a bit to the right to avoid that other rock, then turning left and short steeps because is slippery… “ And do-it without looking under our feet. Then we can do-it without stoping to think and to look but trying to do the process on our run, and finally a great exercise is to close the eyes for some seconds during our downhills, visualizing what is under our feets on our memory.
To run down we will use all our body, not only the legs but also the arms and head to keep the balance, sometimes opening the arms will make us more stable, on a turn, puting the weight of the body and arms towards where we turn will help us…
Another important skill is the path finding. Train to see from some distance where is easy to go down, more on the right or the left, on a side or other. As a skier is looking to the color of the snow and the shape of the terrain to see where is the easiest snow to ski, we need to do the same while running down. Trying not to look only on our feet but far to anticipate where we are going and the best path. Practicing speed downhill sports as offpist skiing or mountain bike are great training for that.
Last, it is important to get to know our feet. We can put the feet in many different possitions, on the frontfoot, middlefoot on the hill but also on the laterals, external and internal, we can do some steeps without weight just to keep or change the direction. For that it is important to have strong ankles. Propioception work on gym, slackline, walk barefoot and run on unstable terrain are good tools for that.
To finish here some exercises I like to do to improve my downhill running:
- Close eyes: as explained before. Close the eyes for 3-5 steeps to work the visualisation and memorisation of the terrain.
- Dancing: while running down, do some 360 turns (doing one steep on our back) clap the hands on our back, move the upper body as dancing or even the legs doing some jumping “Heidi” steeps… To work on our body position, on relaxing the upper body.
- Follow someone: to run on the steeps of another runner is a good exercise of having fast reflex. be as close as you can run, just a few centimeters apart from the feet of the one in front, to have very little time to react and cut the visualisation and anticipation.
- Challenge yourself on the terrain, on safe terrains, run as fast as you can until falling, to test different steeps and surfaces.
Here some videos of downhill running in races: