Running downhill efficiently can have numerous benefits, especially for trail runners, whether recreational or competitive.
Being a skilled downhill runner can not only keep you safer on the trails, but cut a substantial number of minutes off your race times.
This is beneficial for all runners as it will result in less time on your feet, and if you are competitive runner, shaving off time on the downhills can give you a great advantage against other runners in your field.
Running downhill is often the most challenging part of tackling terrain. Not only is it tough on the quads and, quite frankly, all of the running muscle groups, but some runners are afraid to lose control and slip and fall.
Mastering how to run downhill will make you feel more confident on the trails, and hopefully, with enough practice, you’ll even enjoy doing it.
In this guide to running downhill, I will give you my top tips as an ultrarunner and running coach to perfect your downhill running technique and enjoy every step.
How Do You Run Downhill Efficiently?
To run downhill efficiently, you must first try to shake your fear of tackling steep gradients along with using the correct downhill running technique that we will get into in this guide.
How Often Should You Practice Downhill Running?
Running, whether uphill, on flat ground, or downhill is a high-impact sport, but running downhill takes the cake as being the toughest on your body.
Running uphill and running on flat terrain can also cause fatigue and delayed-onset muscle soreness, but nothing like pounding your quadriceps descending a steep slope.
Because of the high impact of downhill running, you won’t find many specific downhill running workouts as part of many training plans as you would uphill running workouts, fartklek runs, or even track work.1Gottschall, J. S., & Kram, R. (2005). Ground reaction forces during downhill and uphill running. Journal of Biomechanics, 38(3), 445–452. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbiomech.2004.04.023
This isn’t to say you can’t work in a session here and there of hill repeats going downhill instead of up, but I suggest limiting them due to the extra impact and muscle damage you can provoke by doing so.
The best way to work downhill training into your plan is to include it in your weekly long runs.
Whether you are training for an ultramarathon, marathon, or half marathon, your long runs are a perfect opportunity to work on your downhill running technique and proper form, as they are often just once or twice a week (depending on the distance you are training for).
If possible, choose routes that have a variety of terrain and inclines, including uphills, downhills, rolling hills, and flats, to practice every type of terrain. This is particularly important for trail running as races can surprise you with tricky, technical sections.
Including downhills in your long runs will give you the practice you need to master the steep slopes and provide the necessary adaptations to your body and mind so you will be ready for race day.
Running Downhill: My Top Tips To Master Your Technique
Let’s get into my top downhill running tips so you can get practicing this weekend!
What technique should I use to run downhill safely?
#1: Take Quick, Short Steps
A short quick cadence (the number of steps you take per minute), is key for efficient running on flat, even terrain, uphill running and downhill running.
Aside from being a great way to improve running economy, short, quick steps are favorable for running downhill because the more surface area you cover with the soles of your shoes, the more control you will have over your speed and balance.
The more steps you take per minute (implementing a bit of a shorter stride length), the more you break, as the friction will slow you down.
In addition, having your center of gravity over your trunk will also help you keep your balance.
If you overstride and your front foot lands out in front of your body, you end up taking fewer steps in total, which will result in having less control and perhaps even losing your balance altogether.
As for which footstrike to use (forefoot, midfoot, or heelstrike), this will depend on the downhill incline and what you feel more comfortable in each sitution.
If you forefoot strike on a downhill, it will propel you forward even more; you will lean forward and pick up speed.
If you heel strike, you will break more aggressively and automatically lean back, allowing you to break even more.
Analyze each situation and section of each downhill and decide which footstrike will work for the specific terrain. Varying your footstrike, depending on the terrain, will lead to more efficient downhill running.
In summary, when running downhill, take short, quick steps; the steeper the incline and unstable the terrain, the more steps you need to take to stay in control.
#2: Land Softly
When working on running form in general, you’ve probably already heard that you don’t want to “be heard.”
Slapping your feet against the cement or trails means you are creating unnecessary impact on your muscles and joints. As you run downhill, losing control of your footing and plodding away is even easier.
Try taking quiet, soft steps as you descend any slope.
This will help reduce the already increased impact of running on a decline, which can cause incredible muscle fatigue due to the eccentric contractions of your muscles under load. The less you can hear the pounding of your shoes, the better.2Eston, R. G., Mickleborough, J., & Baltzopoulos, V. (1995). Eccentric activation and muscle damage: biomechanical and physiological considerations during downhill running. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 29(2), 89–94. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.29.2.89
#3: Scan The Path In Front Of You
When running trails, we tend to look directly down at our feet to avoid any roots, rocks, or even critters in our path.
This is inefficient and can become dangerous as you will not know what will come on the trail ahead of you.
In addition, if you aren’t aware of your surroundings, you may miss important markings in a race or landmarks in longer running sessions and need to backtrack after the fact to get back on route.
Always look up and scan the trail two to three meters ahead so you can plan the safest route for you to take.
You want to lay out where you will place your feet and what areas you should avoid altogether, like moss-covered rocks, wet leaves, or slippery, dry, loose gravel.
It takes time and practice, but you will get accustomed to pre-planning your every step with each scan, so your feet will automatically go where you need them to go, allowing you to focus on the trail in front of you.
Looking up and ahead will allow you to run faster and more efficiently and help you avoid unwanted slips and falls on the trail.
#4: Raise Your Arms For Balance
When the terrain gets tough and the inclines get steep, you may feel like you will lose your balance.
When this happens, raise your arm to the sides for balance and steady yourself. You will be able to manuver the terrain a lot easier with better balance and control.
#5: Don’t Stop Short
When we feel we are slipping or losing control on the trail, we first tend to stop dead in our tracks.
One of my most important downhill training tips is to never stop short on a steep downhill if you can help it. This is a recipe for disaster and almost a surefire fall if the terrain is in any way slippery or unstable.
Instead of stopping short, take even more quick, short steps than usual to help you break. These steps can help slow you down so you can regain control and get down the hill safely.
One of my biggest tricks for when I feel like I am losing control on a downhill is to look for a bank on the side of the trail where I can slow down to almost a complete stop.
If a bank is available, I continue my short, quick steps and run up the bank on the side of the trail until I can regain my balance and composure and start again down the hill.
#6: Use The Terrain To Your Advantage
Like using a bank to break, use the rest of the trail to your advantage to make your downhill running even more efficient.
Look for fixed rocks or roots in your path that are elevated against the slope where you can place your foot to decrease your speed if you feel you are losing control.
If trees are on the path, be careful and think twice before grabbing them for support. They may have spines that can cut your hand or be brittle and unstable and cause you to fall instead of being a support.
If you are running a rugged, very technical trail race, you may want to think about wearing gloves so you won’t have to worry so much about grabbing on to potential harmful vegetation in your path, or if you do take a fall, you can put your hands down without worrying about getting scratched up.
#7: Strength Train
If you have read any of my other guides, you’ve heard this before, but strength training is essential to improve all aspects of your running.
Strong legs and a strong core will not only make you a better downhill runner but will help alleviate your case of the DOMS after a bout of tough, downhill running.
Add exercises such as lunges, squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, planks, push-ups, pull-ups and plyometrics into your strength training sessions.
You want to hit all of your running muscles such as your calves, hamstrings, quads, glutes, and core.
Practice makes perfect. It’s cliche, but it’s so true.
If you do something repeatedly, it will become second nature. Remember the first time you drove or rode a bike? Now, those things just come naturally, and you probably don’t give them a second thought.
The same goes for downhill running.
If you include downhill running into your long runs once a week, you will get accustomed to dominating steep, technical inclines and may even enjoy these sections of your runs.
#9: Be Confident
Now that you know the proper downhill running technique and are ready to get out there and practice, be confident in your abilities. Feeling nervous will make you run tentatively and could cause more harm than good.
Try to relax, loosen up, and have a good time.
For me, the downhills are the fun parts of my runs. It’s a time when I get to let loose, enjoy, and speed down those fun trails.
Now that you know how to run downhill, check out our guide to running uphill!
- 1Gottschall, J. S., & Kram, R. (2005). Ground reaction forces during downhill and uphill running. Journal of Biomechanics, 38(3), 445–452. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbiomech.2004.04.023
- 2Eston, R. G., Mickleborough, J., & Baltzopoulos, V. (1995). Eccentric activation and muscle damage: biomechanical and physiological considerations during downhill running. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 29(2), 89–94. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.29.2.89