Running uphill seems like the greatest challenge the trail presents … until you start to run down.
Between the eccentric stretching of your muscles, the massive load your legs are under as you pummel down the trail and the technical obstacles that might lie in your way, descending quickly becomes just as tough as ascending. And the aftermath can be even more painful. If you’re considering a trail race — like the Under Armour Mountain Running Series, for example — you can prep all you want for uphills, but if you ignore the downhill component, you’re asking for trouble.
Thankfully, Sarah Cotton, a professional trail runner and Under Armour ambassador, and Kaci Lickteig, a Western States 100-miler winner and physical therapist, have some amazing advice.
“Running downhill is still something I’m trying to work on,” Cotton says. “Some people are absolutely incredible running downhill, they just fly. In high school, I raced this cross-country race, and I was in front, until a downhill where I got passed by everyone! So it’s something I practice now.”
LET IT GO
Cotton’s best advice is to basically channel Elsa from “Frozen.” (Finally, a positive to having that song stuck in your head!) “The only reason to run slow downhill is if you’re afraid of falling, but if you can let your inhibitions go and just flow, it’s the best way to get down,” says Cotton. “Look at the ground, just feel it out. It’s hard to learn, but if you practice a lot, you’ll get better. It really is a matter of just letting yourself go.”
FIND FAST DOWNHILLERS
One way to get faster is to find practiced trail runners and hop in with them. Don’t try to race them down the hill, but follow as closely as you can, watching the lines they pick and trying to mimic their body language. “I run with people who are good at downhill running and chase them — they make me let go,” says Cotton. If you’re nervous about picking up speed, seeing someone speed off in front of you can help make you feel less nervous about going a little faster. (Just don’t find a group of pros if you’re a newbie! You want a challenge, not an impossibility.)
HAVE A FALL STRATEGY
Sadly, you’re probably going to crash at least once when you start gaining speed on descents. Be ready to fall and think about your landing strategy: Try to avoid putting your hands out to save yourself (to avoid a broken wrist) and focus on protecting your head. “My worst crashes have been running downhill, just face-planting and rolling down the hill,” says Cotton. “I’ve had some nasty ones, but luckily not during a race. They definitely shake you up!”
“If a crash happens in training, that’s almost a good thing — because it’s almost certainly going to happen during a race!” says Cotton. So consider that first (or second or third) crash in training a rite of passage, learn from it and move on.
Lickteig is a huge fan of awareness on the trail. That means constantly scanning the ground in front of you and assessing obstacles. Most mistakes happen when our focus shifts away from the trail. In the same vein as being aware, ditch your headphones and try to be as present as possible, focusing on breathing and speed.
THINK: LIGHT FEET
If you aim to keep your feet light and your step high, you’re less likely to catch a root or a rock and end up in that faceplant, Lickteig says. This is also a good way to test how tired you are: Your feet start to drag as your body is wearing down, so it is a great way to sense when you might need a break.
READ MORE > THE UNSPOKEN RULES OF TRAIL RUNNING
KNOW YOUR BODY
If you start making tiny mistakes, slow your roll. Both Cotton and Lickteig are fans of knowing when it’s time to ease up and take a walking break. Not every uphill needs to be followed by a punishing downhill: In training, remember that downhill runs might feel great in the moment, but they’re going to make your legs more sore than the uphills. Practice, definitely, but consider splitting the days you train hills. On some days, run the uphills and hike back down, and on other days, hike the uphills and run down. Don’t try to do too many hill repeats of both types at once.
INDULGE IN POST-RUN REHAB
This is going to hurt, says Lickteig — that’s because the eccentric motion of running downhill combined with the speed and pounding can lead to seriously swollen and puffy legs. Finish any downhill run or workout with a walk to cool down and add some compression or an ice bath to help lower swelling. It’s nothing to worry about, but the faster you can recover, the better.
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