Photo caption: Ryan Sandes ready to strike, high above his Republic of Hout Bay
Words by Deon Braun, Pic by Craig Kolesky/Nikon/Lexar
For every uphill you slog up, there are two possible downhills to run - down the other side or back the way you came up. That’s what you should tell yourself the next time you’re suffering up the Mother of All Hills.
Let’s cut to the chase. The rush we get from downhills is at the top of all the many reasons trail running is so addictive. Perhaps downhills are still a little scary, but you’ll grow to love them as you become more confident.
The good news is that no matter how badly you think you suck, you can - and will - improve, if you persevere and focus on good technique. Honing your downhill skills can be done whenever you encounter a decline. Over time, these small improvements will make a big difference to your running super-powers. Try it and you’ll see.
Master mountain runner Kilian Jornet says, “Relax on the descents. Forget your fear and lean forward, not back like your instinct tells you. Get into it like you’re dancing.”
The mega-talented Spaniard, who is also a champion ski mountaineer and the winner of every international trail race that matters, including the UTMB, adds that “On extremely steep descents, take small steps and don’t worry if your feet slide occasionally. Lean back - not forward - on these steep slopes and let yourself slide on loose stones.” This occasional purposeful slide will help you improve your foot control and balance.
Cat-like reflexes are important, coupled to a trained eye that knows where to look. Float over the rough stuff by identifying the high points such as stones and soil mounds, and step on these to stay out of trouble.
Your feet should be making brief, light and ideally, almost soundless contact with the ground. If they’re slapping or landing noisily, focus on running on the front half of your feet, and not your heels. Run tall, don’t slump.
Lift your knees higher on the trail than on the road. It will help you clear hidden dangers like roots that trip up the lazy shufflers.
Focus on a smooth rhythm with your legs and arms, on being flexible and trying to land as lightly as possible. A heavy footfall downhill causes heavy pain the next day. Your lower back, quadriceps and knees all take a hammering when you run with poor form.
What is Kilian’s take on the chances of injury offroad? “It’s easier to get injured on tar! When the terrain is softer and more irregular, each step you take is different and strengthens your muscles. To run safely, start off running on trails that you find easy, and little by little move onto places that are technically more difficult. Start doing longer and longer runs.”
TRAIL Best tip with Deon Braun
Look for the trickiest 50m-300m downhill you can find. Make this your interval friend. Run it over and over and over in the same session. Walk the uphills to recover if you want, but run down as fast as you can. Try different lines and make a few precise mistakes to see what happens. Step over some rocks on one repetition and step on them on the next. Which feels better? Note how your confidence improves and your times drop.
Too many newbies get only one chance to run technical sections, normally blind (without seeing it before) on a big loop run or during races. This is not how you’re going to roll. Doing that takes ages for you to gain confidence and see real improvement.
Run dry downhills
Continually scan the ground 3-5m and occasionally up to 10m ahead.
Keep your weight forward, leaning from the hip. This encourages good mid-foot running that will save your knees and hips
Don’t lean too far forward if you see extra steep or bumpy sections ahead. You’re a runner, not a gymnast. Somersaults are not part of the routine.
Work on a high foot turnover so your own speed doesn’t overtake you and come a cropper. Top-speed downhill is an excellent way to over-extend yourself to better performances on the flats.
Pay special attention to your foot placement if you need to turn sharply on loose gravel. Small, quick steps does it. Expect some sliding.
Learn to enjoy the odd slide but don’t fall on your face by allowing your shoes to grip and dig in. Stay light.
Never put your full body weight onto a foot placement. This is a nasty rolled ankle injury waiting to happen.
Run wet downhill
Run like a duck. Widen your foot placement especially in V-shaped and eroded single-track for better grip and stability.
Occasionally you can windmill your arms for balance, like tightrope walkers use a balancing rod.
Scan the ground 5-10 metres ahead to identify the most slippery parts.
Stay loose and expect the odd foot slide in the squish.
Use a higher knee action and faster cadence so you have more time to respond with an extra foot placement if you slide or snag something.
Keep your speed constant. Sudden stops cause sliding, flying and sometimes, brown bottoms.
Accelerate slightly as you get to the bottom of the hill to maintain your speed.