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MASTER THE TRAIL RUN DESCENT 

Run the Wild's Simon James tells you how to get the hang of that difficult downhill trail


One of the joys of trail running is the variety of techniques that are needed to cope with different terrain. As Run the Wild specialise in trail runs in the Chilterns and the Alps, we’re faced with a vast mix of trails and a lot of hill work. The challenges of running up hill tend to be considered in advance, but many people find running down the hills surprisingly challenging.

Starting Your Training

Those without mountainous terrain on their doorstep will want to take it easy when starting out, but even the most urban of flat land runners can learn helpful techniques. After over ten years racing and countless runs out in the Alps, I still find myself surprised that gains are largely made on the big descents, with differences in fitness having less of an impact during climbs.

 

When you’re starting out, the first thing you should do is plan your downhill training runs. This means advance preparation and route planning, focus on good form, and a post-run analysis on where improvements can be made, and where you’re already making progress. You should start with familiar paths, where your brain already knows what to expect on each step, and your footing can be more assured.

A runner with Run the Wild attempts the steep learning curve of trail running descents 

Don’t take unnecessary risks doing speed descents on rocky tracks with blind corners and steep drop offs, be mindful of the weather and always be considerate to other path users. I try to keep to quieter tracks where I’m less likely to be hurtling towards some poor soul just trying to enjoy a quiet summer evening!

 

As you start out It’s helpful to focus on these key elements:  

  • Maintaining good form
  • Improving your feet-eye coordination and route choice
  • Developing your ‘gears’

Technique

When you’re starting out, opt for short, gradual hills that have a clear run out (think concave rather than convex) to allow you to focus on maintaining good form. Keep a slight forward lean from the ankles rather than bending at the waist, which will help your feet land under the body, and let your legs stretch out behind you. Somewhat counterintuitively, try and consider your cadence (stride speed); a higher number of smaller steps puts less pressure on foot placement than giant leaping strides down the mountain.

Good technique is key if you don't want tricky terrain to trip you up

To control your cadence, think of each step just lightly brushing the ground instead of sending your feet crashing down after each huge stride and risking turned ankles. If you’re tempted to jog back up the hill afterwards, make sure you take a breather at the top so you can start the next descent with all your focus on maintaining form, rather than recovery. It’s so much easier to catch a toe on a small rock leading to a nasty fall when your legs are already tired from a long ascent.

 

You can build up to longer hills as your body adjusts and your confidence grows. Alongside these hill sessions, you can also start venturing onto more technical trails, honing your feet-to-eye coordination and strengthening your lateral ankle ligaments. These can be on shallow gradient or flat trails, since your primary goal should be to pick a good, fluid route to keep you moving efficiently.

 

While running, be ready to shift your weight left or right depending on any potential dangers you spot ahead of you. Keep your feet hip width apart and use your arms to give yourself more balance, holding them slightly away from your body. Try and scan ahead, rather than staring at a spot a few feet in front; this will allow you to move freely through the terrain. If you scan 10m ahead, your brain will anticipate the trail ahead and make the necessary adjustments to keep moving fluidly. Don’t be afraid to slow down if you need to be able to move safely though.

Take a breather before attempting a downhill

Gaining Confidence

As you continue to progress with your training, your confidence will naturally grow, leading to a more relaxed body and a longer stride. You will begin trusting your own feet to find the ground underneath you instead of exacting every step, getting faster and more fluid. Gravity will be working with you rather than against you, for once, so make sure you focus on keep your mind on the task in hand.

 

As your hill sessions and your coordination improves, you will have the confidence to seek out steeper and more technical trails. Adjust your form as the terrain steepens, requiring more control gained through leaning back and adopting a heel strike and a small stride. If you encounter loose scree or mud you may find it easier to ‘ski’ down the slope, rather than maintaining a defined running/stride momentum.

 

Finally, you should be able to seek out routes that include a variety of terrain that encompasses all these elements. This is where your gears come into play, constantly switching back and forth depending what is required of your body to maintain speed, form and control. Running downhill is hard on the body, especially the knees, so don’t overdo it. Remember; train smarter not longer, and enjoy it. These are the paths that make trail running interesting!


RUN THE WILD

Simon James is the founder of Run the Wild - the UK’s first premier, dedicated trail running holiday adventure company. Operating in the UK and the Alps, they deliver holidays that combine the sense of 'team' from mountaineering, with the thrill of trail running in wild places. Simon is a keen trail runner and marathon runner with a PB of 2hrs 37mins. He is a qualified Leader in Running Fitness as well as International Mountain Leader and offers treks in the Alps.


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