Running is running….well, to a certain point anyway. You can train all you like on flat or smooth terrain, building a big engine and great efficiency, but there’s one part of mountain running, particularly Skyrunning, that you only get from heading for the hills, and that’s good descending skills. It’s not uncommon for flat landers to enter a race with lots of vertical, only to discover that all the gains they make on the non-technical and flat terrain, is lost within a few minutes of tackling a steep descent. It can be incredibly frustrating to be losing time, not because of a lack of fitness, but due to technical inability. It’s not something you experience in road races or undulating trail runs. So when you do enter your first off-road race with gnarly down hills, it’s often an eye-opening and quad destroying experience. So if you’re planning to do a trail run and are new to the idea of ‘technical terrain’ then here’s a few tips to make life more pleasant.
Short, fast strides
It’s all about the gentle pitter patter, not the stomp. You’ll often hear people stomping their way down a hill, with long strides and hard footstrike. While it can be quick, It’s certainly not optimal as later in a race it will come back to haunt you. When descending, the goal should be to have fast, light strides, with as brief a contact period as possible. Your cadence should be high, often well in excess of 180 strides/min. Think of being light on your feet and avoid bounding or over-striding.
Choose the right shoes
You want footwear that not only protects you from the impact, but provides grip too. Select a pair of kicks that has ample cushioning and underfoot protection from pointy rocks. This will reduce soreness and increases your confidence. You want something that you don’t move around in, and feels firm around your foot. In road running you can get away with it if they’re slightly too big or small, however this is certainly not the case in steep mountain races. The downhills will expose any irregularities and your toes will get brutalised if your shoes are poor fitting. Finally, the tread needs to be more aggressive than road shoes, hence trail specific footwear is advised. Good grip provides confidence and stability, both of which you’ll need plenty of.
Practice makes perfect
The more time you spend honing your descending skills, the better. It really is a skill that takes years of practice to master. In training you should vary the type of terrain you do it on. Mix up the short and super steep stuff, with longer, more gradual slopes. Same goes for variety in terms of technical downhills and more runnable terrain. It’s also something you need to keep refreshing. Just because you did plenty of downhill running six months ago doesn’t mean you’ll still be a descending Jedi.
Confidence in your ability goes a long way to performing the task well, and also avoiding accidents. If you hesitate, you’ll brake, which loads the quads, loses your momentum and can result in slipping….which could lead to you breaking. If you practice enough, then with that will come self-belief and in turn, better technique.
Choose your lines
Like a cyclist descending Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France, you have to choose the best line to run when striding downhill. Generally speaking, look for the most natural and obvious route that those before you have run. Typically it’s going to be more well worn and firmer underfoot. You need to occasionally look far enough ahead to know what’s coming in the next 5 to 10 seconds, but primarily concentrate on where you’re placing your feet. It’s important to always focus on where you want to be not where you don’t want to be. By this I mean, always look at the line you want to run and not at the cliff on the other side. This is a technique skiers and mountain bikers use. Similar to how cars corner, try to enter bends wide, hug the inside of the curve and then accelerate on departure, holding a slightly wider line.
One final piece of advice: don’t get sucked into other peoples pace or route. Always concentrate on yourself and never feel pressured to run as fast or slow as those around you.