king (queen) of the hill – 7 tips for running downhill in obstacle races
“Walk the uphill, jog the flat, sprint the downhill” is an old adage of ultra runners. While I will let you decide whether you, indeed, want to walk the uphill or sprint uphill in an obstacle race, sprinting the downhill is a key skill in improving your race time. Once you master the how, seconds you gain on covering the downhill is essentially free time, as gravity is helping you along.
Getting better at running downhill is by far the easiest way to blow by your competition. In fact, I’ve recruited the help of someone who knows all about passing others, as he flies downhill – Miguel Medina.
Miguel is the king of the downhill, one of the Spartan Pro Athletes, and is usually the hairiest one on the podium, but, more importantly, he is also a sweetheart (in most of his photos, he is either running or hugging people – so you can see why I like him).
If you’ve never seen Miguel run, you really should. In fact, pull up a chair. It’s a pleasure to watch.
While trudging up hill is challenging aerobically, sprinting downhill requires technique and a lot of guts. It’s also quite hard on your body – “each step triggers muscle-damaging eccentric contractions in the quadriceps and lower legs”, says Greg Wells, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of Toronto and the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes. “On level ground, these muscles shorten as they fire; on declines, they elongate while under tension as they work to control your speed. This creates more micro-tears in each fiber, which stimulates muscle growth but leaves you fatigued and sore. That’s one reason the Boston Marathon, with its four-mile downhill opening stretch, is such a hard course”. [Source]
Tim Gallwey, one of the founding fathers of business coaching and life coaching, contrasts the outer game and the inner game. While the outer game has external opponents and rules, the inner game refers to the inner interferences we all experience. He goes on to suggest that “the inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions. The inner game is played to overcome the self-imposed obstacles that prevent an individual or team from accessing their full potential”.
Excellence in performance is then achieved in the balance with outer game (potential) and inner game (interference) – the relationship that can be expressed as follows:
PERFORMANCE = POTENTIAL – INTERFERENCE
Let’s explore how you can improve your downhill running performance by both increasing your potential and decreasing interference.
… by developing the skills specific to running downhill.
1. lean into it
The most common mistake that people make while running downhill is leaning backwards too much. Not only it slows you down, it also increases the impact on your quads with each step.
Miguel says: “WORK with gravity not against it. Lean forward and keep your feet under your body landing on your forefoot or midfoot (heel striking downhill will wreck your knees, back, and speed).”
2. higher turn over
Increase your cadence, as you run downhill. Think of running over hot coals, taking quick light steps.
Miguel says: “You need to have a high turnover in your legs. Long strides with a quick turnover take time to master , so practice first on a small hills, then up the distance gradually”.
3. look ahead
Don’t look under your feet. It’s too late. Instead, scan what’s coming up ahead, as you will rarely be running down a paved path. Hell, you’ll be lucky to have a path at all. There will be rocks in your way. You’ll have to hop over logs. You’ll have to watch for gnarly roots. Hell, I almost got impaled by a spear-like broken off branch while doing the Vermont Beast last year.
Miguel says: “Look ahead, NOT DOWN. Look about ten feet ahead and strategize your steps and patterns. Sometimes, the really pebbly stuff can be deep and cause you to slide. Lots of large rocks means slow down. Flat and packed means GO! Mossy or wet conditions require quite a bit of balance, or slowing down”.
… by removing things that would get in your way, be it inappropriate gear, erroneous gait, or psychological blocks.
Go ahead and show up to a hilly obstacle race (hello, Vermont!) in a pair of road shoes. You will be like those poor BMWs in the winter – lots of power, zero grip.
Miguel and I share the affinity for Salomon FellCross – they are definitely the All-Wheel Drive version of trail shoes. Although I have recently fell in love with an even lighter, but just as aggressive Salomon S-LAB Sense 3 Ultra Soft Ground (holy moly, that’s a mouthful. Can we just refer to these as “sharks”?). Salomon SpeedCross will also work if you are looking for something more supportive.
Miguel says: “You want aggressive tread and tight fitting shoes – the expression “like a glove” comes to mind. If you are running on a rocky trail, make sure your shoe has a hard plate or your feet will be crying from them rocks”.
You won’t need the back and forth arm movement for power, as you would on an uphill. The key with your arms on the downhill is to get them out of your way as much as possible.
Miguel says: “Relax your upper body and let your arms act as a counterbalance while running downhill. Don’t flail them, just let them move naturally, so you do not waste unnecessary energy. For example, if you jump over a rock, your stride will naturally lengthen and your arms will glide up. And if you are barrelling downhill, your arms will be all over the place (think those air-inflated promotional tools that car salesmen use”.
6. let go
While it is possible to run downhill “too fast”, as you develop the pace too aggressive for you to maintain, and careen out of control, most racers have the opposite issue. If your body is unable to cope with momentum, you will be forced to put on the brakes and expend energy where you could be saving it.
Want to run downhill fast? Get out of your own way. If you are leading with your nose, that’s probably not it.
Miguel says: “Be fearless. The best downhill runners trust their bodies, their gear and accept the risk of falling…HARD. So stay loose, keep your head up, and work with gravity.”.
7. learn to fall
If you trip and fall (which will happen eventually), do so strategically.
Miguel says: “It’s not flying, it’s falling with style! You can minimize both the pain and potential injury, by falling the “right” way. Do not lock any part of your body. Fall loosely, elbows bent and roll into it. You can usually pop back up with maybe some scratches and bruises vs. a broken arm. This is a good way to fall, period.”
Try to exhale right before impact, but not forcefully, which will tense up your body.
Now… go get ’em, downhills. And don’t let me catch up to you.
Are you the king/queen of the downhill? Or are downhills your downfall? Do you have additional tips that have worked for you?
Rocking the downhill,
Solo & Miguel
Note: You can get more of Miguel on his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @mgmeliteor