Technical Downhill Running

They say you should play to your strengths and forget about working on your weaknesses. If I could race only uphill or on less-technical downhill terrain, I might follow this advice. I’m tired of getting passed on the really technical stuff though, so I decided to instead seek some advice from one of the fastest downhillers that I know.

I’ve had the pleasure of doing a bit of training with local speedster Mike Murphy, recent winner of the Knee Knacker, who suggested that I try running downhill repeats. This, in addition to doing more functional strength work like plyometrics, could be just what I need to mitigate my major weakness.

Breaking it Down

The idea is to break down a long, technical descent (ie. one that might normally take up to 15 minutes) into more digestible segments between 1-3 minutes long. By running one of these shorter segments repeatedly at absolutely full speed, then recovering on the climb back up (in around double the time of the downhill interval), you avoid inevitably getting tired after a few minutes and slowing down – I’ve practiced enough slow downhill running already!

It’s the same principal that applies to the speed work and heart-rate based training I do with the Peak Centre for Human Performance, where ‘junk miles’ are to be avoided and where the focus is on quality over quantity. In fact, you’d be surprised at how high your heart rate can get running downhill, and it can similarly help with increasing turn-over, making it great supplementary intensity work.

The reason for repeating the same segment instead of simply continuing downhill in alternating intervals, is to also practice choosing my lines. This is a skill I hope to master with experience, and with that will come the confidence I need to throw caution to the wind during races.

Putting it to Work

The trail I’ve always had in mind for this was Ned’s Atomic Dust Bin on the North Shore. With about 300 metres of loss over 2 km, it’s not an incredibly steep trail by any means, but it is fairly technical, winding singletrack, with a good mix of rocks, bridges, and drops.

Starting from the top, I found I could run the 400 metres or so to the first big turn and over the bridge, where the trail flattens out and then climbs up again for a few metres, in just under 2 minutes. After just a few laps, I had already knocked 10 seconds off this time – thanks I’m sure, not only to my having already gotten more familiar with the terrain, but being better able to focus on developing and maintaining better technique after recovering in-between intervals.

Other Benefits of Downhill Running

The eccentric strain inherent to downhill running can help a road runner to improve strength and speed too, even when done on softer and non-technical terrain. But for me, it’s the specific improvements in form, economy, and ultimately speed on technical downhill terrain that I’m after.

Can this ex-road runner compensate for an overly developed sense of self-preservation and lack of natural athleticism through downhill intervals? Time will tell.

Stay tuned for tips from the pros in proper technique for technical downhill running, and be sure to check out Mike’s blog.

Jeff Pelletier
Written by Jeff Pelletier
I’m a trail and ultra runner from Vancouver, a proud member of Teams Salomon and Suunto Canada, and a Sponsored Ambassador for CLIF Bar and inReach Canada.