Descendre en trail

Guide to downhill trail running

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For trail runners, downhill running is great fun and a good opportunity for making ground in official races. It has its own set of challenges, but you can learn skills to improve your descent.

 

Why train for downhill running?

Running downhill looks easy, maybe even like a time to recover between two ascents. Yet it is often said that a trail race is won in the ascents and lost...in the descents. It is a difficult exercise that requires preparation.

Descents cause muscle stiffness much more than ascents, because it is more taxing on the thigh muscles, due to eccentric contractions: when the muscle slows leg extension. We often forget that the back suffers too, which is why core workouts are important. A strong core will prevent you from "crushing" with every stride. To prevent muscle fatigue, forget your fear of steep descents, and gain confidence and speed, there is nothing better than specific training and careful control of the exercise.

 

Skills for fast descents

We all tend to hold back when running downhill, naturally leaning backwards. But to be perpendicular to the ground, you are better off leaning...forward!

Adopt this posture, and your centre of gravity is practically above your bearing point. Your stride naturally shrinks and the forefront of your foot is first to hit the ground, rather than your heel. As a result, the impact with the ground is not as hard, and less muscle fibres are broken (that's what stops you walking normally the days following a race).Because the size of your stride shrinks, your contact with the ground is shorter and the danger of falling dramatically reduced: one foot takes off and you are already on the other.

When the slope is gentle, you can place your right foot. If, however, the downhill slope is very steep, sometimes it is preferable to do zig zags, i.e placing the foot across the slope to slow you naturally. That is also useful when you have accumulated fatigue: it is less taxing on your muscles.

Another tip: avoid looking at the ground. On the contrary, try looking a long way ahead to decide the best trajectory to take, which is not necessarily the shortest in a technical descent!

For stability, relax your shoulders, run with your arms slightly separated from the body and stretched downwards, like a tightrope walker. That way, if you are unlucky enough to fall, your hands will be close to the ground and break your fall. When you relax your arms, your shoulders are less tense, and you waste less energy which helps to reduce your heart rate and therefore recover.

 

How to train for downhill running

There is only one way to improve your descent technique: train! First choose an obstacle-free trail, or road, so you don't have to worry about the ground. Start by training on gentle slopes so you can concentrate on technique and master the skills before trying steeper trails.

If you don't live in a mountainous area, you really need to find a descent, even if it's short, where you can train regularly (there has to be one near your house!). You can also descend stairs running. The aim is to get your muscles used the multitude of mini-shocks which, over distances, become a handicap for running on flats or uphill.

 

How to get over your fear of running downhill?

Training will give you confidence in yourself. Train on negative slopes progressively, starting with short, gentle slopes to learn to control your body and master the skills. Let yourself go, relax...you will find that exercise has never been such a pleasure. Tell yourself you have to overcome the descent and not the opposite!

 

If you are training for a race, include descents sessions in your training plan. Just training on slopes and acquiring the right skills can help you shave a couple of seconds off your time.

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