How to Run Downhill: Mastering Trail Running’s Most Critical Skill

August 23, 2018
trail running downhill
Scott LivingstonUphill may get all the glory, but Debbie Livingston’s tips on how to run downhill could protect you against injuries.

Trail running and uphill running are often synonymous. Big, iconic climbs can define a weekend long run or a race course. Vertical kilometer events have taken off in Europe (they’re exactly what they sound like—1,000 meters, straight up), and in New England, an entire trail race series is defined largely by its long ascents. But what goes up must come down, and knowing how to run downhill can save your body from injury and shave seconds off your pace.

“It’s almost like a playful jungle gym,” Debbie Livingston says of downhill running. The Connecticut-based ultramarathoner and member of AMC’s board of advisors loves the challenge of a rapid descent. That passion is often visible in race photos, where she appears on the edge of control, arms flying at angles as she hangs on to her balance.

In a race, Livingston uses whatever she can to stay upright on a downhill, landing on rocks, grabbing branches, but also dodging slippery patches of moss and leaves. “What can I swing off of? Bounce off? Leap off?” she says. Going fast but not too fast requires a delicate balance. Ensure a rapid but safe descent by using these time-tested tips.

  • Look Ahead. “Look maybe 10, 15 feet out rather than 2 feet in front of you,” Livingston says. Identify where you’ll step a couple of strides before you reach that point. “It’s like a puzzle,” she says.
  • Lean Forward. Bend slightly into the downhill and let gravity help you. You can lean back to slow your descent, but your legs will absorb more of a pounding.
  • Use Your Arms. “Let them flail!” Livingston says. “They’re your balance. Every step is going to be a little off, and throwing an arm out may just be the balancing motion you need to stay upright.”
  • Bend Your Knees. Your knees are your shock absorbers, so keep them bent and ready to cushion the landing of each stride.
  • Let Go. “People who are slow on the downhill are slow because they’re fearful,” Livingston says. “Letting go of that fear a little bit will help.”
  • Stretch. Maintaining flexible muscles and joints is a good idea for any kind of running, but downhills are especially unforgiving. Livingston practices yoga and specifically recommends balancing poses, as well as those for ankle and hip flexibility.

The more comfortable you get going downhill, the more you’ll enjoy it. Maybe even as much as Livingston: “It feels like flying” she says. “Just soaring. A feeling of free fall, in a way.”


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Marc Chalufour

Marc Chalufour, a former senior editor of AMC Outdoors, contributes to the trail-running blog Running Wild.