Improve Your Speed & Technique with Downhill Running

I’ve just recently returned from the NSCA Hockey Training Clinic in Colorado Springs. This was the event to be at for those that train hockey players.

The cheese roll run. Not what we're thinking about for downhill running.

Not what we’re thinking about for downhill running.


There were presentations from a number of NHL strength coaches such as the Avs, Lightning and Blues as well as coaches from NCAA D1 schools, the Air Force Academy and private facilities. And there was one thing in common with the programs of all of these coaches which was the value of incorporating sprinting into the training program.

And while I am big believer in the value of sprinting there is a certain type of sprinting which I feel can help not only make a player faster but also improve their running mechanics. And this type of sprinting is downhill running.

Now before you all run off (pun intended) to give downhill running a try there are a few conditions that must be satisfied but you do.

* you must not have any joint pain or injuries

* you must already be doing some sprinting

* you must already be doing some lower body strength-power training

If you meet all of these conditions you are free to give downhill running a try. And here are the factors to keep in mind to ensure you get the most benefit from downhill running.

1. Consider the Surface

With downhill running you want to ensure that each foot placement is secure and won’t cause you to go down. So you would want to avoid deep grass and roots, loose ground such as shale or anything else which may trip you up. To start with look for a smooth paved surface

2. Consider the Angle

It doesn’t take much of an angle to benefit from downhill running. I remember doing a 10 km race with an out and back course. Coming back towards the finish line I felt great and my splits were the fastest of the race. The fact that there was a slight downhill towards the finish probably had the most to do with this.

When you head out looking to try downhill running don’t start out too steep. 2-5% if adequate depending on how familiar you are with downhill running and how fast you want to go. You can also look at it this way when trying to decide how steep of a hill to use. With less of an angle you can give downhill sprinting a try. But for steeper slopes you’ll want to hold off on maximal speed and run instead of sprint.

3. Consider the Training Phase

Downhill running adds more eccentric stress to the body which is harder to recover from than concentric or isometric workouts. Knowing that it is going to be harder on muscles and joints of the body start small and build gradually. This is not a type of training to go high intensity and high volume. Think less is more and stop while everything still feels good. And be aware of what is coming up with your training and competition schedule so you can incorporate downhill running on the appropriate day.

4. Consider your Technique

One of the reasons I really like downhill running is that it exposes running flaws. You can quickly feel and notice the mistakes you are making with your running. Here are number of technique points to keep in mind with downhill running.

A. Stay Forward

Many people when they run downhill will lean back to check or control their speed. While this will help you to control your speed it also changes the mechanics of your running stride and ground contact. Plus it puts you further off balance. I’ll use a downhill skiing example to illustrate this.

With downhill skiing as the slope steepens you want to lean more forward to stay balanced and in control. For beginners this is not intuitive and they may ride the tails of their skis coming down a steep slope. When they are on their heels they end up losing edge control and typically end up sliding out on the tails of their skis and crashing.

B. Stay Perpendicular

Besides thinking about staying forward with your position you also want to think of keep your body angle relative to the ground constant. Picture yourself walking on level ground. And notice how your body is perpendicular, or at 90 degrees, to the ground. As the ground falls down in front of you on a downhill you need to lean your body forward in order to maintain this perpendicular position.

C. Stay Tall 

When I say ‘stay tall’ I mean to have as much height from your feet through the top of your head. Don’t make the mistake of lifting the chin to achieve more height. This actually makes you shorter.

Instead if you were to visualize yourself running down a hill you could connect a line from your ankle-knee-hip-shoulder-ear. A common mistake with someone with a weak core or that is getting tired is they get shorter and bend over at the waist. So remember to keep the hips forward and chest tall.

D. Stay Wide with Your Arms

Have you ever tried running with your arms in your pockets? If not, give it a try. Better yet have some video you sprinting with your arms in your pockets. You’ll notice a few things. The most obvious is that you are slower. But you make also realize how you weren’t as balanced. And when you watch the video you may notice how your body moves from side to side as you sprint.

So knowing how important arm action is for sprinting we want to make sure to use our arms, not so much for propulsion in this case, but for balance. Here’s another downhill skiing example to make the point.

Last year I took a ski lesson. And besides the instructor saying I was an expert and there wasn’t much he could teach us (Tricia was with me and can vouch for this) he did give me one piece of advice. He said I should hold my arms wider and more away from my body. And he said the steeper the slope the more I should lift them. This helps distribute my centre of mass allowing me to stay more balanced on my skis. The same principle applies with downhill running.

E. Stay Short with Your Stride

With downhill running gravity does a lot of the work for us. Or it should. What can happen is if we lengthen our stride with downhill running our foot will contact the ground out in front of the body creating a braking force. So rather than propelling us down the hill we are working against ourselves as we have to overcome this braking force with each stride.

But it gets worse.

Because we are running downhill the further a point is in front of us the lower the position will be. Think of standing at the top of a flight of stairs. The first stair is not as low as the second which is not as low as the third. Now try and touch each of these stairs below without leaving the top stair. Can you touch the stairs below with your toes? Probably not due to the angle and limits on our ankle plantar-flexion. However you can reach the stairs with your heel.

So knowing that you will hit each lower portion of the ground in front of you with a heel striking motion, rather than mid-foot strike, makes it all the more important to minimize over striding which puts additional stress on the ankle-knee-hip-low back.

F. Stay Quick with Your Stride

Another thing to make sure to do with downhill running is to increase the turnover of your strides. As you shorten your stride to minimize over-striding and creating a braking force you will need to do something to accommodate a shorter stride. And what you do is to take quicker, more frequent strides.

Let’s take another look at a skiing example.

When you are skiing on a flat slope you don’t make many turns. And the turns you do make have a big radius. However as you get onto a steeper slope you need to make quicker, tighter turns. Picture a moguls skier at the Olympics making a number of quick and short radius turns and you’ll get the idea.

G. Stay Relaxed

A number of articles on downhill running tell you to use your glutes and core more. What the heck does even mean? Do you ever think about firing your core when you run? Or your glutes? And what would you do to fire them more?

Running should be a natural automatic movement. My daughter is not yet two and runs around the house every night from 7-8 pm. I’m pretty sure she’s isn’t thinking about bracing her core or engaging her glutes.

Rather than try to do something that makes no sense to most of us think about this another way. As mentioned above downhill running is nice because gravity does the work. Since you don’t have to work as hard you should be able to relax a little bit. And as you are able to relax try and focus on having balanced breathing. Equal inhalations and exhalations. Another thing you can try to do is to imagine you are running on egg shells. Do not allow your feet to slam into the ground with big heavy steps. Try to anticipate ground contact and be light on your feet. You will find having wide arms helps with this as well.


Although I mentioned it above I’ll repeat it again because some people like to skim. If you aren’t already doing some sprinting and lower body strength training than don’t try downhill running. However if you are and would like to give it a try keep the points above in mind. And really take advantage of letting gravity do the work so you can feel what a faster speed feels like and help work out some of the kinks with your running technique.

Chris [fb-like]



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