In the first two miles of the Via Lehigh Valley Marathon this past weekend, I found myself in a familiar position: Blowing through a crowd of runners, passing dozens of people who are probably faster than me, and actually catching my breath while I did it. It’s something that happens almost every race I run, and for one simple reason: Most runners, or at least most intermediate runners, don’t know how to run downhill.
Hills offer you a perfect opportunity to pick up speed and catch your breath, if you employ a technique that lets gravity do the work for you. And yet most runners do exactly the opposite and fight gravity, which not only costs them the opportunity to shave off a few seconds, but actually puts more wear and tear on their knees.
So what is the right way to run downhill? It’s simple: Lean forward. Lean forward enough that, were you to try and stand still, you would fall forward onto your face. Since you aren’t standing still, gravity will pull you down and forward (which happens to be the direction you want to move anyway) and all you need to do is keep your legs turning over.
That’s it. So why don’t more runners do it? Because humans have an instinct to keep our bodies upright and balanced. That sense of falling is unconsciously scary, so that instinct sends us leaning back. Look around you the next time you’re heading downhill in a race, and note how everyone is leaning backward, making their gaits awkward and hammering their knees and leg muscles with each step. That backward lean also takes more effort–remember, resisting gravity is the core mechanic of weight training.
So don’t do that to yourself. The next time you find yourself running downhill, force yourself to lean forward, so your body is at a similar angle to the ground as it would be on flat terrain. As you feel gravity pull, increase the rate at which you’re turning your legs. It might help to take shorter strides, especially if the hill is relatively steep or the terrain is questionable–longer strides might feel natural, but they put more impact on your heels and knees, and make it a little harder to keep your balance if you hit a bump or a hole.
Get used to letting gravity pull you downhill, and you’ll soon find you can run impressively fast speeds, and still somehow catch your breath. Trust me, the most challenging thing will be finding a path through which you can zoom past the slower runners, still leaning back and resisting that hill.