A Journal for Those Stuck at Home

Slow Dancing with a Bear – And Other Ways to Run Downhill

About a month ago, I had my first run over an hour after taking two weeks off with a bacterial infection in my leg, which required antibiotics and lots of rest. Taking two weeks off just as I was ramping up for 3+ hour runs felt like something of a defeat, but it was also a lesson in surrender.  You don’t do yourself any favours training hard when your body needs to heal.  It was cold and snowing out, which I wasn’t that happy about, but soon I got into the spirit of winter. When I arrived at the park, the slopes were covered in a pristine blanket of snow.  I decided to practice running up and down the hills using some of the techniques Kilian Jornet, the Catalan ultra-runner, demonstrates in his videos on the Salomon website.

Kilian emphasizes the need to engage the entire body in both uphill and downhill running. This sharing of the workload helps prevent stress injuries to the most obvious heavy lifters in the running game – the legs. As in everything physical, engaging the core muscles is essential for overall stability and coordination of movement.

So on that snowy day, I sped up the side of the hill using my hands and legs to dig my way to the top. I ran an easy lap on the flats to lower my heart rate then dropped down the snowy slope, using a ski-sliding technique. I felt like a kid and even had fun falling down and getting right back up. Ultimately, the goal in downhill should be to arrive at the bottom relaxed and ready to climb again.

When it comes to downhilling, there isn’t a one size fits all for getting to the bottom. In the book Chi Running, the author, Danny Dreyer, has some good tips for downhill running. In short, there are two types of hills: non-technical and technical (Dreyer refers to these as “runnable” and “non-runnable”).

In Toronto, as in most urban centres (not including the San Frans or La Pazs of the world), the majority of paved roads I would categorize as non-technical. The approach to this type of downhill is to run with upright posture, an imaginary string pulling you up from the top of the head. Standing tall and with the core engaged, lean forward from the ankles and let yourself fall downhill, one step at a time. Dreyer suggests you keep your foot planted a split second longer than on flats so that the leg stretches out behind the body, which not only assists in controlling the speed of the descent without using your quads to break but also opens the hips up and allows for the natural recoil when the hip and leg extends back. Don’t forget to allow the spine to be soft and supple so that it rotates as the leg goes back. Focus on keeping the lower body relaxed and loose. The faster you go, the looser the body needs to be (including the ankles, calves, and quads). Think of yourself as a river flowing downhill. No tension. The pelvis should be tilted up slightly and the shoulders a tad rounded, as if you have your arms wrapped around a bear, slow dancing (weird visual, I know). This posture flattens the lower back, reducing impact and stress on the sacrum. I plan to use this approach for Toronto’s Goodlife Marathon this May (2013), which is a downhill affair for a good chunk of its 42 kilometres.

Technical descents: The snowy slope I was experimenting with over that weekend fits into this category. If I had tried running it using the non-technical approach of leaning forward, I probably would’ve needed plastic surgery to reconstruct my broken face. This terrain requires sitting back on the heels. Unlike non-tech hills, the object here is to pick your feet up as fast as possible, running with shorter strides, which allows your centre of mass to remain over your feet for better traction and stability. By focusing on picking up your feet quickly, you take the emphasis away from the landing so you’ll stay lighter on your feet. It also prevents over-commitment, if you hit some loose patches.  For crazy technical descents, the arms are often out, which provides extra stability, just as the tight-rope walker uses his/her balancing pole to keep upright and alive.

On steep slopes, zig-zag using your hips to shift weight and direction. Don’t be afraid to use things like trees to brace, control speed, and swing around to change direction. It’s about creativity and really utilizing the landscape you are running through. That’s why I’m not a big fan of ipods for cross-country running (or road running, for that matter). You’re more likely to miss certain cues, if you aren’t paying attention to the changes in terrain.

Kilian gets his downhill inspiration from mountain goats – not slow dancing with bears. Watch footage of how the mountain goat navigates steep descents, and you’ll see it leans back on its hind legs, switching directions frequently to prevent too much speed. Legs move fast and loose. In many ways, it’s like parkour, where the exercise is to keep in motion, even when off balance. That flow and momentum allows for some pretty gravity-defying moves. Watch More Kilian on Youtube.

Of course, within technical and non-technical categories are dozens of different types of terrain that require adjustment, whether running in the forest with slick tree roots or down exposed rocky alpine slopes. It’s a good idea to practice downhill on a variety of terrain and approach the process as an experiment. When you figure out the fastest way with the least physical or mental effort, memorize that feeling for future reference.  As a lame downhiller myself, I’m going to include more technique-based sessions in my ramp up to Whistler’s Meet Your Make 80K in September.

Final thought de jour: No matter the type of downhill you face, remember that gravity is your friend.  Approach every condition not with a sense of dread or foreboding, but in the spirit of experimentation and adventure.

If you have any of your own running advice, feel free to share by leaving a message below. I’ll be sure to post it.