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Technical trail running—where you’re negotiating rocks, roots and the like—can be challenging, even on flat and uphill terrain. Add the speed generated by gravity and downhill trail running can be an exercise in trying your hardest to not roll an ankle or take a sprawling fall. Get comfortable at it, however, and running a rocky, rooty, rutty or twisty downhill trail can be downright gleeful.
You may have heard tips like “choose your line,” which means picking your way through a technical trail by taking the path of least resistance. Or the one about looking where you want to run instead of looking where you don’t (an old mountain biking trick). And you may have seen masterful trail runners with a wide arm swing for added balance.
The historic Dipsea trail race, a 7.4-mile run over the hilly terrain between Mill Valley, Calif., and Stinson Beach, is one of the most famous technical races of all. We asked three-time winner Brian Pilcher for his tips on learning to master running downhill.
1. Practice makes perfect
“The first thing is specificity,” Pilcher says. Find a downhill section of trail that’s particularly technical and run it over and over again at various speeds. “You have to get over the fear,” he says. “Do it a lot, and you won’t be as afraid.”
2. Shorten your stride
“If you have a long stride,” Pilcher says, “you spend a long time in the air, and when you hit the ground, you brake.” The goal is to not break your speed, and therefore, shorter strides are better. Another benefit of short strides, he says, is being able to place your foot quickly and precisely.
3. Have a quick turnover
Similar to a shorter stride, a quick turnover benefits a runner on a technical downhill. “Normally,” Pilcher says, “you’re worried about pushing off your back foot. But if you focus on picking up your back foot as soon as you put it down, you’re basically falling downhill—a good thing if you’re looking to run fast.”
4. Separate mind from body
Most downhill trails are preceded by uphill trails. In a race, your body will want (and need) to recover on a downhill. But, Pilcher warns, “Don’t let your mind recover. Somehow you have to separate the two.” Staying focused will help keep you from tripping up, and it’ll help you keep your speed.