What Goes Up Must Come Down…Hopefully on Two Feet

Every time I write a post about trail running, I focus on all of the stuff we’re doing to get up the mountain, but not really even mentioning the whole “getting back down” part, even though multiple people have said that for Imogene, the downhill portion is more physically taxing than the uphill portions. I tend to think I am a strong downhill runner which almost seems like a silly and maybe even embarrassing thing to admit. It’s like saying I’m really good at the one thing in running that requires no skill aside from just being a body of mass subject to the laws of gravity. BUT at least I have that!

Not only does my pace slow down considerably while running uphill, I also feel completely miserable/tired/frustrated any time I’m faced with an incline.   I can handle flatness and seem to do ok with it as evidenced by the Chicago Marathon, even though I prefer to add little elevation changes so my muscles don’t get tired.

But when I’m running downhill everything works in conjunction to make me feel like I am the most fast, amazing runner on the planet. Stand in the way, and I will knock you down with my downhill runner awesomenss.

IMG_1242 - Copy

So, basically I spend a lot less time worrying about downhill training because overall I LOVE it.

BUT. But.

I have noticed that this whole thing gets a little more complicated when it comes to trail running.  Suddenly being a body of mass subject to the laws of gravity seems like less of an advantage when I can’t control myself going down, and as a result my quads get a beating because they are trying to stop me from missing a switchback and ending up going a bit too far over the side of the mountain.

Also, rattlesnakes. Not having control of your body might make you run into a rattlesnake like the run we saw during our 18.5er on Saturday. This alone is reason enough to consider going about downhill running in a strategic way. photo (5) Even though downhill trail running is different than running down a street I think the general tips and tricks and principles still apply: allow gravity to do its thing while attempting to reduce the amount of “braking” action you’re doing. But on some of these trails (and apparently at the top of Imogene Pass when you first start the descent), this requires considerable bravery and skill…things I don’t necessarily have as a strict “body of mass” downhill runner.

So, we have been practicing descending upon steep downhills (mostly because once you reach the top, you generally have to get back down). For me, my most obvious weakness has been  my core.  While a strong core will do wonders for just about anything in life, a weak core will make steep downhill running without falling down pretty impossible. At least for me.

But after all the talk about downhill training, I decided to do a little bit of research in hopes that I could improve my abilities and maybe be more prepared for this race.

After reading a bunch of lists on how to improve downhill running (actually, there are like 3 lists out there about downhill running), it looks like these other things are also important:

1) Hot Potato Steps:

Remember when you played hot potato as a kid (or yesterday…) and you tried to get whatever object (usually not actually a hot potato) out of your hands as fast as possible because presumably, it was “hot.” Kinda the same thing, except your feet are your hands and the trail is the hot potato. Think of times when you’ve missed a stair and ended up going farther down than you anticipated.  It usually results in a hard landing.  This is the same type of thing. Your foot is going farther than it thinks it is going, so it lands harder.

Apparently the more you replace “pounding the pavement” (dirt?), with being light and springy, the less pressure you are putting on your legs.

2) Bend slightly forward: 

This helps you use gravity while giving you more control.  Leaning back is part of the “braking” action that increases impact on your legs.  If you’ve ever been skiing, this makes a lot of sense.

3) Trail Shoes: I went against my own advice and purchased new/unfamiliar shoes last week.  I went with the Brooks Cascadia because most of the people in the facebook group said having traction on the bottom of your shoe will help prevent sliding during the initial steep descent from the summit. Trail shoes are made for this very purpose, so it makes sense to use what tools are available.

 So, I decided to put these two secrets to downhill success to the test during our last 18 mile run on Saturday.  We ran up the La Luz trail to the Sandia Peak summit, and then back down.  This course actually has a larger elevation gain than Imogene, so it was a good training run and in the very least assured me that I wouldn’t come in dead last at the race provided I stay in one piece.
We started down where those houses were: 9 miles up, 9 miles down

We started down where those houses were: 9 miles up, 9 miles down…check out those new shoes!

So, did incorporating these super secrets for downhill running success work?

Well, attempting to focus on not tripping while simultaneously playing hot potato with my feet and remembering to bend forward was…a good way to slow down.  It was just too much for me to concentrate on at once.

Bending forward: I feel like I worked hard to improve my running posture and keep my shoulders up, so bending forward felt a bit counter intuitive…but it worked.  I felt so much more in control of my body than the flailing around that I usually do.

Hot Potato Feet: Just didn’t work out. I tend to really lengthen my stride which makes each foot push off feel heavier and harder, but when I tried to shake things up,  I felt like I lost control of my steps. In general I think it is too late in training to try and change my form that much, and I’d rather not attempt something this new this close to a race for fear of making things worse.

Trail Shoes: Worked well, and I think helped my feet take less of a beating on the rocks.

In conclusion….I’m hoping that by incorporating the “bend forward” technique, I’ll at least add some control to my downhill running and reduce a bit of the impact that my legs will feel.  We’ll see how it turns out during race day!

What are your downhill tips and tricks? HELP ME PLEASE! 

What is you elevation “strength?” 

I hope everyone has the most amazing Labor Day Weekend!

28 thoughts on “What Goes Up Must Come Down…Hopefully on Two Feet

  1. Great advice. True, you can’t change your stride overnight, but you will in fact be taking hot potato steps on the start of your descent. It’s too steep and slick to run with a long stride and your legs will just naturally do what is necessary to maintain control. Assuming you’re not overly fatigued, the descent will flatten out enough to run with your longer stride. And it’s not a dangerous course with rocks to trip you up. But it is 7 miles long.

    • Thank you as always for your expert knowledge on this race! I’m very much looking forward to that flat descent part that you speak of! And I’m really hoping that we’ve been training for trail conditions much harder than we’ll find on Saturday so that way if feels easy in comparison.

  2. A silly thing I do on trails to slow myself down without really braking too much is to half-pipe the trail as much as possible. I scurry up the side and then switch over to the other side (again, much like skiing), and that distributes my speed a little so I’m not having to constantly slow myself down.

    That works for short trail descents, so I’m not sure how that would hold up on a long downhill that surpasses 5 miles. I ran the all-downhill Tucson half marathon a few years ago and just killed the entire thing because it felt so easy. I loved it. In fact, I want to go back and try the marathon to see if I can destroy my PR …

    Good luck on your way to Telluride! My friend Jay who finished the 50-miler last weekend is running. If you see him, say hi.

    • I tried the half-pipe thing this weekend, and it makes things a lot more fun, actually! Thanks for that tip! Tucson is on my list of “definite maybes” for possible future marathons just for the downhill aspect (and the proximity to Albuquerque).

      I’ll look for Jay!

  3. I’ve done the same exact thing as Dan – almost ski down the hill – and it’s worked great for some situations (not too technical, right % decline to support this kind of movement). The one downside is you’ll have to worry about is getting in the way of the people behind you charging straight down. You end up running a longer distance (the opposite of running tangents), but you’re in much better control and can go a lot faster. As for form — I don’t do “hot potato” as much as just take smaller, hoppy steps. This is especially true for really technical trails with roots and rocks where I’m afraid of tripping. I agree that it’s hard to have faster leg turnover when you’re also trying not to break and allow gravity to take its course. I recently heard that your feet follow your arms so if you start pumping your arms faster, your feet will follow. I’ve only tried it on a couple of runs so far, but I think it works, even though I feel like a total goob.

    But basically, I’m the world’s worst downhill trail runner. It takes skill and a lot of guts to be able to run fast down steep trails. I’m always afraid I’m going to eat it.

    Good luck!!

    • I think I lack the guts too. I tried the half-piping and pumping my arms this weekend, and they really do help! I’m hoping that mountain race people are used to that sort of thing, so hopefully I won’t look completely ridiculous if I try these things!

      And I always run longer distances than I’m supposed to, so not running tangents is not a concern!

  4. Great job running up and down La Luz. Beware if you run it again, Sheilah was met by a bear at the top of La Luz a few weeks ago! I don’t have any downhill tips, I’m kind of like you, I love running downhill, but I read your tips and will work on putting some of the advice to use with my upcoming downhill marathon.

    • This has really been a year for bear sightings! I really don’t know what I would do if I ran into one. I always enjoy running the wilderness areas in October/November because I like to pretend that all of the potentially dangerous wildlife have gone into hibernation!

    • Hey, it isn’t my fault! I thought downhill running was fun and easy up until this summer!

      Rattlers are the stuff of my nightmares. Even after is slithered off the trail, I had a massive panic attack running past where I saw it disappear.

  5. You’ll be in great shape for Imogene. I’m much better at the “ups” than the “downs,” which is why I’ve only ran the “Ascent” portion of the Pikes Peak race so far. But I find that on the trails – as you said – short, controlled (though not necessarily “hot potato”) steps are the key to not thrashing your calves. The more you overstride on the downhills, the more you’ll end up overcompensating and braking inadvertently to try to stay in control, and that stop-and-go driving will wear out your calves in no time. Dan and Jen’s suggestion to half-pipe or slalom the downhills is sound advice on steep, uneven trails, though if you find yourself running down a fire road rather than singletrack, I’d say stretch your legs and let it fly.

    Ouray! Race day is almost here!

    • Haha! The “Ouray” part made me smile!

      I think uphill skill would be much more useful, so I am jealous of your abilities! The more I think about it, treating downhill running like downhill skiing might be a good technique. Thanks for all of the advice!

  6. Being terrified of falling and breaking all of my teeth, as well as being pretty much blind in one eye and having no depth perception, I am so, so, so bad at running downhill. Especially steep downhill sections. Even on road. Like a few others have mentioned, snaking (ha, just realized this is appropriate and laughed at myself) side to side to avoid going straight down can help.

    Unfortunately, for my quads at least, I still find myself regularly holding back and braking to stop from flying face first into the ground, so I try to run a lot of downhill sections, not to try and get better at them, but to make my quads more resilient to the braking.

    • I was actually thinking the same thing the other day when I was doing lunges…I’m not doing it to be a better downhill runner, I’m doing it so my quads can handle the braking! And I bet the depth perception thing can make for some issues in all circumstances. I forget…is Loch Ness a pretty hilly course? It seems to me like anything in Scotland would be pretty hilly.

      • There are hills in Loch Ness. I think it’s described as undulating (ha ha ha), but the first few miles are all downhill, which means the rest of the course is a kick in the teeth. I’m been thrashing my quads so they don’t fail me quite as badly as they did last year….

  7. I loved this post – I love running downhill too and I think I’m good at it. ie…I’m rubbish at running uphill so I have to be good at going downhill 🙂 I always trash my quads though so I have no wisdom for you! However…wow on the 9 mile climb!!!!

  8. The downhills are so easy on the lungs but so hard on the legs when you let it fly too much. I am still learning but on the road I try to open it up, I think I need to lean forward, that would probably help. On the trail I am both a shaker and hot potatoer (hoppy springy) although my hoppy springy adapts to the terrain and if it looks flat I take quick shorter strides to not over extend and be able to get back to springy quickly if need be. Whatever works as long as you are in control! You guys are both going to crush it.

    • Thank you! I guess I’ll find out on Saturday what works! I also think I like “hoppy springy” better than “hot potato.” I can envision myself as the Easter Bunny going down and a mountain goat going up! This is going to be a long race I think…

  9. Hi! I just found your blog. Are you training for the Imogene Pass race? I did that in 2010 and it was amazing! Such a great trail race (be prepared to hike the last 2 miles to the pass!). Coming down on that course was definitely easier/less technical than other trail runs I have done.
    I see you are in ABQ. I am coming to ABQ in October for the Duke City Marathon. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the course (looks like you ran the half).

    • Hi Amy! Thank you for stopping by and for passing along your knowledge for Imogene! My husband and I are running it on Saturday. We’ve been training on some very technical trails, so I’m hoping Imogene will feel easier in comparison.

      I ran Duke City 2 years ago as my first half, so I think maybe that’s why it holds a special place in my memory. The course is flat (coming from Colorado/similar elevation, it could be a PR course), but not very interesting/scenic. It is pretty narrow because you’re running on a bike trail for most of it. I know the half is out and back, so you actually share that bike trail with people running the other way. If you have the speed to jockey for a front position, I would go for it. From what I remember, there was ample course support, but not a lot of crowd support. It definitely isn’t a big or fancy race, but it is well organized, and it draws a big local group of runners. GOOD LUCK! We’re planning on being out of town that weekend, otherwise we’d run it too!

  10. I definitely do the hot potato thing with my feet.. i just never realized it. I’m not sure where my posture is at..but next time I trail run, I’m going to see what I do. I really really really really really want trail shoes. I just can’t afford them right now. I just wear my mizunos on the trails, and they seem pretty good.

    • It really took a lot of convincing to take the plunge into trail shoes, especially because after this race, I don’t know how much trail running I’ll actually do…I did get them through Road Runner Sports (and the VIP discount), so they were a bit cheaper. And isn’t it weird that we spend so much time running, but aren’t even aware of how we hold our bodies most of the time? I know I’m not aware at all until someone points something out.

    • We’ll see if they work! It’s kind of funny…there are hundreds of articles and tips on uphill running, but not really a lot on downhill running…these are just about the only consistent tips I could find!

  11. Hi Amy!
    I’m running the Imogene for the first time this year and was so excited to find your blog, it sounds like you’re super ready! I really appreciate your advice on the downhill running and all the helpful comments are awesome. Unfortunately, I injured my foot training this summer so I’m not setting any specific goals for my time, but maybe I’ll see you on the mountain! What are you planning to use in terms of gear? I can’t decide yes or no on the camelback…and windbreaker… 🙂


    • Hi Jana! Bummer about your foot. I have heard that if there is any race to take slow and enjoy, this is it! As far as gear, I am taking my hydration belt, but I’ll probably only fill the bottles half way. I’m mostly worried that with the elevation I’ll get more dehydrated than I’m used to, so I want to have access to water if there isn’t an aid station nearby. I’m also taking an ear warmer thing and gloves. I’m taking a windbreaker, a light pull-over and a long sleeve. I probably won’t decide which to wear until tomorrow morning!

      GOOD LUCK TOMORROW! If you see a very short girl wearing a blue and white striped skirt, say hi!

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