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How to improve your downhill and technical running

Practice makes perfect
So you want to improve your downhill and technical running, and don’t know where to start. Ian Waddel, sports coach and specialised kinesiologist at Personal Best for over 10 years, believes that practice makes perfect. “Run as much technical trail as possible, on as many different routes you can find and focus on improving running technical terrain through practice.” He applies the same rules for downhill, and believes that including downhill intervals in your training will be extremely beneficial. 

It’s not just practice that’ll improve your technical and downhill trail running though,” says Waddel, “being fit and strong holds a major advantage too. Naturally, the fitter you are, the better you will be able to concentrate on the technical or downhill trail. Leg and core strength as well as the ability to stabilise over complicated terrain is also key.” 

The common misconception
Mike Watson, sports trainer in Cape Town to a host of elite athletes for the past 11 years, shares a similar outlook. “Getting onto the trail, spending time on your feet and getting your whole body strong and stable are how you’re going to improve your technical and downhill running. In saying that though, it’s impossible to suggest a single exercise that will dramatically improve your downhill and technical running.” 

Contradictory to some coaches, Watson believes it’s not about singling out a group of muscles that are used during downhill running, and goes on to explain that by doing that, without including exercises that simultaneously improve stability and mobility, you won’t get the desired results. “Running movement comes from the subconscious; you don’t think about it when you run, so you shouldn’t think about how a specific exercise is going to change or improve a specific part of your running,” says Watson. “Rather look at it as holistically improving strength, mobility and stability.

In terms of exercises, you need to include single-leg, general strength and lateral exercises in your training, for holistic results. 
Single-leg exercises will enable you to be more efficient at stabilising single-leg patterns, which is exactly what the action of running is. This can be done through specific single-leg exercises, like the Bulgarian squat. 
General strength exercises, like deadlifts, will improve your running economy, and make you a more efficient runner because it allows you to produce more accelerating force (the unload) and more decelerating force (the preload or the landing) efficiently. 
Practicing lateral movements, like the lateral hop are important as they enable you to mimic your body’s movements on the trail. “You’re never just going to run forwards, trail running involves lateral movement too, so your body needs to learn how to move efficiently and naturally in a lateral pattern too,” says Watson. 

Additional methods
You can also visit a specialised kinesiologist (like Waddel), who can help improve vision, eye and foot co-ordination through kinesiology. Kinesiology, which is the scientific study of human movement (thanks Wikipedia), addresses physiological, mechanical, and psychological mechanisms. With it Waddel can identify limiting beliefs and fears that athletes may have (like a fear of falling), which can be addressed through coaching and training. Alternatively, watch the latest episode of #AboutTrail and get pro tips from elite trail runners, Kane Reilly and Megan Mackenzie on how to improve your downhill and technical trail running. 

Reap the benefits at your next run
So now you know, the best ways to improve your downhill and technical running are through increasing your fitness levels, spending time on technical, steep trails and working on overall body strength, stability and mobility. Armed with this new training fodder, you can get out on the trails and build the confidence needed to enter your next ‘big’ race, the one that you’ve been eyeing out for ages but were too nervous to enter. Challenge yourself and try the long course at the Spur Cape Summer Trail Series® this year, or put your technical downhill skills to use during one of the Mountain Challenge Series events. With these exercises and this information, there are no excuses. 

Try these three exercises as suggested by Mike Watson to improve strength, mobility and stability. 

1.    The deadlift
You’ll need a barbell/trap bar. If you don’t know what weight to start on, use the progressive overload theory: start light, but continuously add weight until you max out on the last rep. Tip: practice a few times without weights to get the technique down. 
a)    Start with feet hip width apart, engage your core and open your shoulders. 
b)    Hinge from your hips, transferring your weight backwards (i.e. push your bum backwards) and reach down with extended arms to grab the bar. Your knees should be at around 20 degrees of flexion. Look ahead (not down at your feet). 
c)    With a firm grip, drive (explode) away from the ground by pushing up through the heels and driving your hips forwards. Ensure your feet are rooted on the ground and your back stays straight and your shoulders broad. 
d)    Lower the barbell or trap bar with control. Repeat 5 sets of 5 repeats. 


2.   The Bulgarian squat
You’ll need a chair or bench for this, a mat and a kettle bell or weight. You can try the exercise without a weight at first and include one when you are comfortable with the motion. 
a)    Hold kettle bell in the hand opposite to working leg. 
b)    Place your trailing leg on the chair or bench. The knee of the trailing leg should be slightly behind the hip, feet should be hip width apart, spine tall and hips level. 
c)    Lower the back knee down to the pad or mat. Focus tracking the working leg’s knee the 2nd and 3rd toes, keeping the shin as vertical as possible and ensuring the foot is rooted to the ground.   
d)    Focus on exploding up to full extension. Start again. Do 3 sets of 4-8. 



The lateral hop 
1a) Start on one leg. Hinge back and load up the working leg. 
1b) Hop sideways as far as you can control and land on your other leg. Focus on sticking the landing and don’t allow your upper body to shift to the outside of your leg that you land on. Stay in control, and above your centre of gravity. 
1c) Stabilise, straighten up and reset by loading your leg. Go again. Repeat 16 times. 
2)    Make the hop dynamic by skipping the ‘reset’ step. Load your leg, explode and hop sideways and absorb the landing by reloading at the same time (i.e. absorb the landing by bending your knee). 

Mike Watson, 0723066032
Ian Waddel, www.personalbest.co.za