STEP 1: Get confident on rough terrain
A) Strength and resilience.
Your body can take a beating on the downhills, so you need both strength and flexibility. Running up and down mountains is great conditioning, but since fast descents are hard on the body, you can use flat or undulating technical trails to work on your speed over rough ground, saving your hard downhills for occasional time trials to check your progress. Running over narrow and rocky paths might be tricky at first, but it will strengthen your ankles and train the connection between your brain and your feet (especially in a shoethat provides good proprioception), as you gain confidence to run them faster. Doing repeats should gradually strengthen your bones and improve the endurance of your quads, which will pay dividends in a long race.
Do low-risk, high-value training throughout the year, and save the big effort for the right moment!
It helps to have high cadence (on very technical trails, you’re not going to have a fixed rhythm) and to land on the mid-foot to absorb some of the impact. Practice running lightly, keeping your knees slightly bent (don’t slam your heels down) so that you feel well recovered for the next climb. Once you gain speed, avoid tripping by picking your feet up a little higher (heel to the bum). This has the additional effect of shortening the lever as your leg moves from a trailing position to a leading position. This helps to quicken your stride and place your leg in an efficient position for the next step. Think about getting those knees up and it becomes easier.
Use your arms freely. Arms out to the sides help you balance and take corners more quickly (see Kilian on Youtube for inspiration), while on the smooth bits you can use them to drive like a track runner. Experiment with your body position to find a fairly upright posture (don’t bend at the waist, and don’t lean backwards) to facilitate relaxed breathing and prevent you from tensing up generally.
STEP 2: Get your grey matter on board
If you’re going to fall, it will probably be forwards. Pay undivided attention to the trail in front of you, not your surroundings, and glance ahead frequently for where the trail is going. You need to choose every foot placement with care, and you must clear every tripping hazard, so don’t get distracted! When you are tired or going through a sugar low, this focus is hard to achieve – so watch your nutrition on race day.
Trail variations present myriad opportunities to an alert runner. You can have all the technical skills in the world, but if you don’t cash in on the smooth bits when they come, you’ll be caught napping. If you’ve put in the time on steep roads, you can take advantage of your strong quads and good leg speed on these stretches.
The trail surface can also help. Try not to rely on your shoe’s grip and cushioning, because that slows you down and wastes energy. It may be counter-intuitive, but the faster you run, the less the grip matters. You’ve got to find a way through the rough stuff without losing any more speed than necessary, working with the terrain to maintain momentum with the lightest possible ground contact.
Executing your perfect descent is not about taking risks – it is about unwavering concentration and confidence in your ability.
Once you’ve mastered descending, you’ll be able to use the downhills to recover, and you’ll have the edge when you need to make special effort in a race. When the downhills are your friends, you’re going to have fun!
Three-time winner of the Three Peaks Challenge, second at Ultra-Trail Cape Town 100km 2014, holder of the Platteklip Gorge Descent FKT (fastest known time). In 2015, Andrew represented South Africa at Festival des Templiers where The SA men’s team came fifth in the world. He also achieved a podium at Marloth Mountain Challenge, and Hout Bay Challenge.
Dirk Cloete’s Proprioception Exercise
“This is the single best exercise I’ve come across to benefit my strength needs as a trail runner. It improves proprioception, strengthens muscles around the knees and ankles, and improves balance especially on uneven surfaces, like when you run downhill.”
Standing on a half-size BOSU ball turned upside down, throw and catch a medicine ball. You could bounce it against a wall, or even better, have somebody throw the ball at you, changing the direction. It is quite difficult in the beginning, so start with both feet on the ball.
Three-time consecutive winner of Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, and two-time winner of the Namib Desert Challenge. Dirk was South Africa’s Vet Ultra Trail Champ in 2013, when he was a silver medalist in the Ultra Trail World Championship.