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Downhill Technique
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Nathan Hays
(oroambulant)

Locale: San Francisco
Downhill Technique on 05/31/2012 20:18:08 MDT Print View

After decades of hiking, I still don't like my downhill technique and I haven't figured out a better way. Slow and smooth works for a bit 'til my quads burn. Stomping blows the knees even quicker.

I read of the Sherpa-Step some years ago and it totally changed how I approach uphill stairs and steep inclines. No such luck for downhill.

One thing I have noticed is that a large drop in the shoe exacerbates the downhill problems. I've since 'downgraded' my shoes and that does lessen the toe cram.

I've put in 350 miles in the last few months, improving my endurance, and consequently the problems don't start until after 20 miles or so. Still, I can pound steep uphills at 30 miles, but have to slow waaay down on the equivalent descents.

Any good suggestions? Reading?

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Downhill Technique on 05/31/2012 22:10:58 MDT Print View

I looked up the 'Sherpa step' on Google. Found a web site which explained it.
Seriously not impressed.
'Always use hiking poles' was the first bit of advice - I wonder how our ancestors managed for the last 10,000 years of walking? (OK, several hundred thousand years then.)
Goose-step down-hill? Blimey. Must use trekking poles for this? Blimey.

Dogma, dogma, with nary a brain cell showing.

Yes, downhill IS harder. Take it gently. Knee and ankle joints will need to toughen.

Some people can actually 'run' downhill, with their lower legs going like a sewing machine. A bit strenuous, and don't try doing it for 1,000 m! But it is fast and does not stress the joints too much - if you don't trip and face-plant. Not so good with a heavy pack.

Cheers

Nathan Hays
(oroambulant)

Locale: San Francisco
Re: sherpa step on 05/31/2012 22:46:20 MDT Print View

Huh. Looked that up too. Not at all what I had thought it was. Perhaps there is another name.

I was talking about a steep uphill 'gait'. The idea is to sorta hop up to the next leg so it is straight and nearly locked as you move forward and prepare the prior leg to be hopped up to. Fast hop, slow glide. Can be done fairly quickly and is useful when the legs are starting to burn from a constant power climb. Really useful for those steps the trail crews so nicely build for us.

I've worked out a theory as to why it is effective. At first glance, it seems you should be burning the same energy to move up a given grade at a given pace. But when walking up as normal, the leg under power must deliver the bodyweight and lift force for the full duration of its half of the gait. When hop-stepping, the lift and body weight are delivered over a short time after which the body weight is carried by the aligned bones rather than a muscle under stress. Also, there is a longer time for the muscle to recover.

A simple exercise demonstrates: Stand up slowly out of a chair. Now hop up quickly and stand for the same time. Pretty obvious which tires the muscles quicker.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Downhill Technique on 05/31/2012 23:22:00 MDT Print View

On the first trek that I did in Nepal in 1983, it was before some of the tourist trails had been modernized with zigzags. Many of the trails were straight up and straight down. After the first two days of this, the trekkers were getting sore knees from the downhill. Our Sherpa guide explained.

He told us that Americans were too impatient, so we tended to blast down a hill with our knees fully extended at the time of heal impact, so the force of the impact was transmitted directly up through the knee joint. That explains why knees were sore and swollen.

Instead, he suggested that we learn to walk like a Sherpa. They have grown up carrying huge loads all day long, and they don't get too much in terms of sore knees.

First, you take a shorter length stride, and you quicken the pace to compensate for that. You walk slightly bowlegged, and this improves your balance over rough trails when you are scampering down with this funny stride. You lower your center of gravity slightly by flexing your knees more. This puts more of the impact force on your quadriceps muscles and much less on the knee joints.

Then you have to practice this until you can get into it to the necessary degree, and then get out of it, and it needs to be almost automatic.

--B.G.--

David Drake
(DavidDrake) - F - M

Locale: North Idaho
Re: Re: Downhill Technique on 06/01/2012 01:12:01 MDT Print View

Bob,
Before I started carrying a lighter pack, I used to do my knees in about every trip. Several years ago, I had knee problems starting the first day, with eight more to go. The only way I could manage downhills for the rest of the trip was walking more or less as you describe. Discovered it by accident, I guess--it was the only way my knees didn't hurt. Big workout for the thighs, though.

Still shift to the stride occasionally, for steep downhills on long days.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Downhill Technique on 06/01/2012 14:33:43 MDT Print View

"You lower your center of gravity slightly by flexing your knees more. This puts more of the impact force on your quadriceps muscles and much less on the knee joints."

A huge +1 Use your quads like shock absorbers. A bonus is that if you do trip, you will most likely end up on your butt instead of doing a potentially much more dangerous face plant. In combination with a properly used set of trekking poles, especially light ones like GG LT4's, you can handle really rough, steep terrain, on trail or off, IME.

Edited to add:

Another technique, particularly off trail, is to select a line down the slope and switchback your way down, sort of like skiing. Poles can be invaluable here. The same technique also works on trail, particularly where there is a lot of loose stuff on the surface. Again, IME

Edited by ouzel on 06/01/2012 14:37:15 MDT.

Art ...
(asandh) - F
Re: Re: Downhill Technique on 06/01/2012 16:30:31 MDT Print View

what Bob described above is pretty close to how ultra runners run the downhills.
short stride, quick steps, flexed knees, arms out for balance.
we also lean forward at the ankles (not the waist) so that the body line is more perpendicular to the ground.
if you lean back as you descend you will be more likely to want to lock your knees, this is both inefficient and damaging.

Justin Baker
(justin_baker) - F

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
Re: Downhill Technique on 06/01/2012 16:46:08 MDT Print View

This is specific to off trail bushwhacking down slopes with soft dirt, but I have found that if I move quickly and kind of jump/jog downhill, putting my foot sideways to stabilize myself on the inevitable sliding, I end up slipping and falling much less than when I try to take it slow.

jeffrey armbruster
(book) - M

Locale: Northern California
Downhill Technique" on 06/01/2012 17:01:00 MDT Print View

+1 on Bob's smaller steps/quicker gait. I've been doing this for a number of years and it's really helped. I'll experiment with more flex this year.

Nordic skiers talk about keeping your skis under your hips; backpacking downhill, I try to do the same: don't extend the forward leg way out or leave the trailing leg behind! The small step/quick gait lets you do this. Feet under the hips. I find it helps my upper body posture as well; certainly my balance. Add poles (sorry Roger) and it's all good!

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Downhill Technique" on 06/01/2012 18:04:00 MDT Print View

" +1 on Bob's smaller steps/quicker gait. "

Hey, don't blame it on me. I learned it from Anu Sherpa in 1983. Next time that anybody gets up to Namche Bazar, go to the Khumbu Lodge and see if he is still around (probably making money hand over fist from the tourists).

The whole secret is being able to slide into it only as deeply as you need for that downhill slope. In other words, you don't have to do it fully on every hill.

--B.G.--

Erik Basil
(EBasil) - M

Locale: Atzlan
Bandy Legged on 06/03/2012 08:59:32 MDT Print View

Great method, Bob.

The Sherpa apparently learned it from American Cross-Country running coaches in the 1940's. That's where my cross-country coach learned it from :)

I bet Mayans used it, too.

Barry Cuthbert
(nzbazza) - MLife

Locale: New Zealand
Gravity on 06/04/2012 18:56:19 MDT Print View

And gravity probably taught the Mayans, Sherpa et al. :-)

It's sure taught me a few lessons putting me on my butt more than a few times going downhill. My technique for dealing with steep slippery slopes with lots of mud, tree roots and rocks is this: keep your body vertical as possible, feet under your body, knees bent, move feet forward from knees and take small rapid steps.

Most important trick - plan where each foot will go 3-4 steps ahead, this allows you travel more smoothly and efficiently.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: Downhill Technique on 06/04/2012 19:36:08 MDT Print View

Bob's suggestion works. Short quick steps. Takes practice and of course conditioning.

Last year I did an 8,000 foot descent over 13 miles. My plan was 8,000' and 11 miles, but my my legs became so tired and sore that I had to re-route my last 1,000 foot/1 mile track to another that was about 3 miles and 1,000 foot descent. But there were no joint issues or pain.

The sore muscles were just a lack of condition for that kind of a descent, and I was hiking again the next day with only sore calves and quads.

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Not to pile on.... on 06/04/2012 19:45:35 MDT Print View

But I also agree with short quick steps on the downhills. I often will let gravity just pull me down almost at a running speed. That can be a nice change up in speed if you are doing a lot of downhills. I also found that I do this more late in the day, again likely as a change up in the muscles used.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Gravity on 06/04/2012 23:33:55 MDT Print View

> My technique for dealing with steep slippery slopes with lots of mud, tree roots and
> rocks is this: keep your body vertical as possible, feet under your body,

No, no, no. All wrong.
The recommended technique is to lose control at the top of the slippery slope and to slide down the slippery track at high speed on your back.

I did that once on a very slippery steep clay track in the rain. Shot past my wife who was still upright standing on the side of the track, nearly sending her flying. Very popular, I was. Ahem.

Cheers

Nathan Hays
(oroambulant)

Locale: San Francisco
Re: all posts on 06/05/2012 00:10:11 MDT Print View

What a difference perspective makes.

I have been training to keep my pace under 16 minute miles (3.75 mph) over long distances. To do so, I've needed to do a 'fast shuffle jog' on downhill grades that are more than about 200'/mile. This gets my average pace down. I've considered this to be running and not hiking, and I've only accepted it because it keeps my energy output up. I'll need all of that at elevation.

My wife isn't happy with me scooting off this way, says I shouldn't be running because of my ACL surgery a few years back. In her work she deals a lot with people whose knees are shot from running. She also doesn't like me being way out ahead when we hike together.

However, I have noticed that it is a lot easier on the knees than stomping or slowing down. But with the perspective I've had, short step running has been a bit of a no-no, and I've been hyper focused on being careful and techniqueful (word?).

Liberating. Lots of things changing since I've joined BPL...

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: all posts on 06/05/2012 00:14:08 MDT Print View

"My wife isn't happy with me scooting off this way, says I shouldn't be running because of my ACL surgery a few years back."

I haven't had an ACL on my right knee in over 25 years, and it doesn't slow me down.

--B.G.--

Nathan Hays
(oroambulant)

Locale: San Francisco
Re: ACL on 06/05/2012 10:26:12 MDT Print View

"I haven't had an ACL on my right knee in over 25 years, and it doesn't slow me down."

What's your secret? Knee brace? Hiking in a wheelchair? Gnawing on beef shanks? :)

Seriously, I got around fine but then I would hyper extend, usually by stepping backwards and ouch that would hurt. Over the last 3 mos I've hiked ~340mi and that has noticably tightened up the knee. The 2nd ACL repair he left too loose in my opinion. I've had zero pain or swelling in that knee.

All the action has been in my feet. No trouble where I have three bolts that anchor a lateral and anterior TF repair. Getting tougher/stronger though. Atrophy happens a lot faster than one might think.

Glad to know you have walked out your injury.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: ACL on 06/05/2012 14:15:16 MDT Print View

When a surgeon does an ACL injury repair, he has to take a lot of things into consideration. I mean, sometimes they add a prosthetic, sometimes they try to sew up what is there, and sometimes they simply remove the injured ligament.

If you were an Olympic-class athlete in your prime, then they would want to do some procedure to get you back on your feet in record time. You probably only have a few years of prime performance, anyway. So, they often pick a procedure that gets very good short-term results. However, maybe it also loosens up a lot after a few years and sometimes things have to be re-done.

In contrast, if you were a 70-year-old granny, then they would pick a different procedure to minimize initial discomfort, but it would not have to be tremendously strong in the long run.

Many of us fall into the category of "weekend athletes." So, they don't mind if they leave the patient incapacitated for a few months as long as it gets them back to their normal sports and lasts for a few decades. In my case, they removed what was left of the severed ligament, and then took a few "nips and tucks" in several different aspects of the joint, and this tightened up the whole thing to the point where flexibility was hard to regain for months and months. But, that got good long-term results. Now, 27 years after the fact, I have to stop and think about which knee got which procedure.

--B.G.--

dan mchale
(wildlife) - MLife

Locale: Cascadia
poles on 06/05/2012 14:41:31 MDT Print View

I like what Tom has to say;

"Another technique, particularly off trail, is to select a line down the slope and switchback your way down, sort of like skiing. Poles can be invaluable here. The same technique also works on trail, particularly where there is a lot of loose stuff on the surface. Again, IME"

It seems like the use of poles should be a larger part of this conversation. On steep downhill trails they are invaluable for slowing things down - for somebody that wants to go slower. With poles a person can reach several steps down and ahead and then walk down to the poles in security and in a way that gives a good upper body workout. There's no end to the style and technique this can be done with either. A person can even lean downhill to plant the poles in a way that could not be done just walking. I don't think poles should be looked at as a crutch as much as an adjunct to the human machine.