I rolled up to the massive thirty five foot gap; there was no way on earth I was going to hurl myself across that. I was paralyzed by fear, though I’d watched my friends do it again and again. “Nick, come on you can totally rock this!” They coaxed. I trembled, even as I gripped the handle bars tight and let go of the brakes, speeding off towards what was known as the infamous “pond gap.” I was terrified, exhilarated and shocked when I landed 35 feet away and in one piece. “YES!” I screamed, tossing my arms up in the air.
Confidence, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, is “a feeling of having little doubt in yourself and your abilities.” But as Russ Harris states in his wonderful book The Confidence Gap, we’ve got it all wrong. We think that we have to “feel” confident first before we can test our abilities. We see dozens of articles, blogs and people say that good downhill runners are confident! But how did they get confident? What did they do to feel confident over time?
When I first tried the 35-foot jump, I didn’t “feel” the least bit confident going in. The jump was nearly double the length of anything I’d ever done before, so I was easily terrified. However, I went through with it anyway, channeling the fear into a “rush” of adrenaline that lasered my focus on precisely what I had to do. If I had waited up there until I felt “confident,” I would still be there, waiting for the confidence to hit.
The truth is, nothing would ever get done if you waited until you felt confident, and so we have one of the best phrases I’ve read in a long time thanks to Harris’ book: “The actions of confidence come first, the feelings of confidence come later”.
Similar to bike jumping, downhill running requires the same bravery: don’t wait until you feel confident running downhills; that part comes once you’ve done it several times.
Most trail runners who have never attempted a steep downhill are likely horrified when they take their first few steps down technical, rocky terrain. Some might feel out of control, or as though at any moment they could fall face forward. They lack the skills and they lack the confidence.
Luckily, there’s a way to reshape this relationship. The first few times might be scary, but eventually, as the runner learns that he or she will not die from running down a steep grade, confidence grows. As the runner becomes more comfortable, his or her times will get faster, and the ability to navigate especially rough terrain will improve. All we need to achieve this is practice. In this case, we need to run downhill. Again and again.
This is simpler said than done, however.
Do a quick web search on “downhill running techniques” and you’ll come across dozens of articles with tips and tricks from seasoned pros to exercise physiologists to the average Joe looking to make a quick buck by churning out another how-to article. Some of these approaches work, but many are impossible to replicate for the vast majority of people, especially when they’re still stuck on the “I am NOT running down that” part. Instead of focusing on the physical process of running downhills, consider the mental aspect.
Let’s break downhill running into parts, using leg turnover, a necessary component for safe and effective downhill running, as an example:
- Practice the skills. In this example, we’re talking about leg turnover. Here we would begin to practice quick turnover by working on drills and a higher cadence on ground we are comfortable with (flat, smooth, etc.)
- Apply them effectively. Now we would take what we learned to the hills, keeping in mind that our turnover might be slow at first but will improve the more we do it.
- Assess the results. Using video gait analysis, a running coach, a friend with good eyes or your internal “feel,” we would assess the results. Was your cadence on that last downhill beneath 180 steps per minute? Could you increase it still? Did increasing make you feel choppier? What can you do to smooth it out more?
- Finally, integrate the changes and modify as needed.
The above questions can be used for other aspects of downhill running, like stability, body awareness, and reaction time, keeping in mind that the more you take these skills and practice them on a section of downhill, the better you’ll become—and the more confident you’ll feel.
In a future post, I will elaborate on more of the skills that I feel are essential to technical downhill running mechanics and how to practice those skills in a relevant and effective manner.
I hope this post can help clarify what nebulous “I don’t know, just have confidence” phrases mean, and what it really takes to achieve confidence. Stay tuned for part 2!
If, as you work on your skill, you feel lost or frustrated, please contact us at Complete Human Performance and we will work with you through video gait analysis of your movement patterns and downhill running form to get at the base of what is limiting your skill development.
The author: Nickademus De La Rosa began his athletic endeavors as a high school cross-country runner. By 17, he had begun dabbling in ultra’s by the age of 18, had ran his first 100 miler to raise money for a close friend who was battling Leukemia at the time. Once bit by the “ultra” bug, the sickness bloomed into full force.
Each year, Nickademus searched for the “world’s most difficult races”, and each year he finished every single one. He completed Badwater 135, Arrowhead 135, PLAIN 100, and HURT 100. He finally met his match in 2011 as Barkley was his first ever DNF. They say third times a charm, as Nickademus had learned to balance his ego and fear and won the notoriously difficult race in 57hrs and 41minutes in 2013.
Nick’s specialty lies in any endurance challenge that calls itself the “world’s most difficult”. Whether it be an obstacle race, running or biking, it is likely on his radar. This extreme specialization has led him to a multi-disciplinary approach in his training and coaching by integrating practices such as yoga, tai-chi, parkour, mountain biking, meditation, strength training, ad boot camps. Want to work with Nickademus? Sign up here, and request him as your coach!