Amazingly, fell running is a sport for all. Iain Ridgway and Sarah Kleeman give the lowdown on how to start running uphill...
Fell running and mountaineering have always been intimately linked. After all, fell running has its roots in the ‘Guides races’. As the Victorian interest in mountaineering developed and the demand for mountain guides grew so did the demand for the best guides - a sign of status. Races were organised and legends made.
The step from climbing or hill walking to fell running is a natural one. It’s common for climbers especially to move across, with Pete Livesey and Ron Fawcett being the more famous examples. Fell running provides a similar buzz to climbing, yet in a relatively safer environment.
Runners can move fast and unhindered, covering vast distances that are just not possible when climbing, enjoying the social stimulus of being in the hills with like-minded people. The same goes for hill walkers. Some are drawn to fell running from a desire to go ever further and faster, others simply seeking to fit more views into a compacted time frame. But just how do you get started? Read on for our top ten tips.
1. Don’t be intimidated. Fell running is a sport for all, and yes, you can run up a mountain. It’s really not as hard as you may think. Your heart probably beats just as fast when walking burdened by a heavy pack for a winter climb in the Highlands as it will when running up Snowdon. It’s a sport where all standards are pitched together, with no sense of elitism.
2. Take your time. Your first fell run can be frustrating. It takes time to adapt to running over rocky trails, grassy slopes and boggy fells, and descending technical ground, such as loose unstable scree, can be unnerving. Rest assured that you’ll soon learn to love the challenge of picking the best placement for your feet while flying downhill. Pace is another source of frustration. Many beginners feel inadequate walking the ascents, but walking is perfectly normal. Stick at it and you will soon improve.
3. Get kitted up. Fell running is a cheap sport to get into. With the development of lightweight backpacking gear, there is a huge range of equipment available to the runner; from lightweight Gore-Tex jackets to rucksacks, but your most important piece of gear will be your shoes. As you move to more challenging routes you will need shoes that provide suitable grip over rocky or grassy terrain, particularly in wet conditions. There are many makes of fell shoe on the market, with Innov-8 and Walsh taking the lion’s share. So which shoes are best? The ones that fit.
4. Join a club and utilise fell running forums. Like racing, clubs are open to everyone. Many running clubs have fell running sections and there are a number of specialised fell running clubs. Clubs provide you with training partners, advice and access to like-minded people. The fell running forum is a great resource to ask people about what to wear, eat, and great routes to try.
5. Learn the techniques. A common question is how do you run up/down hill? In reality there’s no definitive method - top fell runners have their own distinctive styles which can vary quite dramatically. Here are a few general tips: on ascending, shorten your stride and pump your arms, as the steepness increases try walking with big strides in a hunched over position. On a descent, the best technique is to lean into the descent, keeping your weight forward. Leaning back applies the ‘brakes’ and will leave you with sore quads. The best descenders describe disengaging the brain and taking the brakes off!
6. Keep navigation simple. If you lack experience in navigating off the beaten track, stick to the trails and chose routes that are well marked. For those with more experience, run on handrails and keep the legs simple. It’s often quicker to run a bit longer on a good track than over complex ground. Memorise features as you pass them so when you next look at a map you have as much information at hand as possible. It is very easy to get lost running - in 20 minutes you could cover as much as 3 or 4 km, compared to a kilometre when walking, making relocation difficult.
7. Be safe. Races provide a safe environment in which to pursue the sport, however fell running is more than just fell racing. Naturally it is safer to run with a partner but that would be denying you the unique experience of running alone along the tops, marvelling at the setting sun reflecting off the lakes below. But when alone, a sprained ankle is a serious injury. To avoid such situations be careful on the descents. In a race, a mad paced descent is part of the experience, but on a solo run a more conservative approach has to be taken. With regard to kit, a lightweight approach doesn’t preclude being prepared to face the weather. On a long winter fell run in remote locations we will carry spare warm clothing, blizzard bags and a range of other safety gear. Also remember that your speed is a safety feature in itself. As a storm develops you can be off the hill inside 20 minutes.
8. Keep fuelled up. On a long run it is essential to take food on board. What to eat is a personal thing – one man’s poison is another man’s nectar. Choices range from energy gels to Turkish Delight, or morsels as strange as marmite sachets. Even within the energy gels one type may lead to stomach cramps while another satisfies as the perfect fuel. The solution is to try a range and see what works for you. The trick is to eat little and often while moving, taking advantage of the slower uphill sections to refuel.
9. Get out racing. Fell racing attracts runners of all ages, shapes and abilities. It is one of the few sports where mere mortals get to race alongside the champions of the sport. Indeed, fell running brings with it a sense of camaraderie. Everyone looks out for each other and courses are often heavily marshalled for safety reasons. If racing in the hills seems too big a jump, consider trying out trail racing. Increasing in popularity, courses generally follow good trails over moderate hills. Racing is not only a great social day out, it provides goals on which to focus training and you never know who you might get some tips from over a post race drink.
10. Enjoy it. Run for the love of running. Every now and then leave the racing behind and enjoy the sense of freedom that fell running provides and run your favourite horseshoe. Don’t be afraid to walk when you feel unable to run, simply interchange a steep incline at a walk with jogging the flats and down hills. Try to plan a selection of favourite routes and keep the training varied – aim for low monotony training (i.e. avoid the same distance and intensity day after day) as this is a sure way to over train and pick up injuries. And don’t forget to stop now and then and enjoy the view.
Iain Ridgway and Sarah Kleeman have a fell running business, Snowdonia Running Guides, based in Nant Peris Snowdonia; providing guided runs, introduction to fell running and navigation courses. Find out more at www.runsnowdonia.co.uk.
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