Powering over the hilltops with the wind in your hair is an incredible feeling. Your lungs are full of fresh air and you’re surrounded by beautiful far-reaching views. Down below, the stresses of modern life seem miniscule.
It goes without saying that the fells are a runner’s paradise. Yet most people are intimidated by mountain running, assuming it to be beyond their abilities, a near impossible feat managed only by top athletes. Think again. With the right kit, a gradual approach and some pals to show you the ropes, the hills are your oyster.
Of course, running up mountains is tougher than jogging along roads. It also requires special skills, such as map reading and running steep gradients. Anyone can do it, but the fitness and know-how must be built up gradually.
‘Start small and learn as you go, rather than jumping in at the deep end,’ advises top fell runner Nicky Spinks (www.runbg.co.uk), who lives and trains in Yorkshire, and holds the ladies’ record for running the most Lake District peaks within 24 hours – in 2011 she ran up and down 64 mountains! ‘Fell running is not just a matter of height – it also involves navigation. Start off local, with hills you know and learn to map read there before tackling unknown mountains.’
Join a club
Ideally join a fell-running club (or a club that has fell runners in it). Hill runners are a friendly bunch and the more experienced are usually happy to take you out on the fells and might even show you how to navigate.
‘I got into fell running by entering a race,’ remembers Nicky. ‘It was one of The Trunce series in South Yorkshire – a four-miler with a 500ft climb. At the race, I met a lot of friendly Penistone Footpath Runners (pfrac.co.uk). I was looking for a club to join and they were perfect, as lots of the members are fell runners. As well as encouraging me to broaden my horizons, they provided a wealth of knowledge and company on the hills.’
Invest in fell kit
All shoes are not created equal and you mustn’t attempt a mountain in regular trainers. Fell shoes don’t have the padding and bulk of a road shoe, which would weigh you down running uphill, prevent you sensing the terrain beneath your feet and increase your chances of rolling over on your ankle. They also have a very deep lug underfoot, to grip you to the ground on steep, slippery terrain.
You also need some decent waterproofs and thermals if you’re heading up high – it can be wet and cold on those mountaintops. Good suppliers include www.racekit.co.uk and www.brooksrunning.co.uk.
One of the best roads into fell running is a race. Select a short hill race or a moderate-length race with a relatively easy ascent and begin to train for it. ‘I highly recommend beginners enter a fell race,’ urges Nicky. ‘Having a goal focuses you on training and gets you out the door in the rain and wind. I started with the nine Trunce races. They were local, so I could practise the courses.’
Fitness and technique
In the long term, fell running will get you fitter than you ever dreamt possible, but the strength must be built up over time. Go easy, starting off with low hills.
If you’re not already an off-road runner, you must adjust your technique to cope with the uneven ground and mud of the trails. To keep yourself stable, avoid a bouncy gait, keeping your feet closer to the ground, and have your arms in a wide curve (as if holding a huge ball). Compared to road running, the softer terrain is kinder to joints and over time will build their strength and flexibility, especially your ankles. You will also find your quadriceps and core muscles becoming stronger.
Good uphill running technique involves a short stride with your feet under your body and a neutral pelvis position (bums in!); lean forward from your ankles /not/your waist. When heading downhill, use a longer stride with a neutral pelvis position (don’t throw your hips forward) and lean forward from the ankles. There are lots of courses that teach how to run on steep and uneven terrain.
There are dangers involved with fell running and it’s important to take them seriously, because people have died on the hills. Always carry enough fluid and energy snacks, plus a fully charged phone, in case you get lost or have an accident. It’s also vital to take a map and a compass – and to know how to use them!
‘My navigation is self-taught with help from my clubs, PFRAC and Dark Peak Fell Runners (www.dpfr.org.uk), but it’s taken me years to acquire, so I’d recommend beginners do a course,’ advises Nicky. Becoming a good navigator means you’ll be able to find your way safely off a mountaintop, avoiding its sheer sides, in thick fog. Know that and you can power up those wonderfully wild hills with confidence.