Fell running is on the up, but how do you train for a discipline that is so different from standard forms of track and road running? William Gardner explains
Fell running has, for so long, been the enigma of the British running community. It brings about images of grisly Lake District journeymen, plugging away over ridge, furrow and heather, through side-ways rain and sleet. Of participants battling the elements, their breath coming short and sharp through gritted teeth as they summit a wind-battered mountain top. But it offers more than that. It can present you with possibly the most breath taking views in the entire running world, an outlook onto the isolated landscapes of the United Kingdom’s mountain ranges.
Arguably, this discipline of running is by far the hardest to train for, with the diverse lengths of the races presenting a daunting myriad of possible opportunities. Most commonly, races are classified by their ascent per mile and by length, varying from anywhere between 20 minutes to upwards of three hours. However, there is such a multitude of races that, regardless of ability or experience, anybody wishing to participate now simply needs to turn up and get going.
But where do you start? Below are the top training tips for anyone looking to get involved in fell running, and the best training methods to fit into your weekly routine.
Let’s start out with the most obvious factor. Fell races, as their name suggests, take place on hills and mountains. This means that in order to enjoy these races and their breathtaking views, you do need to be able to cope with a bit more terrain than the leaf mould which you encounter on the pavements of Britain during the Winter months.
Ideally, you should get off-road at least once or twice a week. It doesn’t mean you need to throw yourself straight into the toughest undergrowth that you can find, but experiment with terrain that tests your balance and mobility.
Start off by getting onto your local trails to get used to running on a surface which is a bit less even than your local roads. As you progress, try to build up the difficulty of the terrain that you run in, testing yourself more and more as you progress, eventually getting off the trails altogether and into the United Kingdom’s wilderness. Cross-country is a great method of training for this.
The sapping mud of the British winter provides an excellent test for would-be fell runners, improving the strength that you will need to deal with the terrain of fell running. Alternatively you can just change your weekly hill sessions so that they include some off road reps, getting as many twists and turns in as you can, ideally at as steep a gradient as possible. It’s all about strength and stability, and the best way to get these are to get off the roads and get stuck into the tough stuff.
Hit the gym
In order to deal with the rugged terrain of the fells, you’ll need some good levels of stability and leg strength. Now this may sound like it’s going against the traditional grain of fell running, being a sport purely based on the hills and moors, but if there’s no testing terrain on your doorstop, the next best place to develop strength and stability is at the gym. Single-leg squats on a Bosu ball will get your legs used to working individually on an unstable surface. It will be hard at first, but after a few weeks the improvements will be obvious.
Hills, hills and more hills
Fell races are defined by hills. Be they short or long you will, I promise, head uphill at some stage in a race. Often hills will come at the start when you feel nice and fresh. However, this means the pace on these hills is hard right from the gun, with the start field often becoming littered across the hill-side.
These hills are markedly different from what athletes are faced with in a cross-country race. Gone are the 15-30 second power-based efforts that confront you on the winter cross-country circuit, in come the 5-10 minute efforts – reaching upwards of 20 minutes in some of the longer races – which will test your endurance to breaking point. Obviously it’s difficult to find climbs of this magnitude if you don’t live in somewhere like the Lake District. Nonetheless, this is easy to overcome.
A good 3-5 minute interval is more than enough to make do with. Alternatively a 20-minute tempo run is excellent for mimicking the pacing strategy you will have to use on the longer climbs that you may face. It’s all about pacing and holding a good even pace over the entirety of the climb, once you’ve got this down then you can tackle any climb, no matter its length.
What goes up …
All those hills at the start of a race mean yet another inevitability of fell running: you’ve got to come back down. This may sound fantastic; you get a nice rest and can allow gravity to do all the work to get you back to the finish. In reality, it can be the stage of the race where you can lose the most amount of ground to your competitors.
So, to ensure that you don’t fall foul of the often technical descents in some of these races, you need to make sure you can cope with running fast downhill. It’s all about confidence. One method of training for it is to find a gradual, off-road downhill gradient and do some repetitions down it, ideally after your weekly hills session. It will develop your cadence up nicely, so that your legs learn to cope with the increased speed of the descents that you will face in a race.
Gradually increase the steepness of these descents and you will soon find your confidence and speed increasing. It will also help your cross-country and road running no end, as you will be able to use the newly found confidence to gain an advantage over your rivals when the course turns downhill.
Rhythm and cadence
Developing and maintaining this is crucial. Smaller steps and a high cadence up a hill will keep you driving forward and maintaining a good pace. This has the added benefit of putting less strain on your muscles, allowing them to recover faster.
During your training runs try to focus on maintaining a good cadence, particularly on your hill sessions. Also try to include some 50-100m “strides” in your warm up as well, to get your legs used to moving at this speed.
Know the route
Something quite unique to fell running is the ability to aid your cause in a race through what is conventionally known as a “recce” of the course. In order to give yourself the best chance on race day, simply get yourself on to the course and run it beforehand.
The advantages of this are two-fold. Firstly you become familiar with where you are racing, what the course is like, where you can attack your competitors, and how you can pace the race itself. Secondly this can tell you what you really need to work on in your training and what demands the race is going to throw at you. All race route maps are posted online, so they are very easy to find.
Have a go
Now we come to the crux of the matter. There is no better training for fell running than to get to a race and test yourself. It doesn’t have to be a championship event, or a four-hour long epic, but simply entering a race sees you shoot up the leader board. As with any running discipline you are able to push yourself far harder when you have a rival to push yourself against. Running against others will dramatically increase the risk that you’re willing to take on the descents in a way that you can’t quite replicate in training; it will give you that extra motivation to drag yourself up those hills; and it will teach you the invaluable technique of learning how to pace yourself correctly for a race.