Training for Novice Fell-runners

Paul Evans

So, having come along to a few Wednesday evenings, you’ve done your first road race and thoroughly enjoyed it. You’ve done another and enjoyed that too. You’ve maybe even, as it appears is compulsory for north-eastern runners, trained for and got swept up in the atmosphere of the GNR, having had a rather nice day out with the sea of purple. This running thing’s rather fun isn’t it?

If this is you, absolutely grand – there is nothing inherently wrong with road-running at all. However, if a little part of you is starting to wonder if there’s life beyond the tarmac but feels understandably wary of the rather different challenges presented by fell-running and doesn’t really know how to begin, read on for an unscientific guide to entering the dark side (evidence base n=1) …

1. Start simple

Obvious, but essential. Identify a race that is not going to push you too far out of your comfort zone: your first race should be shorter than you’ve raced on the roads as you WILL tire much more quickly on soft, uneven or rocky ground – if you can push yourself around a 10k, a 3-5m race would be a good taster. Ideally, pick a spring or summer race that is likely to be held in pleasant conditions also.

2. Go off-road

The only way to train your body for the demands of off-road running is to do it. Get into the habit of making at least a couple of runs a week mostly off-road; start with relatively gentle terrain eg. Houghall Woods or the Woodland Trust area. You will be slower than you were on the road and you are likely to notice that you feel sore in different areas to usual afterwards, so pay particular attention to stretching off your hamstrings, calves and Achilles tendons – extra effort is required to push off from softer ground and your stride will be shorter than on flat tarmac. You’ll also have to spend a lot more time looking at the ground as you run if you want to minimise the number of falls you have. If you’re nervous about getting lost, join one of the slower off-road runs on spring/summer Wednesday evenings and repeat the routes in your own time at your own pace.

3. When it hurts

To an extent, this is normal and, as mentioned above, stretching well (each stretch held for at least 30 seconds, eased off and then repeated) will help with the muscular and tendon aches and pains. Slow recovery runs (or non-impact work eg. Cross-trainer) the next day are also beneficial in avoiding delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). You’re also going to invert (twist) your ankles at some point and, when this happens (swollen ankle that you can walk on but don’t really fancy anything more arduous), the following pnemonic RICE-M is of use:

R – Rest. Avoid the activity which precipitated the injury until recovered. This is NOT complete inactivity.
I – Ice. In the hours after an injury, an ice-pack to the knee or ankle affected both helps with pain and minimizes swelling.
C – Compress. Many professional athletes now use compression garments after competition for their ability to minimize swelling, even when uninjured. Increasing evidence shows that this is useful in acutely-swollen joints.
E – Elevate. Put the foot up to increase fluid drainage.

In the short-term, should you have no contra-indications (check the packet!) to them, NSAIDs such as ibuprofen will also help with the pain and help with the next important step:

M – Move. Completely immobile joints stiffen rapidly, so regular movement is vital.

Then, when the joint feels better (should it not, this is when GP/physiotherapy may be useful), it’s time to test it again with a short, gentle run …

4. Improving

Having been running off-road for a few weeks it is now time to avoid getting too comfortable and to vary your sessions a little more:

  • Fartlek – mix stretches of running at near-maximum effort with stretches of active recovery (‘can speak in short sentences’ pace).
  • Hill reps – factor a reasonably steep hill into your route and, once you are warm, run up and down repeatedly (I would suggest sets of five) in order to develop the quad and calf strength necessary for the fells. The downhill rep can be used either as a breather or to improve your ability to descend at pace, with emphasis on control of your breathing (natural tendency is to take shallow breaths when descending, rather then ventilating more deeply/slowly/efficiently) and the rapid steps needed to get you downhill fast. When climbing try to remain as upright as possible. When descending, shorter, faster steps taken with your body leaning slightly forward will help get you to the bottom of the hill as quickly and with as little DOMS afterwards (your quads effectively act as shock absorbers, so greater impact with each step equals more pain the next day).
  • Long runs – plan a route that is longer than that you intend to race, ideally on similar terrain and do it at a reasonably comfortable pace. The knowledge that your legs can handle the distance will be invaluable should you have a bit of a wobble on race day.
  • Cross-country – no, the courses are nothing like those of even the easiest fell race, but these are good practice, as the nature of them means that you are likely to be running at best-effort race pace in strength-sapping mud. Burning lungs + tunneling vision = better VO2 max = better performance on race day.
  • Terrain – if you have the opportunity, vary it. Many races will have stretches of stony tracks, bog, steep hillsides covered in grass/rock and mud that can easily suck off poorly-tied shoes.
  • Not running – take at least one rest day each week and consider non-impact work on another couple. For fell-runners who also use gyms, rowing and cross-training are beneficial. Swimming is also excellent cardiovascular exercise and places minimal stress on the knees.
  • Sickeners – both a mental and physical exercise. Plan a route and do it. Then, near the end when you’re really quite tired and want a cup of tea and a sit-down, throw in an ‘extra,’ ideally a hill but definitely something that at this point you really don’t want to do. This will increase your overall mileage, over time improve your proprioception when tired (you get clumsier the more exhausted you are) and the memory of the unpleasantness overcome will give you something to draw on when feeling low in a race.
5. Race

Turn up with the appropriate kit, pay your money and race. Start near the back, don’t push too hard for the first half and, most of all, enjoy. Once it’s over, take the time to go for a short, gentle jog (again, this will help prevent DOMS) and stretch. If you’ve enjoyed it, consider it training for your next race: you’re now a fell-runner.