The ups and downs of fell running
Norman Matthews provides an insight into the training for running on the fells and mountains.
To excel at fell running hills need to be run in training. Strong legs can be built with strength conditioning and riding a bike, but there is no better way of developing the ability to climb than running on the fells or doing specific hill reps in training. The difficulty with hill reps is trying to overload a particular aspect in isolation from the rest. Running hills of any gradient works all parts of the circulatory and musculoskeletal systems, with the heart, lungs and legs all placed under stress at the same time. The permutations for hill reps are endless; in most cases, the sessions are moulded on the available terrain. Because of the intense nature of hill work, it pays to have a variation of hill types from buffering sessions on steep runnable hills of no longer than 30 seconds, to extended reps of slower endurance work that take over 5 minutes. Keeping the athletes guessing as to what session is coming next is a recommended ploy. All the hill rep variations have a part to play in the overall scheme of fell preparation with the emphasis linked to the athlete's race plan.
Without going into too much detail, below is a general outline of some hill work that one training group follows:
As mentioned, hill reps can be quite daunting psychologically, and it pays to occasionally change the session so that the group does not always know what is coming.
During the summer, hill rep sessions continue, but their selection is carefully planned. A weekend race with steep hills to climb can occasionally become the session. The balance needs to be right since too much intensity in an extensive racing programme can be counterproductive. Judgement and choices come down to experience. Reconnoitring racecourses on a free Sunday can be most productive combining it with a hill session sometimes doing 3 to 4 reps on a hill that will only be climbed once during the race can have a positive psychological boost come race day.
A sound mental attitude has to be developed in the athlete with their 'love' of hills. Affection has to established with the joy of running uphill. If that can be achieved, then this affinity will serve the athlete well.
It is said that good downhill runners are born that way and that you either 'have it' or you do not. That may be so, but there are not too many runners who have been schooled in the art of descending.
What is it that makes a good downhill runner?
1) Strong Legs
In the first instance, a runner must have strong legs. Rather an obvious statement, but how many fell runners train to improve leg strength away from the fell. If they do, they generally build muscle strength with just endurance in mind. They occasionally go for gross strength training. They seldom opt for elastic strength development via plyometric and drop jumps for extra power. Coaches must ensure that all these aspects of weight training are applied in the right proportions. Coaches who have not been on a strength conditioning course should make it a priority. In the meantime, read all that you can about the subject, search out information and learn the principles.
2) Fast Feet
A fell, and hill runner must have excellent eye/foot coordination. A term used regularly for sprinters is 'fast feet'. When descending at pace over rocks and other rough ground, the fell and hill runner needs to think of 'fast feet,' using steps in keeping with the surface, material. Long strides are inappropriate on tracks strewn with boulders. There are times when the need to react to a wrong foot plant requires a quick light step to recover. If the stride is too long and committed, it is challenging to avoid trouble. Drill work of the sort used by sprinters for speed and coordination will help. Try some for a couple of months down at the track. The principle is similar to the American use of rapid stepping in and out of tyres.
3) Correct lean
Knowing the correct lean and doing it is another thing, e.g. when descending long steep fell descents, it takes a degree of courage to let the legs go in a relaxed state of free fall. If the racer resists the fell, then the leg muscles must work overtime and produce the old 'leg wobbles' on the way down. The correct lean co-exists with both experience and fearlessness. Correct technique borders on recklessness, but most elite downhill runners know what they are doing. It only looks dangerous to those runners cannot do it.
4) Stud contact
When descending at a pace, the foot must be in the plantarflexed position (pointing downwards) to facilitate as much contact with the ground as possible. Full stud contact helps considerably on wet grassy slopes. Less pointing is needed by those runners wearing shoes with heel spikes. Scree running is quite different, try to keep the body straight with the heels going into the scree. Wearing two pair of socks with the top pair turned over on to the top of the shoe and attached to Velcro, which is glued on, allows the runner to continue without stopping to remove stones from their shoes. A small point, but an important one, is that it is no use wearing a pair of studs to aid descent if the studs are worn down. If the uppers are still in good condition, then a new sole is a must.
5) Lactic build-up
There are many times when a runner has a poor descent because their legs will not hold them at pace. It is no use giving that extra push for the top only to find that the lactic build-up prevents a good descent. If a runner usually picks up places on the descent, it is good coaching practice to work on this in training. If the descent is long - over 3 miles - then those runners with good descending techniques need to utilise their elements of the lactic build-up to exploit their descending prowess fully.
There is no single magic formula for developing a good endurance base. Most coaches use the same general principles but differ in the detail of their training schedules. There are many permutations of mileage, coupled with an array of different interval and repetition sessions. Experimenting with your formula is part of your developing skill. Do not be afraid to make the occasional mistake. All coaches have done so. If your athlete is to race the fells frequently between March and September, then the bulk of endurance preparation needs to be completed outside that period. What is not generally understood is that continuous running at a slow set pace is not the most efficient way to improve oxygen uptake. It is important to cover a relatively high mileage, but with the necessity to vary the pace so that the maximum conditioning effect is achieved. This takes planning.
This aspect of coaching is crucial in achieving a balanced training programme. Long, Medium and Short-term plans enable the coach and athlete to meet on regular occasions to plan the weekly or monthly schedule. Do not feel intimidated by the technical terminology of periodisation language. There is nothing wrong with your system so long as it fulfils all your requirements. Regular re-assessment will ensure you are making the necessary progression. The critical point is that in planning, you will have integrated all of the elements required of a balanced training programme. Fell running is primarily an endurance activity, and as such, the training emphasis has to be in this area. Long slow continuous runs are not necessarily the best way towards a good aerobic base. The most beneficial zone of endurance is 70% to 85% of maximum heart rate. Running slower than the lower figure brings little measurable aerobic improvement. It merely adds to impact stress, yet many runners out on the Sunday run will seldom operate above this lower figure.
The principle is that runners need to run as fast as is possible over the specific training distance without incurring any significant oxygen or lactate debt. During periods of relatively high mileage, it pays to do at least one up pace session of speed endurance per week. 2 x 8 x 400 at approximately 90 -95% of HRmax is such a session. Keep the recovery short but at a level that allows the training rate to be maintained. This helps to keep a proper running technique, maintain speed, and to improve oxygen debt tolerance. It pays to plan an occasional easy week in which mileage is reduced; this can be included in a taper period for an important race. In general terms, the high volume of winter training should be gradually reduced as the intensity of sessions increases. If done successfully, this balance will ensure that your athlete is in racing condition for his/her first important race.
The duration of the fell season requires a selective racing programme for those athletes intent on international selection, or who have ambitions in Championship races. This selective policy should accommodate changes in emphasis and permit a short return to longer less intensive sessions mid-year to top up the endurance base. Benchmarks of progress are sensible at various points in the planning.
This is one of the better ways to induce fell runners to do some speed work. Most fell runners do this type of training regularly without possibly realising it. Group runs can occasionally turn into fartlek running as runners individually press the pace at various stages, but as such is usually not structured and possibly not intense enough. This is where a good heart rate monitor comes in useful. Unless the coach is in a position to accompany the athlete, it will be necessary to go over the course and draw a plan or make the first route simple enough to remember with possibly only two or three elements in it.
Further refinement can follow when the athlete accepts the principle of what you are trying to achieve. This is the time you can mix some 400m fast bursts, with 200m jogs, or run a mile at threshold pace followed by 600m jog before throwing in a few short reps of a hill for tolerance work, followed by a mile of steady running. The permutations are endless. The smart part is to fit in elements that match the terrain and are not interrupted by it. In suitable surroundings having the coach on a mountain bike can ensure control and discipline.
The idea of enhancing your oxygen uptake with a session of 2 x 10 x 200 @ 30 secs - 90-sec recovery is perhaps alien to most fell runners. Such a session is probably the most efficient method in time value for aerobic conditioning. Those possessing HR monitors can control the recovery period and the pace of the session much more effectively than those who have not. The speed should be such that a recovery pulse of approximately 120 bpm (200 HRmax) is reached before commencing the following 200m run. Thus, the rest interval between runs is determined by the rate of the hearts return to 120bpm a recovery period which should be within three times the running time. High pulse rates of approximately 180bpm are reached during the run in such a session.
The principle is that once the rest interval begins following the effort, the heart rate does not rapidly return to the pre-exercise state. Instead, it remains high when there is not a need to do so. This places an overload on the heart muscle, encouraging an adaptation through the overcompensation effect. Fell runners must realise that to achieve specific types of conditioning they may have to desert their first love occasionally and spend a little time on the track. The range of session options at the track is too numerous to mention here. However, a classic session is the mile reps, (1600m) with a minute recovery, the training pace is dependent upon the athlete's condition but if they are run at 90-95% HRmax a very worthwhile session results.
Hopefully, this brief outline explains some of the differences in the training programme of a Fell Runner.
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About the Author
Norman Matthews was a British Athletics level 4 Performance Coach and senior head coach at Horwich RMI Harriers Club, UK. He produced a book on fell running titled "Fell and Hill Running" - ISBN 0 85134 138 1. This article has been provided here with his kind permission.