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Fell Training


There is no doubt that at International and elite level, quality road, or track runners, can compete with the best fell runners over fast continental courses - especially if there are no descents involved.  In this context, why should we need specialised fell coaches and use instead endurance coaches who have some knowledge of hill work?  The recognition of Fell Running as a specific discipline by UK Athletics is a clear indication that a sufficient difference does exists.

Because fell running is endurance based, it is obvious that there are common training elements and that fell coaches will have much in common with those who coach middle and long distance.  However the specifics that alone apply to fell running can only be taught by those whose knowledge and experience extends to our particular discipline.

Specifics for Fell

The ability to race across the full range of distances in fell running requires a training programme and an approach that is not covered in current coaching manuals.  The extended season of the fell calendar precludes strict observance to the recognised periodisation principles of road or track.  Fell coaches must develop their own training cycles based on experience and the expectations and racing programme of their individual athletes.

The clinical assessment of track running, with due regard to optimum performance over very short distances, or the economy of a road runner whose even pace allows stride length and cadence to remain relatively unchanged for most of the race, is dramatically different from the broken stride pattern of a fell runner whose length of stride can vary from very short, on climbs, to an extended length on descending.

Stride Length

The ability to ‘change gear’ at the foot of a hill and engage a shorter stride, is a necessary attribute for the fell runner.  Coaching must ensure that the length of stride matches the incline and that the stride length is controlled in order to offset the build up of lactic acid.  Far too often this change of gear - or pace - comes too late when lactic concentrations are already well established, inevitably leading to a drop in pace.  This lack of judgement is usually preceded by a period of walking, especially if the runner is still pushing past tolerance levels.

Knowledge of pace judgement on ascents needs to be practised when doing race intensity hill reps.  Advice the athlete how many reps will be completed, and with knowledge of what recovery has been allowed, request that all the reps are completed in approximately the same time.  The running pace is the fastest they feel can be maintained during the full session.

This exercise very quickly brings home to the athlete who has poor pace judgement the consequences of too fast an early pace, or that their stride length was too long and uneconomical.  By keeping to the same recovery time the lactic concentrations grow to a point that times extend as the session progresses, any misjudgement of pace further increases the time factor.  This early pace judgement is vital in those races that have several climbs.  In the shorter races with just one top, lactate can be accumulated well past deflection point, the judgement of how much can be accumulated and still allow the athlete to descend at pace, again is measurable by experience.

Race Walking

A good race walking technique can usually keep pace with those runners who prefer to jog, if the steepness of climb is suitable, but there is much more to the technique than just walking up hill with your hands on your legs.

Although the race walking technique is best demonstrated the basics are quite simple.  The principle of using the hands to assist the legs in raising the body is an every day occurrence if you care to look for it.  The simple task of rising from a chair is made easier by the pressure that the hands apply to the arm rests.  The difference in pressure depends on how much assistance the legs require.

Although the two actions of race walking and rising from a chair are different, the principle is the same.  You are assisting the leg muscles in lifting the body by use of your arms.  A similar application is the use of climbing (ski) sticks that are now common place with mountain walkers.  The principle is to help the legs lift the body weight up the slope.

Of the muscles used in climbing, the Quadriceps and Gluteals are the main contributors, although several synergistic muscles help.  A common counter productive mistake is placing the hands in the middle of the femur.  This downward pressure actually stops the quads straightening the leg.  The hands must be placed so that the heel of the hand is above the knee, with the thumb on the inside and the middle finger on the outside (the index finger floats in the middle).  The pressure exerted by the hands has to be timed to the rhythm of the walking speed.  Leaving the hand there for too long is disadvantageous.

The hand when released remains close to the knee ready for the next move.  The principle is that the force exerted downwards through the Tibia and Fibula reacts with an equal force that permits the upper half of the body to be levered up momentarily.  This takes the full strain of lifting the body weight away from the legs.  Although this help is not immediately noticeable, over a long sustained climb the energy saving is significant.

Progression

Not a very complicated word, but most athletes do not understand in athletic terms its real meaning.  If performance is to be improved, then the principle of progressively higher loadings must apply.  Adaptation to increasing stress is what training is all about.  It is the coach’s responsibility to plan the training schedule taking account of real progression.  This usually means more work at greater intensity.

Fell Running is no exception to this principle.  A heart rate monitor is invaluable to a coach in establishing progression, even when the athlete is out training on the fells.

Linking progressions on the track with times and distance is relatively easy but knowing if your athlete is working at the right intensity on the fells is much more difficult.  The evaluation of time against distance over a set course, will only give a rough guide to improvement.  The problem with this method rests in calculating and conveying the intensity at which the run must be completed.  Does one say steady, good, fast, or does one use 70% or 80% of maximum effort?

Using a heart rate monitor that has a recording facility, a graph of the run can be examined against the time value and a more clinical observation made.  Using this method the intensity for most of the run can be set using the upper and lower limits facility, taking account of the higher stresses of climbing.

In all aspects of the athlete’s training a clinical application of the progressive overload system is the real way forward toward improved performance and a considerable amount of the coach’s time must be utilised in its delivery.  This does not mean that an athlete has no easy days.


Norman Matthews © 2001-2004
Head Senior Coach
Horwich RMI Harriers