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Training for the Hills

Mention fell running to anyone and they immediately think of running up hills.  This specialised aspect of the discipline together with the technique of descending is unique to the sport.  Coaches must capitalise in this area so that their athletes are able to maximise their ability in this aspect of performance.

The criteria for optimising the ability to climb well is the same for all abilities.

    The weight of an athlete is a critical factor in a good climbing formula.  If the percentage of body fat is reduced to under 10% for senior men, and 15% for senior ladies then the ability to climb well is positively enhanced.  This does not mean that you immediately go on a diet.  The progression towards a low body fat level takes planning, since athletes in full training require a diet with sufficient calories to maintain a balance for their energy requirements.  It is the minor refinements within a healthy diet that can pave the way to attaining low body fat, and the coach needs to assess each athlete individually to find the correct formula.

    Leg strength is undoubtedly the key factor if body weight is as suggested.  As mentioned earlier the building of strong leg muscles is not a major difficulty, it is more a matter of a scheduled application and sound knowledge of the overload principle.

    Lactic tolerance has to be well developed.  Tolerance conditioning sessions and activities enhancing lactic buffering are not hard to find.  Turbo sessions on a static bike should not be overlooked.

    Aerobic conditioning is a major factor, especially on the long climbs.  A solid base of aerobic conditioning is an essential element in good hill climbing, especially over the longer courses.  A Minimum mileage of approximately 70 miles per week is necessary, although this will vary depending on the time of year and the standard of competition.  100 miles a week during the winter months is not out of place for elite athlete’s aspiring for International selection.

    Correct stride length and uphill running technique require practice.  Economy is the key word when climbing steep ascents.  The arm action should be minimised on long slow climbs and routes selected to minimise knee lift.

    Pace judgment is an essential ingredient in maintaining an efficient running action - and as outlined earlier - use should be made of specific hill sessions to acquire this knowledge.

    A strong will is a necessary characteristic especially in the shorter races when lactic tolerance levels are high.

    A good race walking technique is essential for those parts of a course which are not runnable.

    Optimum route choice is a tactical application which plays a major part in uphill running. It is not always the strongest climber who gets to the top first.  Under certain conditions it is occasionally reserved for the runner who finds the shorter route.

    There are occasions when it is helpful to use the tactical ploy of pulling oneself up by the use of the hands.  There are critical times in a race when metres can be gained on a very steep climb by using the hands to ease lactic build up in the legs.  Heather slopes and rock out-crop can all aid forward momentum at times when seconds are at stake.

    On severe climbs the running action of light forefoot contact puts great strain on the calf muscles, which at times can fatigue sufficiently to bring about a drop in pace.  If an intentional change to flat foot contact is made for short periods of time with the emphasis on a quadriceps lift, it allows lactic to disperse sufficiently in the calf’s to regain the former action.

    When climbing steep ascents careful positioning of the foot can at times allow a continuous drive forward without the occasional slip back.  Any such slip results in lost momentum and careful selection of step positions should be made so that maximum forward drive can occur without loss of speed.  Although this may seem trivial in application the leverage gained when the foot is on a strong foundation establishes a marked advantage over those whose random steps find insecure positions.

    The application of selected breathing patterns using the diaphragm action is a much undervalued technique when running at threshold level.  Coaches must examine this aspect of preparation and application.

Hill Reps

To excel at hill 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 well than running on the fells or doing specific hill reps in training.  The difficulty with hill reps is trying to overload a specific physical aspect in isolation from the rest.  Running hills of any gradient works all parts of the circulatory and musculo-skeletal systems, with the heart, lungs and legs all placed under stress at the same time.

Downhill Running

It is said that good down hill runners are born with the ability, and that you either ‘have it’ or you don’t.  That may be so, but there are not many fell runners who have been schooled in the art of descending.  This is largely because there are not the coaches available who coach this specialized aspect, like all techniques good descending can be learned with practise.

What is it that makes a good descender?

    In the first instance a runner must have strong legs.  Rather an obvious statement really, but how many fell runners actually do specific strength training to improve leg strength away from the fell.  If they do they generally build muscle strength with just endurance in mind – and on occasion’s possibly gross strength training.  However, they seldom opt for elastic strength development via plyometric and drop jumps for extra power.  Qualified coaches who have been on strength conditioning courses can assist in ensuring that all these aspects of training are applied in the right proportions.

    A fell and hill runner must have good eye / foot co-ordination.  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 a suitable stride length that is in keeping with the surface material.  Long strides are inappropriate on tracks that have a rough undulating surface of rock and boulders.  There are times when the need to react to a bad foot plant requires a light quick step to recover.  If the stride is too long and committed it is very difficult to avoid trouble.  Drill work of the sort used by sprinters for speed and co-ordination will help.  Try some for a couple of months down at the track.  The principle is similar to that the American footballers use, of rapid stepping in and out of tyres.

    Knowing the correct lean and doing it is another thing, e.g. when descending Lingmell in the Scafell race, 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 descenders know exactly what they are doing - it just looks dangerous to inexperienced runners.

    When descending at pace it’s important that the foot is in the plantar flexion position (foot 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.  A small point, but an important one, is that it’s 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.

    There are many times when a runner has a poor descent because their legs will not hold them at pace.  It’s 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 like Ben Nevis, Snowdon, Skiddaw etc, then those runners with good descending techniques need to utilise their judgment of lactic build up on the climb in order to fully exploit their descending prowess on the way down.

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