When my outings in the mountains were all as a walker, I used to be astonished at the sight of lean and lithe runners, usually wearing the skimpiest of shorts and skipping along rough paths and up and down hills like mountain goats. Now that I too run in the mountains, I often receive comments from the walkers I meet: “I wish I were as fit as you”; “I’d never be able to do that”.
But the truth is that you don’t need to be some superhuman athlete; runners of all abilities and fitness levels can get out and enjoy themselves in the mountains.
Here are 8 tips to get you started:
1. You don’t have to run all the time
If you walk some of your route it doesn’t mean that you are not doing it “properly”!
Even elite fell runners will walk some of the steepest climbs. For an enjoyable day out in the hills, think about maintaining a comfortable, even effort, which for most people means walking the ups and running on the flat and downhill.
As you get stronger you will find that you are able to incorporate more running and reduce the amount of walking, but make sure you still take plenty of opportunities to admire the views!
2. Work on your technique
When you do want to run up the hills, remember it is all about being efficient. Rather than running hard before collapsing in a wobbling, panting heap, try to settle into a consistent pace and rhythm that you can sustain. Aim for short strides with a high cadence and pump your arms to increase your momentum.
Once the terrain gets steeper, walking can often be just as fast as running, but uses less energy. Lean your hands on your knees to help power yourself along.
Although new mountain runners generally worry about the uphills, it is actually downhill running that is more difficult and requires more technical skill. You need to look at the ground a few metres ahead to give yourself time to react to any obstacles and move with fast, nimble feet. Although it feels counter-intuitive, leaning forward and keeping your weight forward will help improve the grip from your shoes, as well as avoiding sore quadriceps from lots of braking.
3. Think about your kit
- Shoes – trail or fell shoes with a grippy sole will be helpful, but more importantly your shoes need to be comfortable, with at least a thumb’s width of space in front of the big toe to avoid bashed and bruised toes from running downhill
- Comfy backpack or bum bag
- Map and compass – and the ability to use it! If you are not a confident navigator, then this post may help you get started
- Waterproof jacket and trousers
- Extra warm layer, hat and gloves
- Snacks and water – you may be able to top up with water from mountain streams if needed. Always drink from fast flowing water and check upstream for dead animals and waste
- Survival bag – in case you need to keep warm and dry in an emergency
- Whistle – for alerting people nearby in an emergency. The recognised emergency distress signal is six loud blasts, but frankly any loud whistle blowing is likely to alert others that something is wrong!
4. Consider the weather
Make sure you check the weather forecast; in the UK my favourite source of weather information is the Mountain Weather Information Service which provides detailed forecasts for the UK’s upland areas.
5. Plan your route carefully
Beginner hill runners are often frustrated that moving uphill and across many different sorts of terrain results in you moving a lot more slowly than you are used to (and technical downhill terrain is not always any faster!). Remember to factor this in when planning routes and estimating how long you will be out (although devised for walkers, a good guide is Naismith’s rule, which suggests estimating an extra 10 minutes per 100 metres of ascent).
Make sure you have a back-up plan in case things go wrong and let someone know where you are going and what time to expect you back before setting out.
6. Keep fuelled up
The digestive system does not work as well while running, due to blood from the gut being diverted to supply the hard working muscles, so eat little and often. Try to use slower moving uphills as opportunities to eat.
7. Think safety first
When running in the hills you need to respect that it is a more hazardous environment and you need to be more cautious than when you are going for a straightforward road run with lots of people around.
If at any time you feel uncertain or that things are going wrong, remember that discretion is the better part of valour and that mountain will still be there to climb another day.
In the UK, should things go wrong you are able to call on the services of Mountain Rescue, but remember that they are a volunteer service and should only be called upon in a true emergency.
If you do need Mountain Rescue then dial 999 and ask for Police, then Mountain Rescue. It is also a good idea to register for text 999 services before setting out; the phone signal in the mountains is often patchy and a text can get through when there is not enough signal for a call (but you need to pre-register).