SKILLS: How to go From Hillwalker to Fell Runner

by Claire Maxted 06/Jul/2017
This article has been read 5,808 times

Fell running is a surprisingly simple transition from hill walking, says Claire Maxted - it's just lighter and faster! If you have the hill skills then you're already most of the way there...


Wouldn't it be great to summit peaks effortlessly and fit a few more mountains into your days out? Fell running is your answer. And it might surprise you to know that as a hill walker, you are actually much more of a fell runner than most road runners. This is because fell running is just hillwalking speeded up, and once the terrain starts getting steep, fast-walking power and endurance, which you already have in spades, is the name of the game.

Charlie Lees running along the north ridge of Stob Choire Claurigh in the Grey Corries, West Highlands of Scotland., 161 kbCharlie Lees running along the north ridge of Stob Choire Claurigh in the Grey Corries, West Highlands of Scotland.
CH, Jun 2016
© colinhendersonphoto.com

So those big mountain rounds, like the Bob Graham and Charlie Ramsay that you might have been boggling at of late - Nicky Spinks' double BGR for instance (see here) - are mainly about walking fast rather than actual constant running like you see on the London Marathon.

Ladies' record holder for all three classic UK mountain rounds, Jasmin Paris, says, "My husband and I take 10-12 day backpacking trips wild camping in the mountains before the start of the season; hiking is the best training for my mountain rounds."

You also have all the precious fell running skills that road runners most often lack, like how to look after yourself and friends in all different weather conditions, the ability (hopefully) to navigate reasonably well, and to negotiate uneven terrain without having heart palpitations. So how do you get started? Brilliantly, it's much, much easier than you might think.

If Joss Naylor, over 80, can do it then so can we!, 243 kbIf Joss Naylor, over 80, can do it then so can we!
© Dan Bailey

"It might surprise you to know that as a hillwalker, you are actually much more of a fell runner than most road runners!"

1 Change your shoes

For five years I worked on Trail magazine where big sturdy boots were de rigeur for foot-based travel in the mountains. Having edited Trail Running magazine for the last seven, I can safely say that in all seasons but full-on winter with knee-deep snow, a pair of quality trail running shoes are the best choice of footwear for speeding up in the wilderness.

You're going to need a pair of trail/fell running shoes, 171 kbYou're going to need a pair of trail/fell running shoes
© Claire Maxted

For your first pair, go for the most cushioning and the biggest heel to toe 'drop'. The drop is very significant as ignoring this can lead to activity-preventing calf/achilles injury. It's the height difference between the heel and toe, and most walking boots and running trainers have a traditional drop of about 12-14mm, so your heel is raised up. Trail running shoes tend to be more minimal, with less of a built-up heel. Anything from 8mm right down to zero drop are used for a more natural footfall. Going from 14mm drop straight to zero stretches the lower leg muscles and tendons too quickly and can result in injury. But assuming you've made a sensible, staggered transition, then with your new, lightweight 8-10mm drop trail shoes, your usual day hikes will instantly seem easier to speed up on.

2 Lighten your load

Small packs and light loads are the order of the day, 225 kbSmall packs and light loads are the order of the day
© Dan Bailey

Fell runners tend not to wear much and to carry fewer layers, as going fast warms you up. Leggings or sports shorts and a technical t-shirt and your smallest daypack will suffice to start with though - one with chest and waist straps is a bonus to keep the pack from bobbing about. Trail running gear is basically walking gear but lighter in weight, so pack your skimpiest waterproof and waterproof trousers, thinnest extra base layer, summer gloves and hat, first aid kit, survival bag and food. Already you'll be raring to go with less of a load on your back - this running malarkey is going to be easy!

3 Pack different food

Food that you can easily eat on the go is better for running, 159 kbFood that you can easily eat on the go is better for running
© Claire Maxted

Indestructible, moist, easy to digest and easy to access. Anything in your pack gets jostled about. I've blackened many a poor banana on a trail run. You'll also need things to be much wetter to get them down as running can make your mouth drier that you're used to, especially in summer. Actually a squashed banana combined with a cereal bar is quite good for this! Food must be easily digestible too as your blood flow prioritises your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal system over your gut. Having said that, I ran the Ring of Steall sky race with a cheese baguette in my pack and munched on it whenever I could, but I would recommend more of a Nicky Spinks and Jasmin Paris approach of slippery mini rice puddings and fruit salads. Also good: any cereal bars and flapjacks you can tolerate, and definitely savoury items like mini sausage rolls and scotch eggs for longer routes. You can also make a mean, bombproof trail mix with nuts, raisins and M&Ms. Pack it in your hip pockets so you can get to it quickly without stopping to unpack everything.

4 Shrink your map

A little like orienteering here, fell runners operate with an A4 to A3 sheet of waterproof paper map (provided in some races like The Dragon's Back and Great Lakeland 3-Day), or for your own route, print it out or photocopy that part of the map to carry with you. Laminate or bag it in a transparent zip lock bag to keep it waterproof. Then you can fold the map to hold comfortably in your hand rather than lug the whole OS map about with you as you run. Or you can use a GPX file route on your GPS, your sat nav for the hills. I would always carry a paper map and compass as back up though in case of battery failure.

5 Run the downhills

Not holding back on the downhills..., 215 kbNot holding back on the downhills...
© Dan Bailey

Right! Now you're ready to become a runner! See how most of these tips are about gear rather than fitness? Fell running really is a very simple transition from hill walking. It's just a lighter way of moving through the mountains, which in itself lends itself to a faster speed. So to the running part. Firstly no extra fitness is required as you just start jogging the downhill sections. You may do this already as bouncing from one foot to the other can relieve the pressure on the knees, especially on rock-paved sections like Jacob's Ladder in the Peak or many of the paths of Langdale in the Lakes. Avoid spending much time looking directly at your feet and, just like a mountain biker, swivel your eyes from 2m to 5m to 10m ahead to scan the upcoming terrain. Pick the best-looking line and go for it. Jog first, slowing to a walk again for tricky sections. Practice running faster on gentler, grassy sections with no rocks for maximum ease. This should be fun...

6 Jog the flats

Jog the flats - don't go flat out or you'll soon hit a wall, 150 kbJog the flats - don't go flat out or you'll soon hit a wall
© Claire Maxted

Once you've mastered speeding up your downhills, try breaking into a jog on flatter sections with easy, smooth paths. First, jog for 10 paces, walk for 30, then walk for 20, then 10. On the next walk, jog for 30 paces and walk for 10. Up your jog section by 20 paces on each outing until you can comfortably jog for 10 minutes. That's round about a mile. Then work up the same way to your next mile, and so on. Easy!

7 Speed-hike the uphills

Some very experienced fell runners, conspicuously NOT running the uphills, 149 kbSome very experienced fell runners, conspicuously NOT running the uphills
© Dan Bailey

Phew! You'll be pleased to know that even the pros, no, especially the pros don't run up all the hills. Yes, they are fit enough to breeze up gradients you and I would class as impossible, but all the top runners know that speed-hiking is way more efficient than struggling to run up a steep hill. So how do you know when it's just as fast to walk? Simple: when you're struggling to breathe and feel like you're bobbing up and down on the spot, change to a walk. Lean slightly forward (but not so far as to crunch up your hard-working lungs), push your hands down on your thighs with each step and take small, quick steps that will power you uphill in no-time. Feels too hard? Slow down, take a breather, power-walk slightly more slowly. You will get stronger; just feel free to progress at your speed, your pace. Remember that view at the top is your prize.

8 Refuel on the fly

Rather than stopping for snacks, fell runners eat on the move, or before and after shorter runs. You have enough glycogen stored in your liver and muscles for 90 mins of vigorous activity, so if you eat regular meals just take an emergency gel or cereal bar with you. Pack food in bitesized chunks in easy to open packets or just loose in hip belt pockets. A hydration bladder is good for sipping fluid on the move, but I now prefer the front-mounted soft bottles on running-specific packs as they are easier to refill on longer outings, and to clean afterwards.

9 Enter a trail race

Races are a great way to get into running, 141 kbRaces are a great way to get into running
© Claire Maxted

Once you've got the hang of the previous eight tips, consider entering your first trail or fell race. Trail races are a good intro to off-road running before the heady world of fell racing where you literally thrash yourself up a hill and then hurl yourself back down again. They also tend to be waymarked so you don't have to read a map. I also hike race routes the opposite way round afterwards with non-running friends so races can open up a whole new world of great routes to all. My first races were the Lakeland Trails in Cumbria, they have a brilliant family-friendly, party atmosphere with music to start the race and several different distances available. Start with a 10k race and ignore all the speedsters that charge off at the start, keep to your well-known steady pace and you'll be overtaking most of them later on with a wry smile… My top trail race tip is to be bold and start cold. As a beginner I would end up boiling with jackets and tops tied round my waist, hats and buffs shoved into pockets! It's a much warmer sport than hiking.

10 Enjoy it!

Claire, remembering what it's all about - enjoyment!, 100 kbClaire, remembering what it's all about - enjoyment!
© Claire Maxted

You are now officially a fell runner! You run in the mountains, sometimes tactically changing to a walk on steep hills. Remember to take a break for spectacular views across grass-covered, rock-topped mountainsides with their zig zag horizons fading to light blue as they meet the sky. Now you can get even further into the mountains or climb more summits than you ever imagined in one day, or you're just simply fitter so it doesn't take as long or it's less of an effort to get up your favourite peaks. If you run quietly you can often sneak up on wildlife, seeing voles scurrying for cover at the side of the path or enjoy the thrill of birds of prey wheeling overhead. Stop. Look around. Breathe in the fresh air. Unencumbered by clumpy boots and a heavy load, as a fell runner, you're free.


About Claire Maxted

Claire Maxted is the co-founder and former editor of Trail Running magazine, the UK's only bi-monthly dedicated to the exciting, adventurous and muddy world of off-road running. She now has a YouTube channel, Wild Ginger Films, providing off-road running advice, athlete interviews, gear tests and race recces. Claire also gives talks, hosts athlete Q+As and presents film coverage at big races such as the Montane Spine Race and OMM. She is also a personal trainer, having set up Stamford Trail & Ultra Club (STUC) where she is based, and she coaches beginner to improver trail runners.

Claire at the Keswick Mountain Festival marathon, 91 kbClaire at the Keswick Mountain Festival marathon
© James Kirby

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