Work­ing it out

Hill run­ning, swim­ming and other ways to heal the burnout

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Ge­orge Win­ter

With Dublin’s Phoenix Park dat­ing from the 17th cen­tury, our for­bears grasped the im­por­tance of open green spa­ces for city dwellers. In 2003, the term “green ex­er­cise” – mean­ing phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity un­der­taken in “green” sur­round­ings – was coined by re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Es­sex who demon­strated that it con­fers phys­i­cal and men­tal health ben­e­fits (greenex­er­

And what bet­ter green ex­er­cise than run­ning in the hills? As a mid­dle-aged long-dis­tance run­ner whose in­jury count plum­meted af­ter switch­ing from con­crete to coun­try­side, I rec­om­mend it.

Af­ter all, we evolved to run long dis­tances for food and wa­ter, so pro­vid­ing you have ad­e­quate fit­ness lev­els and run­ning ex­pe­ri­ence, you’ll dis­cover that we have a built-in abil­ity to pace our­selves ac­cord­ing to the con­di­tions. For ex­am­ple, a study in the Bri­tish Jour­nal of Sports Medicine con­cluded that “run­ning off-road elic­its a heart rate re­sponse that varies with the al­ter­ing de­mands of sur­face, veg­e­ta­tion and gra­di­ent”.

Trails to moun­tain sides

Ac­cord­ing to the Ir­ish Moun­tain Run­ning As­so­ci­a­tion (, which was founded in 1980, the grow­ing sport of moun­tain run­ning caters for all par­tic­i­pants from fun run­ners to elite ath­letes. Dis­tances range from 3km to 128km over ter­rains from trails to moun­tain sides, with some climb­ing com­mon to all. For ex­am­ple, this month saw the in­au­gu­ral Glen­dalough Clover 84km race in the Wicklow Hills, over a course de­signed by Ir­ish Ul­tra Team man­ager Adrian Tucker.

League races are typ­i­cally run over marked routes, whereas cham­pi­onship events are usu­ally over un­marked moun­tain­sides re­quir­ing a map and com­pass. There are three leagues: the 13-race Le­in­ster Sum­mer League (be­tween 5km and 12km); a four to six-race win­ter league in Jan­uary, Fe­bru­ary and March; and a three-race trail league in late sum­mer.

And age is no bar­rier to get­ting into the hills. Ear­lier this month Jim Pat­ter­son of New­cas­tle, Co Down, won the over-70s cat­e­gory at the World Mas­ters Moun­tain Run­ning Cham­pi­onships in Slo­vakia.

So what’s the best way to get started in moun­tain run­ning, and what are its at­trac­tions? I asked I asked Ricky Cowan MBE, of Mourne Run­ners in Co Down, and chair­man of the North­ern Ire­land Moun­tain Run­ners As­so­ci­a­tion ( One of Ire­land’s top rock climbers in the 1960s and 70s, in the 1980s Cowan be­gan run­ning up moun­tains.

He tells The Ir­ish Times: “I’m 68 now and still get­ting out the door. I won the over-60 cat­e­gory in the 2016 Car­raun­toohil race be­fore be­com­ing the over-60 2016 Ir­ish Cham­pion, and I won the over-60 cat­e­gory at the Con­naught Cham­pi­onships in 2014, 2015 and 2016.”

Get­ting started

“The best way to get started in the sport,” ex­plains Cowan, “is to con­tact a lo­cal run­ning club that spe­cialises in moun­tain run­ning. You’ll get taken out on the hills and taught how to ex­pe­ri­ence the thrill of run­ning down­hill at break-neck speed, and how to map-read so you can nav­i­gate your way round the course if the mist de­scends. This’ll give you a buzz and you’ll learn enough moun­tain craft to be self-re­liant. In time you’ll be run­ning longer races, which are both ad­ven­tures and chal­lenges to look for­ward to.”

The most im­por­tant item of kit, says Cowan, is a good pair of shoes “for run­ning up­hill on soft ground and de­scend­ing at speed. A good grip’s essen­tial, so or­di­nary train­ers are out. Con­tem­po­rary fell shoes have soles like trac­tor tyres, so in­vest in a good pair.”

Moun­tain races are of­ten point-to-point com­pe­ti­tions, so when the gun goes you’ve to nav­i­gate around a se­quence of check­points – these tend to be on moun­tain sum­mits – us­ing any route you like.

“Con­se­quently,” says Cowan, “at the start of a race you might see run­ners go­ing off in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions with you won­der­ing if they know some­thing you don’t!” The best way is to recce the course be­fore the race: “This will get you out on the hill with your run­ning friends where you’ll have time to ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty and tran­quil­lity of your sur­round­ings and work out and prac­tise the best lines around the course.”

Friendly and so­cia­ble

“Moun­tain run­ners,” says Cowan, “tend to be friendly and so­cia­ble, high­lighted by the fact that af­ter most races re­fresh­ments are pro­vided. This gives the op­por­tu­nity for a post­mortem of the race, ex­chang­ing tales of der­ring-do. Imra and Nimra mem­bers have a re­cip­ro­cal ar­range­ment where we can com­pete in each other’s races. This causes some friendly and great in­ter-as­so­ci­a­tion races.”

Cowan also notes an in­crease in mem­ber­ship of the Nimra, adding “It’s also pleas­ing to see an in­flux of ladies into the sport.”

There’s joy in them thar hills.

This is part of se­ries on the sub­ject of burnout, which con­tin­ues this week in The Ir­ish Times and on irish­

As a mid­dle-aged longdis­tance run­ner whose in­jury count plum­meted af­ter switch­ing from con­crete to coun­try­side, I rec­om­mend it

Ricky Cowan MBE of Mourne Run­ners and chair­man of the North­ern Ire­land Moun­tain Run­ners As­so­ci­a­tion in ac­tion

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