Going downhill fast is actually a good thing. Fell runner Damian Hall explains why he loves the sport
Fell is an old name for a hill in the north of England, and fell races usually go to the top of one, then back down again. That sounds simple (races can be as short as 45 minutes) but it’s actually as brutal as a barrel-load of chainsaws. The terrain is rough, the gradient unfriendly, and your quads and calves will shriek, but it’ll get you in shape to tackle any running challenge.
I’ve been fell running for a couple of years and I’ve finished in a few top fives, including the Welsh 1,000m Peaks Race (32km with 2,678m of ascent), as well as completing the South Wales Traverse (118km across 31 summits over 600m with 5,000m of ascent). Here’s how to conquer the hills.
ON THE UP
Running steeply uphill is fine – for about 30 seconds. In a fell race it’ll be 30 minutes
minimum. It’s not long before your legs are filling with lactic acid and you’ll want to stop, sit down and possibly cry. The solution is better endurance. Build up until you can run on hill terrain for at least 90 minutes. Add hill sprints to build fell-specific muscles and raise both your lactic threshold and VO2 max – do 50 seconds steeply uphill at high intensity for six reps, with a recovery jog back down. Increase the session by two reps each time.
The downhill is your giddy reward for the climb, but it takes skill and concentration. It’ll be steep, treacherously uneven and unstable, but the relief of being able to move at speed can make you go too fast and fall. Most of the stress goes through your quads, ankles and knees (see the box below for tips), and you can strengthen your quads and ankles with cycling and hill walks.
Uneven terrain asks big questions of your body, but the stronger your core, the faster and more safely you’ll move. To build core strength, do double- and single-leg bridges and side planks with your top leg raised. Start with 15-second holds and increase the hold time as they get easier.
FELLS WITH BENEFITS
Exercising outdoors taps into the ‘biophilia effect’ – your innate desire to be connected to nature and the psychological lift that gives. Hill running also hones proprioception (your sense of balance and body awareness) as well as developing strength and responsiveness in joints and muscles. Running off-road offers more of a workout than road running – lateral muscles are used, for example, such as the peroneal and adductor muscles – and fell running turns it all up to 11.