Irish Mountain
Running Association

John Lenihan on Hill Running

If you  have decided to do a season's hill running, congrats  - you have made a very self satisfying decision. There is no more beautiful way to spend a Sunday than skipping along a gentle slope with the smell of heather in the air and the rocky slope of yonder mountain reflecting on the surface of the lake far below. Sheer magic.

Before you set off think safety. We all think accidents only happen
to others; I know I did and it almost cost me my life and I was lucky to get  away with a week in hospital. Remember on  roads, you are at the mercy of others, on hills your destiny is your own. Buy yourself a bum bag to take some refreshments and a light top, get yourself a map and compass or  GPS. You can have hours of fun on clear days relating these to the lay of the land and there is  no more beautiful way to get fit than spending 3 or 4 hours out on our many trails and hills with a list of notes of landmarks taken from pondering over your map the previous night. If you cant or don't want to spend the time learning about the compass at least learn the basic out and back function; it has saved me more than once.These items will fit handily in your bum bag.Finally for comfort and safety get yourself a proper pair of hill running shoes. You can always wear them for cross country training afterwards should you decide not to continue hill running.

On the climb focus on staying relaxed as possible. Train yourself to focus on what you are doing, short steps, knees close together (except on slippery slopes) lifting your legs on to an imaginary stairs, just lifting the legs not pushing forward. Learn to change posture on the run to  relieve tired muscles without having to walk. For example, if running with bent knees for a long time when the muscles begin to scream at you, try reverting to running a few steps allowing the knees to straighten. Feel the instant relief as you imagine that you can feel blocked blood flow moving freely to muscles starved of oxygen.Remember stay relaxed, ease up the hill don't fight it and focus. This sounds easier than it is; anyone can concentrate  for a few minutes but try holding this focus for a 90 minute race! Conserve energy with as little body movement as possible.Let the eyes do the moving, keeping the head as still as possible, and resist the temptation to pump the arms. It might get you off to a flying start but you will soon pay the price on a long climb of fifteen minutes or so. If possible try and find the most solid underfoot route for climbing, using stones wherever possible since running uphill on stones takes less out of you than sinking into heather or bog. In terms of effort put into a climb, in a straight up and down race I always treat the top as the finish line not as the half way stage. Most people will starts their descent slow enough but after a few minutes, will have got their breath back.

The descent is something that some people take to naturally and for those who don't,  it's a long battle to try train yourself to what others do on instinct. Don't write yourself off as a mountain runner if you are a slow descender because with practice and familiarity, you can improve your descending speed considerably. Don't underestimate the importance of leg strength and mental focus for descending. There are a number of Irish Mountain runners with the ability to descend mountains faster than me but they rarely end up doing this as they either fail to remain focused for the necessary length of time or their leg strength lets them down where the descent goes on for a long time. Remember it takes a lot of leg strength to take 15 or 20 minutes of downhill impact. Do the basics right: build leg strength, build stamina, be fit enough to  get to the top in better condition and you will descend faster.

On your hill runs, train yourself to be alert to landmarks as you run, thing such as a distant hill or oddly shaped field etc can be a big help if later on, you get uncertain of you location. Going up a mountain is easy enough since you just keep climbing and eventually will  reach the peak. Coming down, you have a full 360  degrees to choose from and can easily get confused. Enjoy your time  on the hills,  but remember that to be a good hill runner,  you must also be a good flat runner; you still need those interval and fartlek sessions. I have found that anything more than two days a week of hill running sees my  race performance drop. Find ways to  ensure that training doesn't become a chore. It you get tired of training, change your routine; don't stop. Consistency and enjoyment is the key. If someone is going to beat you in a race don't make it easy for him or her. Learn to fight all the way and one day your continuous and relentless pressure may prove too much. After that focus on the next runner up the line; it might not always win you the gold medal, but you will beat athletes with greater  ability  but with less of what it takes to be a winner. That is  guts, determination and a reluctance to admit you're beaten until the line is crossed. But above all, remember that you don't have to be first across the line to be a winner.

Happy mountain running !