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The ultimate guide to fell running

Posted by Andy Parkin on
A woman is walking on a hilltop.

Fell Running, sometimes called Hill Running, is one of the toughest and most extreme branches of running, and also the most beautiful.

It takes competitors into some of the wildest and most rugged natural terrain there is. There are no course tapes, no man-made obstacles, no carefully measured distances, this is just you and your fellow runners against the hills, the weather, the distance and your own fitness.

Winter is a great time to get off-road and whilst you have to be careful with sudden changes in weather conditions, particularly in the mountains, there are many benefits to taking your run off the pavements and up into the hills this winter.

In our experience the fell running community is warm, friendly and supportive, if a little bit bonkers about running up and down the steepest hillsides they can find!

 

What is Fell Running?

Fell running is a traditional northern English sport begun in the Fells around the Lake District and Peak District.

Farming villages and towns used to host ‘Sports’ and a popular event would be to run to the top of a significant peak near the village and back down. The races were often won by Shepherds who were used to the hills, spending long days working on them.

A mountain with a lake and misty weather.

Whilst many places still hold their sports meetings, fell running has grown into a larger competitive and recreational sport, and is no longer just confined to the fells, events take place all over the country.

 

Fell running is a sport for purists, there are no marked trails and runners are expected to have a good ability with map and compass for self-navigation. Great emphasis is put on self-sufficiency and responsibility for your own personal safety. Mountain weather can be very changeable and visibility can drop suddenly making your navigational skills even more important.

a mountain with misty weather.

Distances vary from the very short and steep to long and arduous... Fell running is a highly technical sport as the terrain is constantly changing underfoot, seeing an experienced fell runner descend a scree slope is impressive, their feet barely seem to touch the ground!

Picking your route, reading the terrain, choosing the fastest line and being able to let your legs go on a descent makes fell running a whole lot more challenging and exciting than road running.

 

How is fell running different to… 

  • …trail running?
    Whilst trail running is also off-road the tracks are more clearly defined and often marked out, a trail runner (unlike a fell runner) is not expected to plan and navigate their own route. There is more variability in the terrain of a fell race and it is often more challenging. To be brutally honest fell races are nearly always significantly cheaper to enter as well!

  • …cross-country running?
    Cross-country courses take place over a defined route and may even require you to run several laps. There is not so much climbing and there is no navigation involved.

  • …mountain running?
    Mountain running is a more European branch of racing, often taking place at high altitudes and on more defined paths and tracks than fell racing. Whilst navigation is important in mountain running it is not as tricky as tracing a fell running route along undefined paths, crags and fell tops. High-level mountain runners often come from a background of fell running.

A few fell running participants in a mountain during winter.

What to wear on the fells

Your most important purchase is a decent pair of fell running shoes, your ordinary road shoe simply won’t cut it.

You need significant grip and mud clearance and your choice of shoe might vary with the terrain. Committed fell racers often have multiple pairs to choose from, depending on the conditions.

A defining feature of fell shoes, besides the highly rugged grippy soles, is that runners prefer a flexible, lower profile last so there is more contact and ‘feel’ for the ground. You need the sensations from your feet to give you feedback on what you are running over so you can adjust your stride and balance.

With so much water and mud around you might want waterproof Gore-Tex uppers or even gaiters to try and keep your feet dry.

A runner is looking at an open field with misty weather.

Aside from shoes, your clothing is very much weather dependent and you need to remember it can change in an instant.

All race organisers will issue a kit list and competitors may undergo a spot check to ensure they have everything they need.

 

In very poor conditions an organiser might insist that every runner starts in a jacket or carries gloves, for example. Layers are super important as you will get very hot running uphill but will quickly cool down on the top and on the descent. If you need to stop to get your bearings you may get cold so having the right kit, and knowing when to use it, is one of the most important skills for a fell runner.

Two fell runners are running through the mountain.

Fell Running - training for beginners

  • Go off-road:
    The only way to prepare yourself for the rigours of fell running is by getting out there. If you are used to running solely on pavements or tracks the steep gradients can feel very challenging!
  • Mind your step: Learn to ‘read’ the terrain ahead and think about where to run. You should alternate between looking ahead for the track and scanning 5m-10m in front of you at where your feet will be going next.

A fell runner is running through the mountain during daylight.

  • Adjust your technique to uneven ground:
    The terrain will be constantly changing and you will need to adjust your running style to cope. Unlike road running, it is much harder to keep to a regular stride length off-road as you will be looking for safe, grippy places to put your feet. Keep your stride length generally shorter and use your arms for balance, particularly when running downhill.

  • Uphill running:
    Good uphill running technique requires a short stride with your feet under your body and a neutral pelvis position. Lean into the hill. Don’t expect to run all the way up, but at least try to maintain a fast walk. Use your hands on your thighs to help push yourself up to the next step when it gets very steep.

  • Downhill running:
    Downhill running requires both skill and bravery. Let your stride lengthen but don’t lean forward too excessively. Pick your line by scanning far in advance and have a gentle bounce in your stride. Putting on the brakes and leaning back into the hill can jar your knees, a little bit of natural momentum is a good thing.
  • Don’t forget to stretch:
    Running up and down fells will make you sore in places you have never felt before. Stretch out any aches regularly and really pay attention to your calf muscles and ankles as they will be working harder to maintain your balance than they do when running on the road. 
  • Learn basic map reading:
    Not only will confidence with a map inspire you to run in exciting new places it will open up more racing possibilities and build your confidence in running alone. If you have to keep pace with other runners to know the route you may well find yourself going harder, or slower, than you are capable of.

 

Two runners are reading a map.

An introduction to fell running races

Fell races run all year, all across the UK, with the main high-level national series events taking place from late spring until autumn. (take a look at the FRA website for full listings). Races cost just a few pounds to enter and you never know who will turn up.

Don’t be afraid to just dive in and give it a go, there is always a very broad range of ages and abilities.

 

Kit regulations

When you enter a race make sure you check the kit regulations and come prepared to have your personal kit checked.

‘Best Practice Kit’ comprises:

  • Waterproof jacket (with hood)
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Head torch for night races or poor visibility
  • Map of the route, compass
  • Hat, gloves
  • Whistle
  • Foil blanket
  • Emergency food

Veloforte Mixed Bites Endurance Pack

Food is an essential part of your fell running kit as there are seldom feed stations to rely on, so you need to be self-sufficient.

In cold weather, eating warms you up so if you feel chilly you want to consume something that not only gets your energy up, but that motivates you and is in a compact and powerful format that's easy to handle... such as a Veloforte Pronto, Classico or Avanti bars.

Many people find navigation tricky and having low blood sugar can easily lead to confusion or poor decision making, so make sure you stay on top of your energy levels at all time. Eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty.

A fell runner is running down the hills.

Fell runners tend to use a waist pack or ‘bum bag’ for easy access to their supplies, some even tie a food bag to the outside of the belt, so they can dip in with greater ease. Veloforte Mixed Bites are the perfect choice when out on the fells as you can easily eat a piece at a time without struggling with wrappers.

Categories of fell races

Fell races are graded according to both their difficulty and distance covered. Most require self-navigation, but not all, so check with the organiser beforehand.

A Category – averaging no less than 250ft for every mile of climb, and no more than 20% of total distance on road

B Category – averaging no less than 125ft for every mile of climb, and no more than 30% of total distance on road

C Category – averaging no less than 100ft for every mile of climb, and no more than 40% of total distance on road

Short (S) Under six miles (9.6K) in length.

Medium (M) Between six and 12 miles (19.3K) in length.

Long (L) More than 12 miles in length.

A race listed as "AM" will be steep but of medium length. Most events will also reference their total distance and elevation – 3m/400’ refers to a three-mile race climbing 400ft for example.

Other common abbreviations in the FRA race listings include NS (navigation skills required), LK (local knowledge an advantage) and ER (experience required).

A view of a mountain with sun setting in the backdrop.

Finding your ideal first fell race

Choosing the right event for your first race will make sure you have a great experience. Pick something shorter than you usually run on the road as the terrain and climbing will feel harder than you are used to.

If you are uncertain of your navigation pick a marked route or choose somewhere local that you know or can thoroughly recce beforehand. Don’t go throwing in any extra challenges like night time racing or poor weather conditions.

Stay safe when fell running

    • Always carry the full kit list as above on longer runs.
    • Plan your route and make sure you have bail-out options if conditions change.
    • Tell someone your route plan, when you are leaving and when you expect to get back.
    • Run at a comfortable pace, don’t push yourself hard on unfamiliar terrain or if running alone.
    • Be aware of your surroundings and memorise features and junctions in the trail as you pass them. (Get used to doing this)
    • Be conservative in your decision making as conditions can change very quickly.
    • Always stay well-fuelled. Regular bites of your Veloforte bars will ensure you have plenty of energy not just to run but to make good, safe decisions if needed.

A black and white image of a fell runner running down the mountain in misty weather.

So you want to get into fell running?

  • Join a Fell Running club.
    The Fell Runners Association website has links to clubs across the country. Here you will find a wide range of runners, many with lots of experience, happy to offer you guidance. After a few training runs you will be able to work out who is a similar pace to you and ask them for advice on which races to enter. 
  • Keep expectations low.
    Fell running is a combination of fitness, technical skill, focus and navigation. Regardless of your level of fitness on the road, you can’t expect to become a good fell runner overnight as these skills take time to build. It’s not always simply the fittest runner who wins the race.
  • Embrace the culture.
    Fell runners enjoy the hardships of difficult terrain and poor weather but also love discussing the adventure over a pint afterwards. Join them, it’s where you will pick up the best running tips!