The best way to prepare yourself for the hills is to get out in the hills. But what if you can only get out once a month? Running guide Sarah Ridgway reveals her secrets to staying fast.
I first met John on the summit of Y Garn after a winter run over the Nantlle ridge. John was 80 and, despite his age, had stormed the steep 450m ascent for that view. Ah, to be fit enough to do the things we love. I ran into John at the same spot six months later. He was timing his uphill effort, running the downhills and even had a little project cooking! Our earlier meeting had motivated him to set new challenges, while for me, it was a revelation that age is no barrier.
Simply, the fitter you are, the more you will enjoy the hills; but there is no quick fix. John developed a consistent approach, set goals, and built it into his life. It doesn’t matter where you live: get moving on a regular basis, safely increase effort to build fitness, avoid high monotony (same route and distance, day after day), and set goals. If time is an issue, try running.
There are no excuses for not developing base fitness, but there are peculiarities about moving in the mountains that need specific training – such as technique and balance on uneven terrain, leg strength and endurance for continuous long climbs, and leg conditioning and core strength for continuous descents.
To help speed you along, here's my 12 tips to keep hill fit and stay fast:
1. Make it relevant
The best results are gained from sports specific to muscles used on the hill. Fast-walk local hills. No hills? Cycle and run. A brisk walk is better than nothing, but to improve you may have to be that person on the treadmill (set at Everest mode) with the 60L pack.
2. Add intensity
Find a steep road or stairs with 50-100m height gain: fast walk or run up then walk slowly back down. Repeat 4-6 times. Reverse for downhill training.
WATCH: Sarah Ridgway – Mountain Runner
3. Memories of screaming calves and quads?
Prepare for big climbs by resistance training. Squats and lunges will get those butt muscles firing (and unless you work on engaging them they probably aren’t doing much for you right now). Core-muscle strength benefits balance.
4. Work on ‘skill fitness’
The better you are at navigating, the more mental energy you will have for walking exposed and technical terrain, as well as the confidence to blast out on your own without relying on other people.
5. Urban equivalents
Technical terrain takes concentration: the better you are, the more energy you’ll have for other tasks. Find the roughest trail near you (or just use steps), and practice trotting through a section. Think light-fast-feet. Get a feel for how your balance responds to slips on loose terrain.
6. Be prepared to travel
Find your nearest green space with trails and make an effort to blast out, even if for an hour.
WATCH: Nicky Spinks run the Bob Graham Round on BMC TV
7. Have goals
If you don’t actually get out on the ‘real stuff’ your motivation will wane. Make plans and commit to them.
Lack of confidence can also be an issue when you’ve not been on the hills for a while. Perhaps you haven’t been able to get your fitness good as you’d like or you’ve bitten off a bit more than you can chew. Here’s how to cope:
8. Know what you are up for
Study the elevation profile. Knowing how many big climbs you have to tackle can prevent those tantrum moments when presented with yet another mammoth ascent.
9. Eat, drink and be merry
The better hydrated and fuelled you are the better your recovery and enjoyment. Don’t stuff yourself to the point of discomfort before setting off; pack snack-sized amounts to have every hour while moving.
10. Pack efficiently
Invest time in understanding what you do and don’t need to carry. Err on the side of caution until experienced, but if you’ve never used those extra socks...
11. Maintain good technique
On uphills keep a sustainable pace. Avoid ‘Jesus moments’. You know them: you go off at break-neck speed. It feels great at first… then bang… lungs go, legs go, you’re bent over, hands on knees, gasping. Poles can help, but use them efficiently. On downhills think light-fast-feet and don’t tense up. An efficient descent makes for an easier climb, so don’t hammer down unless you’re happy to trash your quads. Don’t fight technical terrain or let it frustrate you. If you find yourself stumbling, tidy up your technique.
12. Have a nice cup of harden the…
Don’t upset yourself. If you’re finding it hard going up Elidir Fawr, remember it’s hard going up Elidir Fawr. Simply get your head down and concentrate on strong technique. Everyone has lows. It will pass. The highs do follow.
Lastly: chill out
At the end of the day, stretch calves, quads and glutes. Find a river and ‘leg dip’ for five minutes. Rest up, enjoy a hearty meal and you might find you are up for another big day tomorrow.
Sarah Ridgway is one of the UK’s pioneers in guided fell running. She’s represented Wales at International level and has over 10 years of experience running, racing and mountaineering across the globe.
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