Strength and Conditioning for Trail, Fell and Mountain Running

Fell running has common characteristics with cross country, orienteering, trail and mountain running and generally has steep gradients, rough and technical terrain, and navigational choice between checkpoints. In fell running, the route between checkpoints is determined by individuals – for example, some runners may choose a more direct but steeper line whilst others may choose a longer, yet more runnable route between checkpoints depending on their preferences. Evidently, fell running requires a runner than is also a robust athlete with high levels of strength, proprioception (agility, balance and coordination) and postural control to deal with the demands of the sport. Specific strength and conditioning (s&c) training can provide these benefits and enhance run economy, stride length/cadence, the ability to handle downhills, prevent injuries and lead to more consistent fell running.


Benefits of S & C for fell runners:


To be a good runner, you must first be a good athlete - Jay Johnson


Enhanced Running Economy:


Substantial sport science research emphasises that S & C can enhance running economy and lead to more consistent training volume. (Balsalobre-Fernandez et al, 2016). Significantly more elite and international level runners engage in some form of s&c compared with competitive club level runners (Blagrove et al, 2020). Therefore, it can be argued that for the aspiring high performance fell runner, S & C can provide a significant competitive advantage. Running economy is basically the energy cost of running at sub maximal speed - it also know as critical speed in contemporary sport science. Running economy combines neurological factors, not just physiological factors, in order to make each step become a lower relative percentage of a runners capability.


Improvement in running economy from S & C derives from, firstly, an improvement in leg stiffness. Therefore, less of a length change in muscles when running which means less ATP utilised and more elastic energy for a longer and more powerful stride. Secondly, there is an improvement in motor unit activity meaning there are more muscle fibres we can recruit and therefore the relative percentage of total muscle fibres to do given work is less.


It is generally accepted that runners can experience a 2 - 8% improvement in running economy over 2-3 months of consistent strength and conditioning (Blagrove et al, 2020). This mostly derives from lower limb and trunk training. However, having a relaxed shoulder girdle that allows a fluid swinging motion of the arms will impart additional power to your legs and result in added stride length. Therefore upper body training can be utilised to enhance economy if done so in a smart, performance oriented manner (Drum et al, 2020).


Improved Stretch-Shortening Cycle:


The stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) refers to the ‘pre-stretch’ action when the foot makes contact with the ground during triple extension. Plyometrics utilise the SSC by using a lengthening (eccentric) movement followed by a shortening (concentric) movement.


With consistent plyometric training, you can increase the force you can produce with each movement. This can lead to a faster stride with less ground contact time and a longer stride due to more elastic energy via the SSC. In order to maximise the benefits it is generally accepted that two sessions a week over 12 weeks is effective. Prerequisites include an extensive period of general strength preparation and that athletes are injury free, have minimal muscular imbalances and have good movement capacity. However, plyometrics can be a recipe for injury therefore it is generally important to go by the saying that less is more with regards to plyometrics initially.


Practically, it may be difficult for the typical fell runner to dedicate two sessions a week to plyometrics. Therefore, utilising plyometrics as part of a warm up may be effective as this enhances run economy before key sessions (Wei et al, 2020). If this is utilised, then a typical structure might be to do a short aerobic warm up, drills and mobility exercises, then no more than 20 minutes of low volume bounding, lateral jumps, skips and potentially drop jumps. Once you get more advanced, then a greater stimulus may be needed.


Additionally, for the fell runner a practical way to include more plyometrics in training may be to include hill bounding as part of hill sessions. Hill bounding was pioneered by Arthur Lydiard during his hill phase and is generally accepted as a great way to develop speed, technique and flexibility specifically for the runner.


Photo: plyometrics can also take place in the hills with hill bounding.




Improved eccentric strength to handle steep and long downhills:


What separates fell runners from road runners to perhaps the greatest extent is the ability to handle steep, technical and long downhills. However, many experienced fell runners experience the renowned intense muscle dysfunction in the aftermath of a downhill-heavy running as a result of eccentric muscle contractions. The old saying ‘brakes off brain off’ tends not to apply to high performance fellrunners as much as one would think. Instead, the best fell runners have conditioned their legs to handle the downhill and attack it.


Downhill running involves a particularly high intensity of eccentric contractions, because of the muscle tension required to move fast on steep gradients without falling. Muscles essentially act as shock-absorbing springs, going from extension to compression very rapidly. This can cause extreme skeletal muscle damage which can significantly reduce running economy during a race and later cause Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).


The best way to get better at downhill running is to practise downhill running: period. Just one bout of downhill running can cause adaptations to reduce DOMS and handle downhills more effectively with less damage. Downhill running reps can be useful for these adaptations and so can S & C. However, if regular access to long and steep downhills is not an option, then specific eccentric exercises may be invaluable.



Improved postural control:


Core strength is essential for locomotive sports such as fell running where you are holding different postures whilst moving. This is done through stabilising the pelvis, spine, and shoulders so that the legs and arms can utilise their propulsive functions most effectively.


The deep core muscles, the transverse abdominal, are the most important core stabiliser muscle group and the obliques on the side of the torso transfer power from the arms to the legs. Training these effectively will help control your posture and economy when running on the flat, the uphill and downhill. Essentially, you can maintain an efficient form throughout the race.


Improved muscular endurance:


Not everyone who loves fell running has immediate access to the fells. Therefore, gym-based muscular endurance circuits can be very useful. However, strong aerobic running on the hills is the best way to train muscular endurance for fell runners.


Moreover, strength is largely a neurological quality whereas endurance is a largely metabolic quality. It is better to focus building your muscular and metabolic endurance with running as you can accumulate more volume than gym circuits. That is if you have access, otherwise, circuits are useful and many runners utilise cycling as muscular endurance work which also provides more of an aerobic stimulus.


Injury prevention:


No amount of strength can overcome poor training. Therefore, you must firstly learn to listen to your body and be cautious with mileage and shoe choice as well as recovery strategies including sleep and nutrition. Fell runners generally develop a robust body through the nature of the sport as fell running includes a lot of lateral movements and different muscle groups when descending and ascending rather than pounding the pavement in the same way for hours on end.


However, most common overuse injuries are related to a lack of pelvic stability which compromises running form and causes overcompensation on other muscles. Strengthening the pelvic area with targeted glute and hip exercises goes a long way to achieving this. Also, activating the glutes before runs is important as most people have spent hours sat down before training therefore leading to glutes which haven’t fired for hours which can again cause overcompensation. Practically, if you are time constrained then ensuring you do band exercises targeting the glute medius such as clam shells can help bulletproof the fell runner.



Training is not the work you do but the effect it has on your body - Renato Canova



How to implement strength and conditioning into your training as a fell runner:



1. Firstly, learn basic movement skills


  • Learning how to do a squat effectively will set up the foundations for ankle mobility, lower limb robustness and postural control. Learning how to activate your deep core muscles and your glutes will ensure you can maximise your stride length and performance.

2. Be consistent


Àll models are wrong. Some are useful' - George Box, Mathematician


  • Generally, something is always better than nothing and this applies to S & C. If you can not get to a gym, have limited time or equipment, or are simply exhausted then utilising prehab exercises, mobility exercises, core and potentially yoga poses are extremely effective. Focusing on key areas including the hips, ankle and trunk is very important. All you would need is a theraband and maybe an exercise mat to work on core and hip stabilisation and mobilise the hip and ankle work on your stride and posture.

3. Adapt

  • Adapt to your lifestyle. For example, if it is easier to spend 20 minutes 2-4 times a week a week focusing on different target areas (i.e. ankles, hips, trunk) then do so in this ‘unit training manner’.

4. Focus on performance


Runners need the muscles of a stag, not of a lion - Arthur Lydiard

  • The fitness industry is extremely commercialised and people are out to make money. Not all recommendations are motivated by a genuine desire to help people improve their performance. Rather than listening to a guru on instagram, it may be better to seek out a high performance coach or sport scientist that goes under the radar but maintains integrity. Always be critical and seek evidence.

5. Recover

  • Growth = stress + rest. The body needs adequate recovery in order to adapt and this applies to balancing out hard run sessions with easier running and also strength and conditioning. Prioritise s & c in order to run longer, for longer!

Conclusion


Train your weaknesses and race your strengths - Eddie Borysewicz


Many runners will think that S&C is not important for them because they have never done it before. But I would argue that if you haven’t done any before then you have even more to gain because it’s a new stimulus! Moreover, runners from the golden era of non East-African running dominance in the 1970s and early 80s were living very active lifestyles and were brought up in a more active way. Essentially, they had S & C ingrained in them through childhood onwards and were concequently more durable. However, athletes today have largely been raised in a sedentary manner and concequently have tight hips, weak glutes and are less robust than runners of the past. An example would be Kenny Stuart who was also a gardener as well as a top class fell runner and marathoner.


For the fell runner, the overriding goal of s & c should simply be to ensure better leg, hip, knee stabilisation to apply more power more effectively to propel yourself further in each stride and to ensure a durability to withstand training and the demands of fell running to stay injury free. At the end of the day, the overriding key to improvement is consistency. Much more than any complicated, multi-faceted and periodised training plan featuring tough interval sessions and tempos is running day after day, week and week, year after year at a level where you do not become injured. Run training should not be too prescriptive but should be approach oriented not governed by finite numbers but instead by reacting to how you are feeling. Ultimately, consistency and therefore a high volume of aerobic training is the key for endurance athletes. However, I also believe that for the aspiring fell runner, s & c is a great tool for enhancing performance if utilised specifically for the individual in a smart manner.