I am a mountain runner and there is nothing I would be more proud to say about myself. I have become a part of this world fairly recently, but it has become one of the deepest, core parts of me as an outdoors person and a human in general.
What is mountain running?
Well, it is literally – the activity of running mountains. It is also known as trail running and skyrunning, each term reflecting certain ends of the spectrum; trail running refers to any off-road running, while skyrunning is usually used to describe extreme elevation gains, technical trails and high mountain exposure. The distance can be anything from several to several hundred kilometres and can vary in the terrain, level of technicality, vertical gain, exposure, etc.
Who can do mountain running?
Given no serious health problems, anyone can do mountain running. It’s not a sport of select few super-athletes, and just something that requires time and patience. If you are a regular city runner, no doubt you can move your business to mountains.
What is the best way to get into mountain running?
The first best step towards becoming a mountain runner is hiking. Hiking is a very good way to build base fitness, learn to move in mountainous terrain and gain weather awareness. Regular hiking with some sustained uphill will do wonders on your fitness. Try and not stop during your uphill climbs. Breathe regularly, choose the right pace, and learn to keep your effort levels high. As you get more comfortable with moving through mountains or if you already have spent a lot of time in mountains, start having faster days. Take a lighter pack and wear lightweight footwear, ideally – trail running shoes. Move quickly and allow yourself to run more comfortable and fun sections of the trail.
How to transition from hiking to running?
Important thing to remember is that even if you’re mountain or trail running, you do not have to run ALL the time! And you are allowed to stop! When starting to run trails and mountains, choose a comfortable, possibly – even slower pace than, what you would want. Mind your running technique; keep your gait light and your back straight. Breathe rhythmically and find a sustainable running pace. If you encounter a hill or a more rugged trail section, don’t immediately stop, better reduce your pace, but keen on going. It is useful to certain running goals, for instance, I will now run upcoming 5-6 km and will then hike. If the road gets too steep, technical or rugged, switch to fast hiking.
How to run uphills?
Good technique plays an import role in efficient uphill running. If you’re a beginner to the uphills, do not immediately start sprinting up with long strides – this way you won’t last past 10-15 seconds. Instead – choose small, very light, effortless quick steps. In the beginning, try to exert as little force as possible, but maintain the running climb without stopping. It may be hard in the beginning, but if you’ll keep on trying, pushing through the difficulty, you will start seeing progress very soon. The most important thing you will learn is how to save energy and find a sustainable pace- learn to move your way with little unnecessary motion, such as kicking off the ground directly up.
Body position also matters – straight back allows better oxygen supply as you are not compressing your lungs. Try to imagine as if some invisible string/force is pulling you and your back up. Don’t forget to breathe rhythmically. Engage your core.
How to run downhills?
I know that most people see uphill as the major challenge of mountain running, but in fact downhill is much harder to pick up. Running downhill is much more intense on your muscles and joints and is much more technically challenging. Running in poor downhill technique will fatigue your muscles very fast and is likely to end in injuries and falls.
However, running downhill is one of the most fun, exciting things you can do with your body. With some experience, technique and confidence you will have a complete blast. Running downhill requires reaction and excellent body control. Build your downhill speed gradually and carefully, as the falls can be exceptionally nasty.
Keep your steps light and quick, imagine as if you are rolling over the top of your feet. It might seem extremely intimidating at first, but try to lean forward and not break with your legs, when charging down, keep them quickly rolling. Relax your hips. Spread your hands wide and use them to balance your running.
If the ground is looser, anticipate any unstable parts, and exert less force. Pointing your toes outwards (like a duck) also increases running downhill stability. The most important thing to note is that you should avoid running downhill, when tired, as the reaction time decreases; legs are a bit more wobbly and less responsive.
Right gear will make your running experience much more enjoyable. Choose lightweight, breathable fabrics. There is a vast selection of trail running shoes these days with different technical abilities, foot support and the most optimum running terrain.
The main features to consider, when choosing off-road shoes are 1) increased traction, aggressive outsole grip; 2) level of foot support – more minimalist, less cushioned shoes make for fast technical trail runners; 3) shoe profile and fit – narrow profile and close fit shoes increases step precision and allows faster and safer running, especially in the downhills; 4) waterproofness – really important feature, when running in wet conditions and colder months.
Runs in the mountains usually require extra layers, emergency gear, food and drinks. You can easily take all of this in well-designed running packs.
If you are planning to run for longer than an hour, you will fuel and hydrate. Take sufficient water and food, especially if you’re planning a longer run and are new to mountain running. The general rule is that you should be consuming at least 100kcal every 30-40 minutes of activity. The exact requirements will vary with the level of activity and personal requirements. Fuelling properly will allow you to sustain your run and will keep your steps agile. Snack-bars, dried fruit, chocolate, bagels (without fatty spreads) make excellent running foods.
Check the weather, plan well and start slow. Build up your challenges gradually and give yourself time to adjust. However, most importantly, do not fear the challenge! Running trails and mountains is a very exciting, liberating experience that will fuel your body, mind and soul. Take some friends along and make this into a small expedition. Combine your running with hiking sections to make for a longer day and just enjoy the freedom. If you are running by yourself into more remote areas, do tell someone about your plans and intended return time.
After a bit of practise, I recommend to join some trail running race. The trail running community is vast and inspiring. There a number of different events with different level activities that will suit runners of any level of experience and ability. Enjoy the challenge and the upcoming discoveries.