Why You Should Try Fell Running

(Image credit: Global Shots)

Wherever you do it, running is a sport that provides an opportunity to escape from the everyday hustle and bustle of your life. And no type of running exemplifies that freedom better than fell running, where you abandon all roads and trails and simply aim to get up and down hills and mountains in the most direct manner possible. If you’ve ever looked out of the window at a misty hill and felt the urge to scamper up it and have a look around, you have the heart of a fell runner.

To learn more about fell running, including how to get started and some technical tips on tackling steep slopes, we spoke to Ricky Lightfoot. The Cumbria native has been competing in fell running races since his teens and has won numerous prestigious trail races around the world, including the 2013 IAU Trail Running World Championships.

How is fell running different from, say, trail running?

“Fell running to me means taking the fastest route,” says Lightfoot.

“A trail run is a marked course, usually on good trails, whereas fell running means you can go up any part of the land that’s open – apart from farmers’ fields. It’s usually the fastest route up to the summit and back.”

If you’ve ever taken part in a fell running race, the difference from other kinds of trail running is apparent as soon as the starting gun fires.

“You’ll see fell racing where there might be a couple of hundred people setting off and they’ll be running in every direction trying to find shortcuts,” says Lightfoot.

Is the freedom to pick your route the best part of fell running?

“That and the sense of community, I think,” says Lightfoot.

“You’ll never meet nicer people than at a fell race. The majority of them respect the land and other people.There’s a really good atmosphere at fell races.”

Fell running is also a sport that has stuck close to its roots, even as it has become more popular.

“You pay a few quid to enter and you get cake at the end, usually with a glass of juice – what more do you want? Compare that with trail races that you pay £70 for. Fair enough, you get a T-shirt and medal. You might wear the T-shirt but you throw the medal in a drawer.

“That’s what appeals to me – it’s still the grassroots of the sport.”

Do you need to be good at reading a map?

When exploring the fells it’s important to have a map handy and know how to use it, but when it comes to fell races your best bet might be scouting the area ahead of time.

“It [map reading] certainly does help but usually you’re free to go around the course in advance, so you don’t necessarily have to map-read,” says Lightfoot.

“I’m not a particularly good map reader when it comes to doing it fast. I could navigate myself to safety – that’s an important thing to be able to do – but when it comes to navigating in the mist quickly, I’m not the greatest. So usually I’ll go around the route a few times just to get it in my head, and seven times out of ten it works for me.”

And the other three?

“I can remember leading one race,” says Lightfoot. “It was an out-and-back course and I was running up this hill and there was nobody there. I got a little bit higher and saw they were all on the other hill! But it brings a different experience to the race as well. I quite enjoy it.”

What kind of gear do you need?

The first and most important bit of fell running kit to consider is some appropriate footwear.

“You encounter a lot of rough and steep ground and there can be virtually no path, so a really good pair of shoes is one of the most important things,” says Lightfoot.

“I use the Salomon S-Lab Speed – they have really deep lugs on them, which are designed to grip well when it gets really muddy and wet, but they’re good on the dry surfaces as well.”

Most fell races will also have a list of equipment you’re required to carry, and it’s all stuff you should be taking any time you head up the fells for a long run.

“The standard fell runner will usually carry a bumbag that’ll hold the safety equipment each person has to carry in a fell race,” says Lightfoot.

“If it’s over seven or eight miles, it’s usually full waterproofs – that’s jacket and trousers – head cover, gloves, map and compass, a whistle and, depending on the race, emergency food as well.”

Is it best to start fell running with a club?

Fell running can take you to some amazing places, but those spots can also be isolated and at times dangerous, so it’s not a sport to start off with an epic solo run.

“I wouldn’t recommend going out on your own if you’re just beginning to venture on to the hills and fells,” says Lightfoot.

“Even in the Lake District, where the fells are relatively small compared with the Alps or Pyrénées, we still get the weather those mountains get. It can get really bad if you’re not a confident navigator. Definitely join a group or get some friends and head out together, and maybe try the lower fells first.”

Once you become more comfortable on the fells and fancy some racing, a local club will be the best port of call to find appropriate events for beginners. It might also be wise to do some independent research even if a friend has tipped you off about a race.

“I can remember a friend of mine took his friend along to a race once. It was a 21-mile race, but he only told him it was four miles! You need to know what you’re up against – you have to be aware of what food and kit you need to carry.”

The British weather might seem mild most of the time, but it can be the biggest enemy in a fell race – and however nice conditions are at the start of a run, they might be very different when you get to the top of a hill.

“I’ve run the Three Peaks in Yorkshire a few times. It’s a fell race up the three main mountains in Yorkshire,” says Lightfoot. That’s Whernside (736m), Ingleborough (723m) and the 694m Pen-y-ghent.

“The weather at the start one year was red hot. I was there in vest and shorts. Then it was snowing on the first summit, then hailstorms on the way to the next summit, and then the wind was up to 50-60mph on the next summit. We got three seasons in one day.”

Do you have any tips on how to descend fells?

Fell runners spend a lot of time going uphill or downhill, and while the latter might be less physically demanding than the former, descending quickly on tricky terrain requires skill and concentration.

“If you want to improve practice is the best thing you can do, even on a shorter hill near where you live – just practise running downhill.

“You should lean back when you’re running down, especially if it’s steep. You don’t want to lean forwards because if you fall you’ll go straight on your face.

“Point your feet out at ten to two to minimise the risk of going over on your ankle. Ankle injuries are one of the most common fell running injuries.

“You want to be glancing ahead but scanning the ground two to four metres in front of you, picking out the best places for your feet.

Do many fell runners switch to walking when going uphill?

When it comes to the steepest uphills, it can be just as quick (and certainly less tiring) to opt for a fast walk rather than try to keep running.

“If it’s a really short race – there are races in the Lake District which are a mile and a half and really steep – the frontrunners will tend to run most of the climb, but once you get to mid-pack you’ll find a lot of people tend to hike,” says Lightfoot.

“Even the lead runners in a 30-mile race won’t run every hill because they’re not getting that much from it, and sometimes you can’t physically run uphill because of the terrain. Some of the time power hiking is actually quicker than running because of the terrain you’re on.”

Ricky Lightfoot is sponsored by Salomon

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.