An Introduction to Mountain Running

Oct 14, 2019

This article aims to provide some simple advice for anyone who wants to start running doing more mountain and remote trail running. It is not a comprehensive guide and is just built on our experiences of running mountain marathon events, ultra-distance races and general trail, fell and mountain running.

We've broken our guide down into 4 key areas you need to look at before you start running in more remote locations. Each section covers gear you should consider to get the most out of it and enjoy the running.

1. Footwear

The most important items for any form of running are definitely footwear. Finding the right shoes for running in a range of conditions and on varied surfaces is vital. In taking up trail or mountain running you are certainly going to be running on more technical terrain whether that is loose rocks, mud, broken trails or over vegetation. You need to work out what kind of running you will be doing for the majority of the time. Shoes that provide good grip on wet rock or in mud with not cope well on tarmac if you want an all-rounder you can use on the road too so you need to work out where you will be running most of the time. Is it worth getting a waterproof shoe? Some people prefer dry feet so will always go for a Gore-Tex lining but many of the trail shoes are designed to drain and dry quickly so when you’re running your feet can breathe much better than with a waterproof lining. This can be a personal preference and certainly, if you are just starting out the idea of buying several pairs of shoes to suit different conditions is unrealistic. Think about when you are most like to get out and run, where you will be running and aim for shoes that best suit that. Hoka shoes have thick soles with a focus on cushioning and comfort so if you are aiming for ultra-distances on hard packed ground then they might be a good choice. Alternatively, Inov8 have a fell running background so they have a fantastic range of shoes for off road racing in typical (wet) British conditions.

Socks are also a vital part of this. I’ve seen people wear, well fitted £300 boots and stop at the end of the day to deal with unbelievable blisters simply due to cheap old socks letting them down. There are two main routes for socks merino and synthetic and Inov8 do a good selection of running specific socks. I have both and use both but this depend on the conditions. For warm conditions I will always use synthetic as they wick moisture well, dry quickly and they are generally a bit lighter and cooler. When it’s cold and wet I opt for merino as they hold the warmth when wet. Both types of material have benefits and drawbacks and it has taken time to find out what works for me. You can also get blends of these materials where you get some of the benefits from both such as the Darn Tough range. It is worth noting that whatever you go for you need to test them out before racing or going out for long periods in them.

2. Clothing

Waterproof layers are often seen as one of the most important parts of outdoor kit so you’d expect that to be the case for running on exposed fells or in high mountains. However, the main issue with any waterproof is breathability and when you are running, sweating and generally hot this is where every waterproof will fall down. The reality for running is that you’re only likely to put a waterproof shell (jacket and pants) on when the weather is at its worst, the rest of the time you will run through it. With that in mind, I’ve dropped the idea of finding the Holy Grail for breathability and gone for the lightest, most packable shell jacket and pants which have yet to let me down. A good examples of the minimalist lightweight race shell is the Montane Podium. I’ve run in heavy rain, high winds, sleet, snow and freezing temperatures all across the UK and have never regretted my choice of running waterproofs for the fact they only come out when it’s really bad, otherwise they stay tucked away in my pack. For runs up to a few hours I usually just take a light wind shell instead of a waterproof as they tend to keep of the worst of the wind and light showers anyway.

In a similar way to the socks, the choice between merino and synthetic baselayer is usually one that links to the weather. The lightweight, high wicking and quick drying nature of good quality synthetic tee is much better suited to warmer conditions. If you’re wearing a pack look for flat-locked and offset seams so the risk of chafing is reduced. There’s a huge a huge range of synthetic tees to choose from too. For colder conditions where the weather might become more of an issue there’s the warmth and performance of merino wool. This is perfect for cold, wet conditions as the merino stays warm even when wet making it a much safer choice for the winter. In addition to your baselayer a lightweight mid-layer is always useful to have in your pack, whether it’s a thin fleece in mild conditions or a jacket with synthetic insulation in winter it’s important to be prepared. You never know when you might pick up an injury and have to walk back or worse still, sit and wait so having a warm layer is important.

Legwear is quite straightforward, in the summer shorts and the winter tights. I prefer my shorts to have a Lycra boxer/liner in them as this reduces chafing and increases comfort in all but the very warmest conditions. As for tights, many are put off simply by the style but they provide so much more warmth and weather protection for winter conditions.

3. Pack

Once you start running for longer and heading into more remote areas it becomes much more important to take extra items with you. This is a reason why many trail, fell and mountain running events have mandatory kit lists with kit checks, to ensure a basic level of safety. Firstly, you will need to consider how you are going to carry the extra items. Traditional backpacks are designed for comfort with heavier loads but this doesn’t make them comfortable for running. You need a pack that reduces ‘bounce’ which is the movement (or bouncing) of the pack due to the kit you’re carrying when you run. The best option is to go for a specifically designed running vest pack. These vary in size from a couple of litres for a drink and a spare layer through to larger capacities capable of carrying everything you’d need for overnight stays in multiday events and an excellent place to start looking is the Ultimate Direction range which are top quality and brilliantly designed. Having used a variety of packs for multiday and long distance runs the most important thing is making sure it is a running specific pack. The design is focussed on your needs; easy access to pockets, versatile storage options, minimising the bounce, compression cords and different hydration options.

Packs normally have a multitude of storage options and several options for hydration. Essentially, you have two main options for hydration; soft flasks or bladder. This will certainly be a personal choice. You can fit more liquid in a bladder that hides away in your pack and you don’t need to think about it. The hose makes it convenient to drink on the run too. Soft flasks are versatile but have a much smaller capacity, most have a bite valve or straw for convenience too. I tend to use soft flask so that I can monitor how much I’m drinking as I run, making sure it’s enough for the distance, time I’m out and weather conditions. I prefer this as you can’t see in the bladder when you’re running so you may get half way and realise its empty or get back and realise its three quarters full because you haven’t drank enough. For longer distances, particularly in remote areas you can always get extra soft flasks and put them in your pack or go with a lightweight water filter and fill up on the way.

4. Additional Gear

A good place to start when looking at what items you might need to pack or have on you for emergencies are the mandatory kit lists used for various running events. These lists include clothing, spare kit and a range of emergency items.

Some of the basic safety items are a map, compass, whistle, head torch, emergency bag (not blanket/sheet), first aid kit, often a fully charged mobile phone and often a pen and pencil capable of writing in wet conditions. It’s worth saying that the longer you head out for and the more remote you go the more you should consider taking items like this for yourself regardless of the event. If you’re signing up to events a recent change has been the need to carry your own cup, so disposable cups are not used, for getting extra drinks at checkpoints. This is a great move and the Hydrapak Speedcup is a perfect cup that is super lightweight and packable.

There are usually requirements for spares which include a hat, gloves – sometimes two pairs, a mid- or insulated layer (depending on the time of year) and spare food/rations are required (ie items you’re not planning on eating unless it’s an emergency).

Finding your way

The focus of this guide centres around gear to get you out there mainly because this is something we know really well. It's difficult to discuss routes or training plans because they are so personal. A beginners route for one person might be too long and technical for another so you really need to find your own way.

Start small, use areas that you know well and routes you may have walked in the past. Familiarity is really important if you're starting out as there's nothing worse than not having a clue where you are or how you're going to get home if the weather closes in or you pick up an injury.

If you're preparing for an event a training plan can be a good way to go if you like the structure and want the mental safety net of knowing you've prepared as much as needed, but again, this won't suit everyone. Simple tricks like training on rough grass will build strength in your ankles and having sessions where you focus on hill repeats will all be great for you in the long run.

Most importantly, get out there and enjoy yourself. However far you run, on whatever terrain and whether you're solo or in large organised events, make sure you enjoy it (even if it's when you're looking back at it days later!)

Getting out there

There isn't really any club for trail and mountain running so the nearest to this if you want to get involved in an organisation in the Fell Runners Association.

The easiest way to get involved is by entering events and getting involved. You will be able to find which specific types of running and events suit you so a good place to start is by looking through the events calendar on SI Entires, a website that covers a vast majority of organised events and you can enter directly through this.

There are other events such as the OMM which takes place each year and always provides a challenge for all levels of ability and experience.

Obviously, if you are simply going to plot a route and head out these yourself you need to ensure that you are safe. Make sure you know how to navigate well in all conditions, have a first aid kit and emergency shelter with you, tell an emergency contact about your planned route and timings,