Fell Coaching - an overview
The following article has been reproduced by kind permission of the author Norman Matthews who is the Head Senior Coach with the Horwich RMI Harriers (UK). Norman is also the author of the book "Fell and Hill Running" (Matthews and Quinlan 1996).
The ability to race across the full range of distances in fell running requires a training program and an approach that is not covered in current coaching manuals. The extended season of the fell calendar precludes strict observance to the recognised periodisation principles of road or track. Fell coaches must develop their training cycles based on experience and the expectations and racing program of their athletes.
The clinical assessment of track running, with due regard to optimum performance over very short distances, or the economy of a roadrunner whose even pace allows stride length and cadence to remain relatively unchanged for most of the race, is dramatically different from the broken stride pattern of a fell runner whose length of stride can vary from very short, on climbs, to an extended length on descending.
The ability to 'change gear' at the foot of a hill and engage a smaller stride, is a necessary attribute of the fell runner. Coaching must ensure that the length of stride matches the incline and that the stride length is controlled to offset the build-up of lactic acid. Far too often this change of gear, or pace comes too late when lactic concentrations are already well developed, inevitably leading to a drop-in pace. This lack of judgement is usually preceded by a period of walking, especially if the runner is still pushing past tolerance levels.
Knowledge of pace judgement on ascents needs to be practiced when doing race intensity hill repetitions. Advise the athlete how many repetitions will be completed, and with knowledge of what recovery has been allowed, request that all the repetitions are completed in approximately the same time. The running pace is the fastest they feel can be maintained during the full session.
This exercise very quickly brings home to the athlete who has poor pace judgement the consequences of too fast an early pace, or that their stride length was too long and uneconomical. By keeping to the same recovery time, the lactic concentrations grow to the point that times extend as the session progresses. This early pace judgement is vital in those races that have several climbs. In the shorter races with just one top, lactate can be accumulated well past deflection point, the judgement of how much can be accumulated and still allow the athlete to descend at pace, again is measurable by experience.
A good race-walking technique can usually keep pace with those runners who prefer to jog - if the steepness of climb is suitable - but there is much more to the technique than just walking uphill with your hands on your legs.
Although the race-walking technique is best demonstrated, the basics are quite simple. The principle of using the hands to assist the legs in raising the body is an everyday occurrence if you care to look for it. The simple task of rising from a chair is made easier by the pressure that the hands apply to the armrests. The difference in pressure depends on how much assistance the legs require.
Although the two actions of race walking and rising from a chair is different, the principle is the same. You are assisting the leg muscles in lifting the body by use of your arms. A similar application is the use of climbing (ski) sticks that are now commonplace with mountain walkers. The principle is to help the legs lift the bodyweight up the slope.
Of the muscles used in climbing, the Quadriceps and Gluts are the main contributors, although several synergistic muscles help. A common counterproductive mistake is placing the hands in the middle of the femur. This downward pressure resists the quads straightening the leg. The hands must be placed so that the heel of the hand is above the knee, with the thumb on the inside and the middle finger on the outside. (The index finger floats in the middle.) The pressure exerted by the hands has to be timed to the rhythm of the walking speed. Leaving the hand there for too long is disadvantageous. The hand when released remains close to the knee ready for the next move.
The principle is that the force exerted downwards through the Tibia and Fibula reacts with an equal force that permits the upper half of the body to be levered up momentarily. This takes the full strain of lifting the body weight away from the legs. Although this help is not immediately noticeable, over a long-sustained climb the energy saving is significant
Diaphragm Breathing and Patterns
One of the problems that fell runners encounter, especially when walking up steep ascents at pace, is the inability to breathe deeply when the body is bent over leaning into the hill. The position is similar to that of a cyclist riding in the crouch position. It is a fact that an individual has a larger vital capacity when standing erect than when stooped over. Quality cyclists have known for some time that to inhale predominantly with a diaphragm action results in a much more efficient breathing action. The technique of the stomach extending whilst inhaling is not a natural one and considerable practice is needed before the action becomes predominant over that of the thorax. Once this type of breathing becomes autonomic, then progress can be made in achieving a range of specific breathing patterns that cater to all levels of exertion.
The amount of oxygen that diffuses into the blood each minute depends on several factors. One of these is the respiratory minute volume (respiratory rate per minute times volume of air inspired per respiration). It is common practice, in normal breathing for inhalation to equal that of exhalation. If breathing patterns can be synchronised with the running action, then permutations are possible that allows percentage factors of 75/25 in favour of inhalation. This extended period of breathing in and the higher number of inspirations allows a longer period for pressurised oxygen to diffuse into the bloodstream. The technique of expelling air sharply before a longer and deeper intake requires considerable practice. Although the V02 max of an athlete does determine the utilisation of oxygen absorbed, having a regular supply readily available to assist the process enhances the procedure.
Another factor in favour of diaphragm breathing is that inhibition of the chest cavity to expand through nervous muscle tension is minimised if inhalation is focused on the action of the diaphragm. Relaxation of the intercostal muscles must precede an inspiration. Under certain circumstances, some runners find this difficult to do.
Not a very complicated word, but most athletes do not understand in athletic terms its real meaning. If performance is to be improved, then the principle of progressively higher loadings must apply. Adaptation to increasing stress is what training is all about.
It is the coach's responsibility to plan the training schedule taking account of real progression. This usually means more work at a greater intensity.
Fell Running is no exception to this principle. A heart rate monitor can be a valuable aid to a coach in the effort to establish progression, even when the athlete is out training on the fells. Linking progressions on the track with times and distance is relatively easy but knowing if your athlete is working at the right intensity on the fells is much more difficult. The evaluation of time against distance over a set course will only give a rough guide to improvement. The problem with this method rests in calculating and conveying the intensity at which the run must be completed. Does one say fast, steady, easy, or does one use 70% or 80% of the maximum effort?
Using a heart rate monitor that has a recording facility, a graph of the run can be examined against the time value and a more clinical observation made. Using this method, the intensity for most of the run can be set using the upper and lower limits facility, taking account of the higher stresses of climbing.
In all aspects of the athlete's training, a clinical application of the progressive overload system is the real way forward toward improved performance and a considerable amount of the coach's time must be utilised in its delivery.
This does not mean that an athlete has no easy days.
Training for Hills
Mention fell running to anyone and they immediately think of running up hills. This specialised aspect of our discipline together with the technique of descending is unique to our sport. Coaches must capitalise in this area so that our athletes can maximise their ability in this aspect of performance.
The criteria for optimising the ability to climb well are the same for all abilities.
The weight of an athlete is a critical factor in the good climbing formula. If the percentage of body fat is reduced to under 10% (15% women) then the ability to climb well is positively enhanced. This does not mean that you immediately put your athlete on a diet. The progression towards a low body fat level takes planning since athletes in full training require a diet with sufficient calories to maintain equilibrium for energy needs. It is the minor refinements within a diet that can pave the way to attaining low body fat, and the coach needs to assess each athlete individually to find the correct formula.
2. Leg Strength
Leg strength is undoubtedly the key factor if bodyweight is in order. As mentioned earlier the building of strong leg muscles is not a major difficulty, it is more a matter of scheduled application and sound knowledge of the overload principle.
3. Lactic Tolerance
Lactic tolerance has to be well developed. Tolerance conditioning sessions and activities enhancing lactic buffering are not hard to find. Turbo sessions on a static bike should not be overlooked.
4. Aerobic Conditioning
Aerobic conditioning is a major factor, especially on the long climbs. A solid base of aerobic conditioning is an essential element in good hill-climbing, especially over the longer courses. A Minimum mileage of 70 miles per week is necessary, although this will vary depending on the time of year and the standard of competition. 100 miles a week during the winter months is not out of place for elite athletes aspiring for International status.
5. Stride Length
Correct stride length and uphill running technique require practice. Economy is the keyword when climbing steep ascents. The arm action should be minimised on long slow climbs and routes selected to minimise knee lift.
6. Pace judgement
Pace judgement is an essential ingredient in maintaining an efficient running action and as outlined earlier, use should be made of specific hill sessions to acquire this knowledge.
7. Mental Attitude
A strong will is a necessary characteristic especially in the shorter races when lactic tolerance levels are high.
8. Walking Technique
A good race walking technique is essential for those parts of a course which are not runnable
9. Route Choice
Optimum route choice is a tactical application that plays a major part in uphill running. It is not always the strongest climber who gets to the top first. Under certain conditions, it is occasionally reserved for the runner who finds the shorter route.
10. Use of Hands
There are occasions when it is helpful to use the tactical ploy of pulling oneself up by the use of the hands. There are critical times in a race when metres can be gained on a very steep climb by using the hands to ease lactic build up in the legs. Heather slopes and rock outcrop can all aid forward momentum at times when seconds are at stake.
11. Muscle Load Transfer.
On severe climbs, the running action of light forefoot contact puts great strain on the calf muscles, which at times can fatigue sufficiently to bring about a drop-in pace. If an intentional change to flat foot contact is made for short periods with the emphasis on quadriceps lift, it allows lactic to disperse sufficiently to regain the former action.
12. Secure Foot Plant
When climbing steep ascents careful positioning of the foot can at times allow a continuous drive forward without the occasional slip back. Any such slip results in lost momentum and careful selection of step positions should be made so that maximum forward drive can occur without loss of speed. Although this may seem trivial in an application the leverage gained when the foot is on a strong foundation establishes a marked advantage over those whose random steps find insecure positions.
13. Breathing Patterns
The application of selected breathing patterns using the diaphragm action is a much-undervalued technique when running at the threshold level. Coaches must examine this aspect of preparation and application.
To excel at fell running hills need to be run in training. Strong legs can be built with strength conditioning and riding a bike but there is no better way of developing the ability to climb than running on the fells or doing specific hill repetitions in training.
The difficulty with hill repetitions is trying to overload a specific aspect in isolation from the rest. Running hills of any gradient works all parts of the circulatory and musculoskeletal systems, with the heart, lungs and legs all placed under stress at the same time.
The permutations for hill repetitions are endless, in most cases, the sessions are moulded on the available terrain. Because of the intense nature of hill work, it pays to have a variation of hill types from buffering sessions on steep runnable hills of no longer than 30 seconds, to extended repetitions of slower endurance work that take over 5 minutes. Keeping the athletes guessing as to what session is coming next is a recommended ploy. All the hill rep variations have a part to play in the overall scheme of fell preparation with the emphasis linked to the athlete's race plan.
Without going into too much detail, below is a general outline of some hill work that one training group follows:
If non-race week it can be a lactate buffering session.
When coming out of winter training and there is a need to change in emphasis to a more speed orientated session.
As mentioned hill repetitions can be quite daunting psychologically, and it pays to occasionally change the session so that the group do not always know what is coming. Fun sessions like a step path that we have at Horwich in the Rivington gardens make a great change on a fine night. The climb up hundreds (it seems) of steps makes the legs lift higher than usual and makes for challenging but enjoyable session.
During the summer racing season, hill rep sessions continue, but their selection is carefully planned. A weekend race with steep hills to climb can occasionally become the session. The balance needs to be right since too much intensity in an extensive racing program can be counterproductive. Judgement and choices come down to experience. Reconnoitring race courses on a free Sunday can be most productive combining it with a hill session sometimes doing 3-4 repetitions on a hill that will only be climbed once during the race can have a positive psychological boost come race day.
A sound mental attitude has to be developed in the athlete with their 'love' of hills. Affection has to be established with the joy of running uphill. If that can be achieved, then this affinity will serve the athlete well.
It is said that good downhill runners are born that way and that you either 'have it' or you don't. That may be so, but there are not too many runners who have been schooled in the art of descending.
What is it that makes a good descender?
1. Strong Legs
In the first instance, a runner must have strong legs. Rather an obvious statement really, but how many fell runners train to improve leg strength away from the fell. If they do, they generally build muscle strength with just endurance in mind. They occasionally go for gross strength training. They seldom opt for elastic strength development via plyometric and drop jumps for extra power. Coaches must ensure that all these aspects of weight training are applied in the right proportions. Coaches who have not been on a strength conditioning course should make it a priority. In the meantime, read all that you can about the subject search out information and learn the principles.
2. Fast Feet
A fell and hill runner must have good eye/foot coordination. A term used regularly for sprinters is 'fast feet'. When descending at pace over rocks and other rough ground the fell and hill runner needs to think of 'fast feet,' using steps in keeping with the surface material. Long strides are inappropriate on tracks strewn with boulders. There are times when the need to react to a bad foot plant requires a light quick step to recover. If the stride is too long and committed it is very difficult to avoid trouble. Drill work of the sort used by sprinters for speed and coordination will help. Try some for a couple of months down at the track. The principle is similar to the American use of rapid stepping in and out of tyres.
3. Correct Lean
Knowing the correct lean and doing it is another thing e.g. when descending long steep fell descents, it takes a degree of courage to let the legs go in a relaxed state of free fall. If the racer resists the fell then the leg muscles must work overtime and produce the old 'leg wobbles' on the way down. The correct lean co-exists with both experience and fearlessness. Correct technique borders on recklessness but most elite descenders know exactly what they are doing. It only looks dangerous to those runners cannot do it.
4. Stud Contact
When descending at a pace the foot must be in the plantarflexed position (pointing downwards) to facilitate as much contact with the ground as possible. Full stud contact helps considerably on wet grassy slopes. Less pointing is needed by those runners wearing shoes with heel spikes. Scree running is quite different, try to keep the body straight with the heels going into the scree. Wearing two pair of socks with the top pair turned over on to the top of the shoe and attached to Velcro which is glued on, allows the runner to continue without stopping to remove stones from their shoes. A small point, but an important one, is that it is no use wearing a pair of studs to aid descent if the studs are worn down. If the uppers are still in good condition, then a new sole is necessary.
5. Lactic Build Up
There are many times when a runner has a poor descent because their legs will not hold them at pace. It is no use giving that extra push for the top only to find that the lactic build up prevents a good descent. If a runner usually picks up places on the descent, it is good coaching practice to work on this in training. If the descent is long, over 3 miles, then those runners with good descending techniques need to utilise their judgement of lactic build up to exploit their descending prowess.
There is no single magic formula for developing a good endurance base. Most coaches use the same general principles but different in the detail of their training schedules. There are many permutations of mileage coupled with an array of differing interval and repetition sessions. Experimenting with your formula is part of your developing skill. Do not be afraid to make the occasional mistake. All coaches have done so.
If your athlete is to race the fells frequently between March and September, then the bulk of endurance preparation needs to be completed outside that period. What is not generally understood is that continuous running at a slow set pace is not an efficient way to improve oxygen uptake. It is important to cover a relatively high mileage, but with the necessity to vary the pace so that the maximum conditioning effect is achieved. This takes planning.
This aspect of coaching is crucial in achieving a balanced training program. Long, Medium and Short term plans enable the coach and athlete to meet on regular occasions to plan the weekly or monthly schedule. Do not feel intimidated by the technical terminology of periodisation language. There is nothing wrong with your own system so long as it fulfils all your requirements. Regular re-assessment will ensure you are making the necessary progression. The important point is that in planning you will have integrated all of the elements required of a balanced training programme.
Fell running is essentially an endurance activity and as such, the training emphasis has to be in this area. Long slow continuous runs are not necessarily the best way towards a good aerobic base. The most beneficial zone of endurance is between 70% to 85% of maximum heart rate, (with 200bpm max) producing figures of 140 - 170 bpm (The Karvonen formula is a little more sophisticated than this) Running slower than the lower figure brings little measurable aerobic improvement and merely adds to impact stress, yet many runners out on the Sunday run will seldom operate above this lower figure.
The principle is that runners need to run as fast as is possible over the specific training distance without incurring any significant oxygen or lactate debt.
During periods of relatively high mileage, it pays to do at least one up pace session of speed endurance per week. 2 x 8 x 400 metres at approximately 90-95% of HRmax is such a session. Keep the recovery short but at a level that allows the training rate to be maintained. This helps to keep a good running technique, maintain speed, and to improve oxygen debt tolerance.
It pays to plan an occasional easy week in which mileage is reduced; this can be included in a taper period for an important race. In general terms, the high volume of winter training should be gradually reduced as the intensity of the session's increases. If done successfully this balance will ensure that your athlete is in racing condition for his/her first important race.
The duration of the fell season requires a selective racing programme for those athletes intent on international selection, or who have ambitions in Championship races. This selective policy should accommodate changes in emphasis and permit a short return to longer fewer intensive sessions mid-year to top up the endurance base. Benchmarks of progress are sensible at various points in the planning
This is one of the better ways to induce fell runners to do some speed work. Most fell runners do this type of training regularly without possibly realising it. Group runs can occasionally turn into fartlek running as runners individually press the pace at various stages, but as such is usually not structured and possibly not intense enough. This is where a good heart rate monitor comes in useful.
Unless the coach is in a position to accompany the athlete, it will be necessary to go over the course and draw a plan or make the first route simple enough to remember with possibly only two or three elements in it. Further refinement can follow when the principle of what you are trying to achieve is accepted by the athlete. This is the time you can mix some 400 metres fast bursts, with 200 metres jog, or run a mile at threshold pace followed by 600 metres jog before throwing in a few short repetitions of a hill for tolerance work, followed by a mile of steady running. The permutations are endless. The clever part is to fit in elements that match the terrain and not interrupted by it. In suitable surroundings, having 'Coach' on a mountain bike can ensure control and discipline.
The idea of enhancing your oxygen uptake with a session of 2 x 10 x 200 metres @ 30 seconds - 90 seconds recovery is probably alien to most fell runners. Such a session is probably the most efficient method in time value for aerobic conditioning. Those possessing HR monitors can control the recovery period and the pace of the session much more effectively than those who have not. The pace should be such that a recovery pulse of approximately 120 bpm (200 HRmax) is reached before commencing the following 200-metre run. Thus, the rest interval between runs is determined by the rate of the hearts return to 120bpm a recovery period which should be within three times the running time. High pulse rates of approximately 180bpm are reached during the run in such a session. The principle is that once the rest interval begins following the effort, the heart rate does not rapidly return to the pre-exercise state. Instead, it remains high, when there isn't a need to do so. This places an overload on the heart muscle encouraging an adaptation through the overcompensation effect.
Fell runners must realise that to achieve specific types of conditioning they may have to desert their first love occasionally and spend a little time on the track.
The range of session options at the track is too numerous to mention here. However, a classic session is the mile repetitions, (1600 metres) with a minute recovery, the training pace is dependent upon the athlete's condition but if they are run at 90-95% HRmax a very worthwhile session results.
This brief outline explains some of the differences in the training programme of a Fell Runner.
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