by Davy Kestens in Training Tips

Hill Running in the Scottish Highlands

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Fancy boosting your strength, endurance, and speed all in one session? How about taking in some cracking views while you’re at it? Or maybe you’re just looking for a new running challenge? If you’ve answered yes to any of the above then read on; hill running might be just what you’re looking for.

Neil Stewart of ‘Running The Highlands’ based in Aberdeenshire, Scotland says, “In a wonderfully scenic environment with fresh air and superb wildlife often on show you don’t really think about the exercise aspect of running and you even find yourself enjoying the hills! Running here is inspirational rather than a chore and the benefits are just as much emotional as they are physical.”

What’s it all about?

Hill running, also known as fell running or mountain running, is a popular sport in the Scottish Highlands but hill races can be found all over the world; anywhere there are hills in fact! Unlike road races, there are no standard distances for hill races so competitors choose from short, medium, or long distance routes. Races are categorised according to the distance being run, the amount of climbing involved, and the type of terrain covered. The majority of races are run on an out and back route with the objective being simply to get to the top of the hill and back again. However, the sheer nature of the sport ensures that things are rarely so straightforward. Some routes take in multiple hills, not all routes are clearly marked, and ground conditions vary wildly along with the weather.

The Fell Runners Association (FRA), an organisation looking after the interests of fell runners in the UK, says, “Our sport has a relaxed, low-key atmosphere where friendships are easy to make and the hills are there to be enjoyed. There’s something for just about everybody in fell running, whether it’s the thrill at the sharp end, the pleasure of taking exercise amongst the hills, or the loneliness of the long distance.”

A brief history

The first recorded hill race took place at Braemar in Scotland in 1064. In those days, the only way to spread news across the inhospitable and perilous terrain of the Highlands was by foot messenger. It’s believed that clan chieftains began to hold organised races in order to select their fleetest men who would then be sent out in times of battle to spread word of where the clan should gather.

Of course, competitors in those days didn’t have the advantages of super-light-moisture-wicking-glow-in-the-dark fabrics so the challenge was made even greater by running in extremely heavy kilts. However, the story goes that the first race was won by ‘young MacGregor’ who managed to streak, quite literally, across the finish-line ahead of his older brothers. One brother had grabbed at the younger brother’s kilt in an effort to slow him down but he won the race anyway – without his kilt!

Is it only for the super fit?

The simple answer is no but there’s no doubt that even an ‘easy’ hill race will create challenges that are quite different to those experienced when running on roads. Hill runners come in all shapes and sizes and age is no barrier with many coming into the sport as ‘juniors’ and others continuing to compete into the ‘over 75 years’ prize category.

As the FRA states, the hills are there to be enjoyed by everyone but they also remind newcomers to the sport that it is the responsibility of each individual to ensure they have the necessary fitness, skills and experience to take part in any event. “A good way to get experience and advice is to join a fell running club and participate in their activities.

Whatever other running experience you have, it is advisable to start with Short events before tackling more demanding Medium and Long category events. Some events do require previous hill running experience along with map reading and navigational skills as well as a high level of fitness.”

Do I need special kit?

A good pair of trail running shoes will keep you on your feet in most off-road conditions but to truly run on the hills, a pair of hill running studs are an absolute must. They become a very worthwhile investment when you bear in mind that what goes up must come down – spend money on specialist shoes or spend a lot of time on your backside on steep descents! Hill running studs have virtually no cushioning and are designed to provide superior grip in grassy or muddy conditions. They’re also close fitting and low to the ground which lessens the chances of them being sucked off in a bog or of you going over on your ankles on rough terrain. But, it’s worth noting that the highly functional design makes them wholly unsuitable for running any great distance on hard ground unless multiple shin splints are your aim. The majority of competitive hill runners wear little more than their fell shoes. A pair of skimpy shorts and a running vest is the norm – regardless of the weather – but a kilt may still appear on occasion in the Highlands.

In 2003, new regulations were put in place by the FRA making it mandatory for all competitors in Category ‘A’, Long or Medium distance races in the UK to carry windproof whole body cover, map, compass, whistle, and emergency food. This safety requirement applies whatever the weather or time of year so anyone considering taking part must find a suitable way of carrying the necessary kit with them. Lightweight backpacks with integral water carriers are popular but good old-fashioned bum-bags are still favoured by many.

Want to try a hill race?

If you’re planning a visit to Scotland, hill races still form part of the light events programme at Highland Games – as opposed to the heavy events such as caber tossing – and races are open to ‘all comers’ making the shorter distance runs ideal for first-timers. Highland Games are held all over Scotland between May and September with dozens of venues to choose from most weekends. All entries are on the day so seasoned club runners very often line up at the start alongside newcomers and visitors to the area.

Runners leave the Games arena to encounter any combination of heather, bog, ditches, barbed-wire fences and sometimes even marching pipe bands before they return, making it common to hear the words, “…seemed like a good idea in the pub last night!” echo mournfully through the valleys.

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