In May 2016 Nicky Spinks made fell running history.
Whilst most people are happy to complete the Bob Graham Round in under 24 hours Nicky did a “double” (doing it twice) in a time of 45 hours 30 minutes, the fastest time ever! She beat the previous record – which had stood for over thirty five years – by more than an hour and so became only the second person to do the “double” in under 48 hours.
Nicky on the Bob Graham Round
As well as her remarkable running achievements Nicky has also battled cancer and her record breaking round marked ten years since her diagnosis.
Her inspirational story is told in a film, Run Forever which premieres at the Kendal Mountain Festival this November before general release. See trailer:
This is the question I get asked more than any other by trail and fell runners seeking to improve their running technique.
“I overtake people on the uphill only to have them fly past me again on the downhill”, “I feel out of control”, “I’m scared I’m going to fall”. Do any of those statements sound familiar? You’re certainly not alone if you feel that your descending skills are something that need to be worked on in order to make you a better fell or trail runner. So what can you do in order to improve?
Some people will tell you that it’s simply a matter of disengaging the brain and letting go. Unfortunately it isn’t quite as simple as that; if you haven’t got the core or leg strength to cope with the added impact forces or don’t have the neuromuscular development that allows rapid reactions and quick movements, then no amount of bravado is going to get you to the bottom of a steep, technical descent still upright and in one piece!
So is there any way of improving your descending skills? Just like getting faster on the flat or stronger on the uphills, descending at pace and in control is something that needs to be trained. And like most aspects of running, whilst a few people seem naturally gifted, the majority get better by hard work and regular practice. Lots of runners make the mistake of only trying to run fast descents in races, to make improvements you should work on it in training too. Developing an efficient technique is important so try to focus on the following:
Downhill Running Tips:
Don’t lean back. Whilst it feels safer to lean back and land heel first this is inefficient. Try to keep an upright posture or even a slight forward lean.
Fast, short strides – particularly on steep, technical ground. If the angle decreases or the ground gets less technical then you can open your stride.
Midfoot landing. This gives more stud to ground contact and prevents you overstriding.
Relaxed upper body. Let the arms go! They act as a counterbalance.
Practise on a variety of terrain. Start on a gentle, smooth slope and work up to steeper, more technical terrain as your technique and confidence improves.
There are also other types of training that you can do to supplement the downhill run training. Doing drills such as fast feet or ladder exercises will help develop your balance and coordination and activate those fast twitch muscles needed for a rapid stride rate. Good descenders rely on a strong core so work on this too. Exercises such as planks, bridges, and lunges will all help, it’s not just about running.
The key to improvement is practice; you didn’t learn to ride a bike in one go and likewise it takes time to develop the various skills to improve your downhill running. Try to incorporate downhill training into your regular runs. This video shows how you might practise running down a short, steep hill:
So, work on your technique and you never know, it might be you flying down past others as they tentatively make their way downhill.
Summer is here; blue skies with high clouds, long days fade to warm evenings and trail running in the Peak District is a pleasure.
No longer is there a need to don my windproof or carry a waterproof, hat and gloves are left behind and I relish the chance to run unencumbered by rucksack or bumbag.
The ground is dryer now, the wet, peaty trails turning dusty and it’s good to finish a run with dry feet for a change. Skipping across the dry, gritstone boulders the dry rock gives excellent traction.
But the thing that gives me most pleasure is running with the sights and sounds of nature. Running below Burbage rocks I hear the high pitched cheep of the Ring Ouzel whilst on open moorland I am often circled by Curlews, distinctive with their long curved bill and mournful, whistling cry. Of all the little, brown, ground nesting birds I am fascinated by the Skylark. I hear it long before I see it, singing away melodiously. Today I noticed its song was particularly loud, yet it was a tiny speck, high in the sky.
So the joy of summer running; dry trails, blue skies and the sound of the Skylark, singing away high on the wing.
Cloudless, blue sky days with lying snow make running a joy. But what about when the snow gets compacted and icy or melts and then refreezes over night; aren’t these conditions dangerous for running? If just wearing your normal fell shoes then you will definitely need to slow down and alter your running style to avoid slipping. There is also a higher chance of picking up an injury due to slipping, even if it isn’t due to a full on fall.
So in conditions like this I use a type of running crampon or micro-spike. Snowline Snowspikes are Stainless Steel spikes which are attached by chains to an elastomer cradle which simply fits over your normal running shoe.
12 Stainless Steel spikes give a reassuring grip
Snowline Snowspikes Light (there is a heavier version) weigh only 235 grams a pair (UK shoe size 4 – 7) and come with their own small travel pouch which means there’s no risk of the spikes piercing your bum bag whilst carrying them.
Snowspikes Light – 235g a pair
handy travel pouch means no punctures to your bumbag!
They can be put on in seconds simply by stepping into them and pulling the stretchy elastomer over your shoe. 8 one centimetre spikes on the forefoot and 4 on the rear give a reassuring grip on icy ground and if you find that conditions underfoot improve they can be taken off in seconds. They’re not just for trail and fell running either, they’re fantastic when the streets and pavements are covered in frozen snow.
This video shows how easy they are to put on:
We’ve been blessed by some fantastic winter running conditions in the Peak District over the last few days. If we get any more icy weather this winter, don’t stop running because of the conditions underfoot, get a pair of Snowspikes and enjoy the snow!
I’m alert, senses heightened to the sounds and smells around me: an owl hoots away to my left, I notice the musky scent of fox and the damp, earthy smell of the newly fallen, autumn leaves. Emerging from the trees my eyes are drawn to the faint afterglow of sunset just visible on the western horizon whilst away to the east the moon, big and bright is rising from behind the hill into a small, thin patch of wispy cloud. This is night running!
the remains of the day on the western horizon
A small group of us are making the most of the darker evenings, just because it’s dark doesn’t mean you can’t run off road! Before the moon has chance to rise we turn our head torches off and look up. Almost all of the day’s cloud has dispersed and as we adjust to the darkness stars come out before our eyes. We take a few moments to share our knowledge of the various constellations before turning the torches back on and continuing on our nocturnal adventure.
Back into the woods and several pairs of bright, pinpoints of light appear before us – we are being watched! But we have bravery in numbers and as we get closer the sheep look at us with curiosity as if to wonder what we are doing out after dark.
Dropping down to the stream we notice the temperature change, our breath steams and a thin mist is just beginning to form in the colder air. Our ears deceive us, the stream sounds like a torrent when in fact it is barely shin deep. We don’t talk, the sounds of nature are enough: the stream, the snap of a twig underfoot, our breathing and our footfalls on the soft earth.
Climbing back up to the moor we snake our way along the ancient hollow-way, cut out hundreds of years ago when men toiled to make a living from this land. As we emerge we turn around and see the moon again, risen now and casting its silvery light on the landscape.
We head back to the road, to our cars, to our homes, but we will return to the wonderful landscape and to the magic of trail running at night.
Depending on what type of running I’m doing I use different waterproof jackets. For fell races I go for as small and lightweight as possible and use the Montane Minimus smock. However for day to day use on navigation and guided running sessions or for more serious outings in the winter months I’m prepared to compromise: a little more weight and bulk from something that is a bit more robust.
There are plenty of jackets that fit into that category and one that I would recommend is the Berghaus Voltage
Made from Goretex Active fabric the jacket has a full length waterproof zip, two generous sized pockets, volume adjustable roll away hood, elasticated hem and elasticated cuffs with an additional velcro adjuster. At 365g (Medium jacket) and a small pack size it shouldn’t pose too many problems packing into your running sack.
The 3 layer Goretex feels comfortable on the move yet sturdy enough that it won’t de-laminate when worn under a rucksack (a problem with some super-light jackets). It also feels a bit more reassuring than more lightweight jackets: you feel like it will keep you dry!
If I could change one thing on the Voltage waterproof I would add an external chest pocket for map & compass etc that is easy to get at when wearing a rucksack or bum bag (the two side pockets are good but you need to be careful not to cover them up with your rucksack if you want access to them). Other than that it looks a great jacket if you want something a little more durable and protective than a super-light race jacket. See more of the jacket in my video review:
Fell running, particularly steeply uphill puts a great deal of stress on the lower leg muscles.
I frequently suffer from sore or tight calves, especially after racing and often need a couple of days recovery before I can run again comfortably. Anything legal that can help speed recovery is worth investigating and so I was very interested to hear of the Firefly device. It’s a small battery powered device that you strap to your leg which delivers a light electric shock.
How does it work?
By neuromuscular electrostimulation! Basically a small battery delivers an electric shock to a nerve which causes your lower leg muscles to contract, thus increasing blood flow. This helps clear metabolic waste and reduces the dreaded DOMS – the delayed onset muscle soreness that we get the day after a hard run.
There is scientific evidence that the device actually works and several case studies attest to this.
The device is intended to be used immediately after exercise and has a peel off strip which allows you to stick it to your leg just below the knee. You can also get a velcro strap that further holds the device in place. Once fitted you can go about your normal routine including walking and driving.
Firefly attached to lower leg
What does it feel like?
Weird! It’s a little bit like the shock you’d get from a gentle electric fence. The device has 7 levels which allows you to alter the intensity of the stimulation which is delivered about once every second. I played around with the settings and found that the effect ranged from a mild localised twitch to quite a pronounced twitch in the lower leg and foot.
The effect isn’t at all painful and not even unpleasant. At first I was fascinated by the involuntary twitch and found that if I adopted different positions: legs bent, legs extended etc. I could vary the amount of twitch it produced. After the first 20 minutes or so you forget the device is there and I even slept with it on overnight without it affecting my sleep.
Is it expensive?
The device costs £29 for a pack of two (the velcro straps cost more but it can be used without them). It is designed as a disposable product although with a battery life of around 24 hours I actually used one 3 times. So although it isn’t cheap if you plan on using it weekly it might be something that you occasionally use. It works out cheaper than a sports massage and might be something that you use instead of.
device with velcro strap
So the big question: Did it work?
I used the device on a number of occasions and only on one leg so that I could compare the results between a leg that had received the neuromuscular electrostimulation and one that hadn’t. The first time was after an undulating 40 minute run. I wore the device for around 5 hours immediately afterwards whilst I was mainly sitting on the settee. The next day I couldn’t feel any noticeable difference whilst walking but if I pressed my calves one did seem to be a bit less tender than the other, however this wasn’t enough evidence to convince me!
The second trial was after a mammoth eight and a half hours in the Welsh mountains. Again I wore the Firefly on only my left leg and this time kept it on overnight giving a good eight hours of stimulation. The next day I was surprised that I didn’t have muscle soreness in either calf so again it was difficult to say if the device had worked. However what I did notice was that when I ran again a couple of days later the stimulated leg’s calf muscles were less tight than those on the non stimulated leg. Self massaging my calves afterwards it did feel like one was less tight than the other. I was keen to get a second opinion and so I had someone else have a feel to compare the calf muscles on each leg and they confirmed that one was noticeably tighter.
The Firefly is a very convenient way of recovering. It takes seconds to put on and you can then carry on as normal for example driving home from a run or race. I am still experimenting with the device, intending to use it after races to confirm if it really does reduce tightness in my calf muscles. If it does I will be happy to purchase it again as I have had problems with calf and achilles injuries in the past which have been very hard to shift.
I have tried out several remedies such as compression socks and foam roller and there’s one thing I can confirm without doubt: It might be electric shock treatment but it’s a lot less painful than a sports massage!
There are lots of reasons why the Peak District is a great location for fell and trail running.
First of all there’s the scenery; from rough open moorlands to pretty limestone dales, each with their own flora and fauna and the stark contrast between the gritstone and limestone landscapes. Then the variety; tough, steep hill climbs or flat routes around pretty reservoirs or along valley bottoms. For the competitive runner there are beginner friendly summer races and tough, long, testing challenges. And all of this is easily accessible from the major road and rail networks.
Sometimes the weather doesn’t inspire me to go running at all. But today was different.
We’ve had more than our fair share of wet and wind this winter. Running under dull grey skies, head down vainly trying to avoid the rain and finishing each run cold, soggy, caked in mud. So today it was great to wake up to a clear, frosty morning, the sort of day that makes fell running a joy!
I headed off to my favourite playground hoping to be inspired by the beautiful Peak District scenery. I wasn’t disappointed:
The beauty of running in the Peak District is that the Peak District is beautiful.
15 minutes. That’s all it takes to escape the tarmac and traffic of Sheffield for the woods, trails and hills of the National Park.
Wide open spaces, fresh air and the sounds of nature greet me as I climb from the urban bowl and leave the city behind. Driving west I crest the Ringinglow road, passing Lady Canning’s Plantation and the Ox Stones and the vista opens before me; the beautiful Burbage Valley, the magnificent gritstone edge of Stanage and the remote, rugged, distant uplands of Kinder and Bleaklow whilst to the south the White Peak stretches away lush, green and wooded.
It is a fantastic place to run – so forget the tarmac and escape to the trails and come run with me.