Why You Need to Start Fell Running for Mind and Body Gains – Men’s health UK

Why You Need to Start Fell Running for Mind and Body Gains  Men’s health UK

A full-body workout offering the mental health benefits of both nature and exercise, trail running is fast on the ascent. We sent our man to the wilds of …

In its broadest sense, trail running describes any run that isn’t on a man-made surface. There are various subgenres: among them, fell running (short and steep), skyrunning (high and technical) and ultrarunning (very, very long). Tom Evans is good at all of them. Lean, 6ft tall and bronzed, the 27-year-old British runner may be relatively new on the professional scene, but he has swiftly become the new poster boy of the fast-growing sport of trail running.

I’m good at none. In fact, despite being a section editor of MH sister magazine Runner’s World and fancying myself as one of the fastest on the staff, it’s very rare that I venture off-road at all. And today, I will be racing Evans up a very steep hill on the volcanic island
of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands.

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Before that, though, Evans manfully tries to get me up to speed. For starters, in this arena of cardio it seems that strong beats skinny. “I stand on a start line, look round and think, ‘I’m bigger than everyone here,’” he says. “But that’s a good thing. You’ve got to have that strength for climbing. And the bigger your quads are, within reason, the better you’ll be able to distribute the impact of coming downhill, and the less muscle damage there’ll be. You don’t have to be stick thin. There’s something in trail running for everyone.”

As well as rewarding a stronger frame, trail running helps to create one. “Because of the ups and downs, twists and turns, you’re becoming more robust,” says Evans. “Trail running is a real full-body workout. You may not be running as fast as you normally do, but it’s conditioning you and making you a better runner, whether you want to run on the road or off it.”

Then there are the many mental health benefits of getting out of the smog. A recent study by the University of Glasgow found that people who were frequently active in forests had half the risk of poor mental health compared to those who didn’t exercise in nature.

In Japan, shinrin yoku, the act of moving meditatively through nature (literal translation: “forest bathing”), has long been considered a way of combating stress. Campbell Murdoch, one of many GPs who are now prescribing Parkrun (the national outdoor Saturday
morning 5K) to patients, says: “Exercising in outdoor spaces is fundamental to our metabolic and mental health. We are hard-wired to be in nature.”

While there aren’t many forests on a volcanic island, an abundance of steep slopes makes Fuerteventura a trail running hot spot. Before I test myself against Evans on one of them, he offers me some pointers. He’s nice like that.

“I focus on pumping my arms, trying not to pass out”

Chief among these is to adopt a short, bouncy stride uphill. “This allows you to stay agile, change direction quickly and maintain balance,” he says. “Also, it makes use of the fascia, bands of elastic tissue around our muscles and organs, which can provide energy. Running uphill is all about being as efficient as possible.”

Next is the arm swing. “You see a lot of runners swinging their arms really far forward, but that does absolutely nothing,” he says. “It’s the backward motion, driving back your elbows, that propels you forward.”

Finally, rather than look at a hill or mountain in its entirety, Evans advises mentally dividing the challenge into manageable chunks. “Think about making it to the next boulder, or the next corner,” he tells me. You run up mountains piece by piece.

Cutting Corners

As for coming down them again, Evans is an exponent of what is affectionately known in the running world as the “brain off, brakes off” approach. This isn’t about needless risk-taking: going faster downhill is actually easier on your body.

“The natural thing to do when you’re running downhill is to lean backward and slam down your heels,” says Evans. “This trashes your quads and also makes you really unstable.” Instead, he counsels me to lean forward slightly and land on my midfoot, underneath my centre of mass. It seems to help.

My arms, meanwhile, should be raised and slightly out to the side to aid balance. Evans also mentions something called “Euro-lining” – jumping across corners, rather than strictly following the trail – but I decide this is best left for another day. Or, perhaps, another runner.

Soon, it’s time to race. On paper, our head to head has the makings of an epic mismatch. Evans’s marathon PB (two hours and 26 minutes) is more than 30 minutes faster than mine and, last year, he won the Courmayeur Champex Chamonix (CCC), a renowned 101km mountain race in the Alps.

In contrast, my best performance is coming fourth place at the Peckham Rye Parkrun. Evans is also seven years my junior; he spent seven years in the army; he trains between four and six hours a day, averaging 125 miles of running per week, and he has a daily power nap.

Risky Business

To level the playing field a bit, I’m allowed a healthy head start of 120 seconds. The route begins with a short downhill stretch before a steep ascent of about 300m. I try to put what I’ve learned into practice: elbows driving backward; quick, nimble steps; mentally dividing the climb into shorter segments. Concentrating is not an issue, given that to my right is a near-vertical drop, but if it is tough and occasionally risky, it feels exhilarating
in a way that road running rarely does.

Two minutes later, Evans is released. It’s fair to say that the meditative benefits of trail running are diminished somewhat when you know you’re being chased down by one of the world’s best off-road runners. I try not to think about it, focusing instead on pumping my arms, ignoring the acrid taste of battery acid at the back of my throat and generally attempting not to pass out.

Against my better judgement, I steal a look behind me. Predictably, Evans is getting closer. But so, too, is the summit. As I begin to rehearse my magnanimous words at the top (“Sometimes, even an amateur will upstage the best… I suppose it was just my day”), a figure flashes by me, stage right. It is Evans, doing that Euro-lining thing. In a moment, he is past me, the gap between us widening with each painful step. When I eventually make it to the summit, he greets me with a high five. I was never going to win. I say as much.

Fortunately, trail running is about more than simply who triumphs on the day. Evans, already fully composed, provides the salve to my pride. “At the start of a trail race, everyone’s excited and talking to each other. There’s a real community spirit. Ultimately, you’re all on the same journey. Whether you’re the first or last to finish, you’ve shared the same path.”

In the end, I may not have conquered a professional trail runner, even with a head start. I may have only just about conquered the hill. But I, for one, will be Euro-lining off the tarmac and hitting the trails on my long weekend runs. In the journey to better fitness, your body and mind will thank you if, once in a while, you take the path less travelled.


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