"Well, our mission, basically, is to turn you into a running machine."
Ever since Emma Cutts of the Peak Centre uttered those words, I've been wondering what "statistics" a perfect running machine, or as my friend Per jokingly refers to it "perfect specimen", would possess.
If you read Feet in the Clouds, it sounds like the raw talent of Bill Teasdale, the technique of Kenny Stuart, the physical fortitude of Billy Bland, and the relentless mental strength of Iron Joss would make for a perfect athlete.
The book, however, as more detail to offer than that.
The Ideal Athlete
Fred Reeves is one of the few outstanding champions of Fell Running that measurements were actually made of (it just wasn't very common in those days).
Fred looked like this (the notes below apply only to men, the average Body-fat for women is 22-25%, resting heart rate 75bpm, and ):
Body-Fat Ratio: 6.64% (compare to my 12% and the average American's 19-25%)
Resting Heart Rate: 42bpm (compare to my 39 or the average persons 70)
VO2 Max: 79ml/min/kg (compare this to my 59.9ml/min/kg and the average persons 40.8ml/min/kg)
The last measurement shows you maximum oxygen output per minute, basically, and if you're interested in more to compare to, the average Masai would have 59.1ml/min/kg.
If you want to have these measurements taken for yourself, you need to contact the Peak Centre of Trinity College to have a test done, but while you consider if it's worth it, let's take a look at other things Richard Askwith mentions as essential qualities of a top class fell runner.
A note of interest is that sports physiologists have described fell runner physique as similar to the athletic discipline of steeplechasing (now dominated by Kenyans). This is an interesting finding, and one I am eager to discuss with Emma. There may be knowledge to be gained from that sport, or it could be used as cross-training.
Of all the champions of yore described in the book, Kenny Stuart, the Flying Gardener, has most records still standing. If you read through the book there seems to be a trend that those who grew up near the mountains and spend most of their lives roaming the hills as shepherds where also the best fell runners.
Undoubtedly, adaptation to the terrain over such long time, and the fitness benefits of constant low intensity physical labour is an advantag that can be bridged only through the most intense and clever training regimens.
Kenny Stuart was not a shepherd, though, and while he roamed the hills as a kid, he did not spend all day on the fells as Joss Naylor, Bob Graham, Bill Teasdale, or Billy Bland would have done.
What he did do, is several things modern athletes take for granted:
1. He did intervals of all sorts
2. He watched what he ate and drank (much to the chagrin of the local villagers)
3. He trained 14 times a week (even though his mileage was low by modern standards at 90 miles per week)
Since many athletes today train like this, what is potentially the difference? Was Kenny simply more gifted? Possibly, but unlikely. He showed less promise than his brother as a runner at first, and took quite a few years to mature physically enough to win anything.
He did possess a few key ingredients of a good fell-runner, though: He was only 165cm and weighed a measly 50 kilos (giving him a BMI of 18.03, compared to my own 21.36 and the average of 25.4, or 28 in America).
Like Billy Bland, though, he may have had secret that you can't just take and use "free of charge": He murdered himself in training.
Billy and Kenny tortured themselves in their sessions, Billy through endless hard runs in the fells, Kenny through clever interval training where he would push himself to the max. For him, the races were just the reward, and many of his records did not turn out as spectacular as they could have, because he was just so good that he didn't even have to push himself all the way.
Rest and Recovery
"Rest and Recovery, I've never heard such bloody rubbish in all my life", said Billy Bland, and then continues to slaughter the term "over-racing", a point he disproved himself by winning the Mountain Trial, Langsdale and Ben Nevis in consecutive weekends.
Billy was a simple man, never used the state-of-the-art training methods that Kenny did, instead he would spend 2-3 hours every night on the high fells, murdering himself. Even Joss Naylor, the master of pain, noted how "self-destructive" he was.
What can we learn from this? I will propose two things:
1. Training Volume is strictly Individual: That there's not necessarily such a thing as over-training or over-racing. There may be such a thing for you, because like Kenny, your body may not be able to take the punishment of certain levels of training. (Billy'd say it's all in your mind, and maybe it is, deep down, we all know if we've been digging as deep as we should).
2. Be self-destructive: You have to apply yourself in training. In a way, change your focus, the training is what makes you strong not the races, so this is where you have to be at your best mentally and physically. If you're going to trudge through one slow run after the other, then what's the point? Just as well use the races for training then (in fact, you should probably do this!).
Where the warning comes in is in the speed of your progress. No matter how hard-headed you are, you can't go out and change your training programme to 70 or 90 miles per week tomorrow, you must build up to it slowly. But once you've done that work, there's no excuse for not keeping at it.
What about injuries? Well, this is a very controversial and difficult topic. Richard Askwith describes the standard attitude among fell-runners as COR: Carry On Regardless! (in one particularly humorous paragraph, he describes his disappointment when he realises that a sprained ankle is not considered reason enough to stop).
What is certain is that many great champions have survived monstrous injuries and come back (Joss Naylor ran through a serious back injury for his whole life that would have left lesser men limping around). Other champions have suffered terrible falls (even multiple) and still won (although they collapsed on the line). I've run with runners who've vomitted multiple times in races and still done well to finish in decent times.
It's true what Richard Askwith's friend tells him as he embarks on his own fell-running journey: "Anyone can be fit, it's being hard that's hard."
All common sense says that injuries need rest, and while there's truth to it, I believe it's all about getting yourself back moving as quickly as possible (you don't have to go 100% all the time). I was running quite fine a week after I tore my meniscus. I couldn't race, but at least I got the miles in just jogging along.
When my ankle was sprained at Luc I spend 2 weeks on crutches feeling sorry for myself. Next time, I'll do what John Lenihan did when he was forced to use crutches: Laps around the block.
Karen Duggan raced Snowdon two weeks after her ankle injury and while she didn't have her best race, she finished well ahead of scores of healthy runners. Her physio had recommended three weeks of total rest.
When I started racing again, my ankle kept being in pain whenever it took a slight twist for all of the Winter League and the March races. It felt like acid was being poured into my blood vessels in the foot. It never got worse, though, and suddenly, the pain disappeared, and now the ankle is stronger than it has ever been. The constant small tweaks have strengthened it far beyond the state it had prior to the injury.
The Final Tips
This brings us to Askwith's own conclusion. What can you do to become better. The first quality, I have alluded to in the last paragraph above, and it's called: proprioception.
Proprioception: This is basically sense of body. Your muscles have about a 100.000 nerve endings each that can signal the brain. Most of these are dormant, however, and need to be trained up. Only by training balance exercises, will you improve your bodies ability to adjust itself to a change of position. In other words: Make your brain faster at processing and adjusting for changes in the terrain. Like the modern car sensors!
Increase Leg Strength: Emma keeps telling me, I need to do something about my "power". This is the strenght of your muscles, it's power output. For hill running the calves and glutes (for uphill) and quadriceps (for downhill) are particularly important, but don't forget to do specialised exercises to improve your knee muscles. Plyometrics, hurdles, steeplechasing, and pilates will all strengthen these muscles.
Control the Air Flow: Learn how to breathe properly. Most of the oxygen receptors in the lungs are located at the bottom of each lung. You must breathe out fully to allow fresh air to get into this area. Also, strengthen your Diaphragm. This is the muscle wall between the chest and the abdomen used for breathing. You need to strengthen it, for isntance through use of the PowerBreathe, as it will tire easily otherwise, and in that case, pull blood and energy away from other muscles in the body to maintain full functionality. Secondly, you must learn to control your breathing patterns to suit the ever-changing rhythm of fell-running. You can do this yourself by any number of techniques including Yoga will help you with this.
Well, that's it, a little case study into what could potentially make all of us into fell running champions. We won't all make it, but as long as we can say as Billy Bland did: "And I can honestly say that I became as good as I could be."
Now, back on the road, will I punish myself today? You bet!