Run to the hills

Avatar photo

Paul Tierney and Sarah McCormack know a thing or two about running in the mountains and are joining forces with Irish Runner for 2020 to guide you safely and soundly into the hills with their top tips and advice

Call us biased, but we think this is a great time of year to get into trail running. Not only is it the time for new year’s resolutions, but during this season of limited daylight, it feels like the body is calling out for new challenges, fresh air and green views. Off-road running provides all these things in abundance. What’s more, the hills will provide a great strength-building boost to your winter training and the more technical terrain will be a fresh stimulus for your neuromuscular system. The best part of starting something new is seeing how quickly you can make improvements. So, here are our top tips on how to get going.

Equip yourself

Trail running is fantastically inclusive in the sense that it doesn’t require much equipment to get going, but a few key items will go a long way. Grippy trail- or mountain-running shoes make all the difference on mucky trails and rough descents, and they stop you sliding around on the climbs as well. We recommend Inov8 X-Talon 255s for maximum grip on mountainous terrain, or Inov8 Terra Ultra 260s if you’re going to be on smoother, firmer trails. In the winter, we never head out without packing a good waterproof jacket, and trousers, in case the weather changes, and a foil blanket and a phone are safety essentials too. Finally, to carry all your gear plus a few snacks, a vest pack can come in very handy.

Learn to navigate

If you don’t know already, learn how to use a map and compass so that you can explore some new trails and hills. This will give you more freedom to vary your running on challenging terrain and build the required skill base for the sport. Happy Out Adventures in Co. Down runs a highly recommended weekend navigation course, and She Summits in Co. Wicklow does great mountain navigation days, just for women. If you’re not massively confident yet with navigation, the ViewRanger app can also be a huge help in finding new routes safely – they offer downloadable maps for each.

Practice running downhill

Downhill running is probably the most fun part of the sport. This is where you can make up a lot of time over people who are not confident or who don’t have the skills to run fast downhill. The trick is to practise, first on a very easy gradient with a smooth surface (forestry road can be good for this). As you improve and grow in confidence, you can start to practise on increasingly more technical, steep ground. If you start by practising on very rough ground, chances are you will not have the confidence to relax and let the hill do the work. You’ll be more likely to put the brakes on and waste energy, rather than let gravity carry you. One of the best ways to improve is to go out running with someone who’s slightly better at descending than you, and follow them down the hill, observing as you go.

Get used to walking uphill

Many people assume you need to run every step of every hill you encounter. However, when hills are very long and/or steep, it can make much more sense to hike/walk briskly to get your effort level under control. In fact, uphill walking is often the best option in races when the gradient gets steep, and it can be both quicker and more economical to fast-hike an uphill than to run it. So, while it’s great to push your comfort zone in training to see how long you can maintain a trot going up a long climb, don’t forget to practise your hiking too.

Set yourself a goal

Setting your sights on a race or race series is one of the best ways to focus and incentivise your training, and the Irish Mountain Running Association (IMRA) offers a huge range of trail and mountain races across the country. Not only this, but the mountain running community is very friendly! Show up to a race and you’re sure to meet future training buddies in your area. The IMRA winter/spring league is a fantastic series of five short races, taking place in locations across Dublin and Wicklow in 2020. This league offers people a great introduction to mountain running. Similarly, the Munster Trail League offers a great line-up of 17 races throughout the year, all under 10km on marked routes, which are a very good way to build experience and confidence. This only scratches the surface of what’s available and the IMRA website has more details of the trail half marathon series, ultra-trail races, a southeast Ireland league and, for those based in the north, the highly popular Hill and Dale Series is not to be missed.


Sarah McCormack – International mountain runner

Paul Tierney – International ultra trail runner

Irish Runner logo

The Runner’s Connect