What can hikers and runners learn from one another?

Frank Zappa once said that “the mind is like a parachute: it only works when it is open”. Frank Zappa said a lot of things, including “my guitar wants to kill your mamma”, but this time he was actually on to something (rather than just on something). Runners and hikers could learn a lot from one another if they unpacked their parachutes and opened their minds. Let’s jump in…

No mixing

There’s often not a lot of mixing between strong runners and hikers. As a result, knowledge-sharing between them is minimal, but there is so much they could teach each another. Like a teacher with a blender, I’ll have a go mixing and sharing it here.

What can hikers and backpackers learn?

The biggest thing hikers could learn from runners (or indeed pretty much any sports people) is how to train.

There is an amazing number of hikers who sit on their backside for six months and then wonder why attempting a 20 miles walk is difficult. Everything you do in every hour is training for something, and sitting at a desk (as I am now) is good training for sitting at a desk. Do you think Mo Farrar could hack 8 hours sitting in an office every day? No: his eyes would hurt, his back would ache, and his feet would twitch for a run. He just hasn’t been training for it.

This was a hard trip for me - I'd broken my collar bone and then was coming to the Alps on the back of zero fitness.

This was a hard trip for me – I’d broken my collar bone and then was coming to the Alps on the back of zero fitness.

Runners are generally pretty good at training. If they want to run fast or far then they put the miles in, day after day. With a sometimes staggering monotony, half-decent runners might clock up fifteen hours or more of training a week. Over time this makes a serious difference to performance. Can you imagine trying to run a marathon having not been for a run beyond three miles? It would hurt. Now why would you try to do a massive hill walk having only walked to and from the car for the past six months? Your legs would scream like stuck pigs and your lungs burn like BBQ’d sausages. The pig: what a versatile animal.

The best form of training for any sport is doing that sport (a Training Law – specificity), and this is where runners tend to have an advantage over hikers, as they can run pretty-much anywhere, but if you live in central London training to hike up a mountain might be difficult. However, if you break down what hiking is, it’s not hard to do some basic training even when nowhere near a hill:

  • Hiking requires strong legs and feet.
  • Hiking requires a body able to carry a rucksack.
  • Hiking requires a strong cardiovascular system, particularly for going uphill.
  • Hiking requires endurance.
Winter hiking, in particular, is brutally-hard on underprepared people. The bags are heavy, the terrain slow, and the daylight hours short.

Winter hiking, in particular, is brutally-hard on under-prepared people. The bags are heavy, the terrain slow, and the daylight hours short.

These are all very easily trained no matter where you are. Here’s some ideas:

  • Walk everywhere you can. Walking is the best training for the muscles used in walking.
  • Carry a heavy rucksack (eg. your shopping) occasionally. Go up stairs or a hill with it.
  • Do something regularly that gets you extremely out of breath. It doesn’t matter if it’s running, cycling, ball sports, or in the gym, this is the thing that guarantees you’ll have another gear to go into when going uphill.
  • Do whole days of exercise. That’ll train the endurance.

It’s hardly rocket science, but it does amaze me how people who do no training are absolutely smashed when they leave their desks and then attempt a long two-day backpacking route or route with serious ascent on it. Think of those runners going round the park – they’re training with a purpose, and you should be too.

What can runners learn?

I think the thing runners can learn most from hikers is perspective. A keen runner who gets an injury can usually be found face-down in a gutter having drunk themselves into a stupor, a total loss of what to do with themselves as their ITB niggles them or their Achilles aches. I’ve definitely been in that position myself – thinking that I’m not 100 % for running and therefore I might as well be paraplegic.

Being injured is nasty, but it can always be worse.

Being injured is nasty, but it can always be worse.

Most people cannot hike up mountains every evening or weekend. As a result, hikers are used to getting their fix only occasionally. They might spend ages planning trips or working out logistics, but their actual numbers of days out is likely to be a lot less than a runner’s. That means they have a lot of time to do other stuff, and this gives them a bit of perspective. An injury that stops you running is an absolute nightmare: shin splints, Achilles tendinitis, IT band problem, ‘runner’s knee’… they are all horrible. However, unless you’ve really run yourself into the ground you are likely to still be able to function at 100% for normal life tasks and many other sports. Unless you’re a professional athlete, being unable to run for a few weeks – even a couple of months – isn’t all that bad.

Hikers can’t get out at any possible opportunity, so when you are fit and able to run any time you like, see that as a privilege. That’s what a hiker would do.

 

Running can be a privilege, even in London (but maybe not in this weather).

Running is a privilege, even in London (but maybe not in this weather).

Interference

Earlier this year, my girlfriend and I were on a bus and in front of us were two young guys talking away feverishly. They discussed all sorts of important matters, including jobs, family and relationships. It was all serious stuff. One line in particular stuck with me:

“Yeah, you know, but when you’ve been with a girl for a while they aren’t likely to leave you as they’ve got Stockholm Syndrome. You get me?”

This insightful social commentary left us somewhat amused (I should make it clear at this point that my girlfriend and I sometimes talk to one another; we do not merely spend our time together listening to strangers’ conversations). Once I had established that my girlfriend did not feel like a hostage, and that she didn’t describe me to her friends as her ‘captor’, we moved on with our lives. Despite the ridiculous nature of the assertion, we didn’t feel at any point that we could ask the guys to check their facts: “Excuse me? Are you sure you know what Stockholm Syndrome is?” Generally speaking, interrupting strangers’ days to assert your superior knowledge and experience is thought of as a bad idea. So, if you see a pair setting off up Snowdon in terrible weather, armed only with shopping bags and trainers, do you say anything? When is it your right to question others?

There are generally two things that alert me to groups that might be out of their depth. One is inadequate kit, the other is inappropriate actions.

I saw this knot being used by a party top-roping in the Peak.  My partner and I decided it was crazy but not dangerous-looking enough to worth worrying about. It was hilarious though.

I saw this knot being used by a party top-roping in the Peak. My partner and I decided it was crazy but not dangerous-looking enough to worth worrying about. It was hilarious though.

Inadequate kit

Carrying less stuff generally makes for a faster day out. Therefore, packing your butties in a Tesco bag and marching off up the hill could be regarded as a fast-and-light approach. Fell runners and alpinists often carry the absolute bare minimum of equipment – sometimes less – in an effort to save weight and go faster. The average hill walker is unlikely to disparage these guys, but a group hiking up the hill with the same kit as a fell runner might be regarded with disdain, if only for copying the horrendous fashion-sense of the average Very Skinny Man. However, fell runners and alpinists sometimes get it wrong too: the greatest trail runner on the planet, Kilian Jornet, was recently rescued from the Frendo Spur on Mont Blanc when he came unstuck. The key to carrying minimum equipment is to make sure the things you have with you are the really essential things. For most days out that means map, compass, and maybe some clothes and a bit of food.

Carrying very little means you can go faster. Would you question a guy trying to run the width of the peak district armed only with an 8 litre pack?

Carrying very little means you can go faster. Would you question a guy trying to run the width of the peak district armed only with an 8 litre pack?

Experience and fitness

For me, these things are the real key. Fell runners and alpinists generally get away with carrying minimal kit because they are fit and experienced enough to move quickly and within their own limits. The hypothetical pair setting off up Snowdon in the storm might well know exactly what they are doing: they might be out for an evening training run or just a bit of a wander. However, if they’re struck with ‘summit fever’, having driven 6 hours to get to Pan y Pass, maybe their judgement won’t be so good and they could be doing something stupid. That could be the time to intervene. It’s also linked to the ‘kit’ point above: a map and compass might as well be a sombrero and an inflatable camel if you don’t know how to use them.

A duck suit is hardly high performance clothing, but I wasn’t too worried about this guy as he knew what he was doing (sort-of). On this occasion he was part of my group anyway…

To interfere or not?

Judging people purely on their kit is rarely a good way to determine competence (a friend and I once ‘rescued’ a climbing party who had been benighted on Tryfan West Face – these guys had all the gear, including a giant Camalot worn like a necklace… their problem was they had no idea what they were doing).

A much better indicator than kit is a group making good or bad decisions, as that’s what could get them into trouble fast. Ultimately, it is a very difficult decision whether to intervene with another party’s plans or not. Only once have I ever spoken to a group uninvited, but numerous times I have been asked questions like ‘how far is it to the top?’ or ‘do you think we’ll be back before dark?’ These questions give a perfect opportunity to question a group’s competence and safety, so looking approachable when passing other groups is important. I’ve also been on the wrong end of a lecture from a zealous hill-walker telling me that my equipment was insufficient for the route I was attempting. It wasn’t inadequate for me, but it might have been for him.

To stop anyone who is not furnished with perfect equipment or to interfere with anyone not fluent in the works of ‘Big’ Alfred Wainwright, is elitist and hides the hills from people who deserve to appreciate them. But, to ignore groups who are walking themselves into trouble, is to be complicit with their undoing. To interfere or not? It’s a difficult one, and I’ve no answers.