Britain’s top mountain runner spoke to AW about her training and exploits

Mountain running is something that Emma Clayton has almost been brought up to do. She first competed in a fell race as a youngster and as she says: “I absolutely loved the experience!”

Competing initially in the English and British Fell Running Championships races, mountain running was a natural progression.

Clayton adds: “I went to the World Mountain Running Trophy, as it was known then, when I was a junior in 2006, but it took me until 2011 to make the team as a senior. Racing in the mountains of Europe, you are fortunate to go to some unbelievable places and with every course being so different there’s an element of unpredictability in each race.”

Last year the Bingley athlete reduced her 3000m and 10km PBs substantially but points out: “It’s hard to fit road and track races around the mountain season. I can’t really chase the times my training shows I’d be capable of. The time might come when I might decide to have a break from the mountains for a year or so and see what I’m capable of on the track, but that won’t be until at least after the 2015 world championships in Wales.”

“With every course being so different there’s an element of unpredictability in each race”

The 25-year-old says of her training: “During the winter, I wouldn’t say I’m any different to any other athlete. My weekly sessions will be split between track, hills and grass in addition to tempo and long runs. The main focus of the winter is obviously cross country and so it wouldn’t make sense to be doing specialised mountain sessions.

“During the spring and summer season is when my training would change slightly – when most of my group will be doing three track sessions a week, I’d be doing hills on a Saturday, which would alternate between uphill-only sessions or up-and-down sessions depending on which major championship is scheduled next.

“The European and World Championships alternate each year between uphill-only and up-and-down. Tempo runs will change during the season as they will all be off-road and some even uphill-only.”

So are there any “special” sessions that are needed for mountain running? Clayton explains: “It’s hard to replicate the long climbs that you’ll have for the uphill-only races in Europe when you live in Leeds.

“As often as possible I’ll travel across to the Lake District for a long tempo or a session up Skiddaw. If that’s not possible we’ll drive into North Yorkshire where there’s a steep gradient road a few miles long. This allows roughly a 10-minute effort, but you need someone waiting at the top to drive you back down to the start to repeat it three or four times! I was only introduced to the hill last year by Sarah Rowell, the GB mountain team manager.”

“Cross country is a good base for any distance runner regardless of what event you specialise in”

The Andrew Henderson-coached runner thinks that mountain running and cross country complement one another. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my strongest cross-country race was coming fourth at an extremely muddy National last year in Sunderland,” she said.

“The mud and hills were ideal and there were another two mountain runners in the top 10 that day. Cross country is a good base for any distance runner regardless of what event you specialise in and the psychological boost a strong winter gave me last year going into the mountain season has helped along with the physical benefits.”

What would be the ideal terrain and distance for the runner-up at last year’s World Mountain Championships in Poland? Clayton has no doubt: “It would be as close to the cross country mud bath in Sunderland as possible – hills, snow and lots of mud!”

However, regarding the mountains, she adds: “It would have to be a fast and flowing up-and-down race. I won the Italian Grand Prix in Arco, Lake Garda, last year and it was almost a perfect course for me. It was a two-lap 9.5km race with around 500m total climb. With the start and finish area in the town, around 1.5km was through the streets with a further 6km of the climbs and descents still on paths. It was very fast, which suited me.”

The marathon may eventually be a possibility, but not for a while yet. She says: “I was planning on racing a half-marathon this year, but due to breaking a bone in my foot at the European cross-country trial in Liverpool that’s been put on hold. I’d love to compete in the Sky Running Series where all the races are at high altitude and are anything from 21km up to 80km and more and with a minimum elevation of 1300m.

“I’ve still got plenty of ambitions for cross country, road and track though.”

Since breaking her foot at Liverpool she has not walked, let alone run, and adds: “It’s probably going to be another month or so before anything changes. At the moment my short-term targets are all focused around simply getting back running and fit again. Anything that happens this season will just be a bit of a bonus.

“Hopefully, I’ll be in a position to challenge for a GB vest for cross country next winter, which I was hoping to do this season and then 2015 will all be geared around preparing for the World Mountain Running Championships. I haven’t really thought about anything beyond that point at the moment.”

(Pre-world mountain championships 2013, which included a unique downhill start followed by the climb)

Monday: (am) 35min steady run (pm) 20-30min off-road tempo
Tuesday: (pm) Track: 4x500m, 3x500m, 2x500m, 1x500m – 100m jog recovery between reps, 200m jog between sets
Wednesday: (pm) 60min off-road plus strength and conditioning: (Swiss ball leg tucks, medicine ball rotation, dead bugs, squats with medicine ball, calf raises, reverse lunge)
Thursday: (am) 35min steady run (pm) Track: 600m/200m fast as possible with 45sec recovery x 3 (8min between sets)
Friday: 45min easy or rest day
Saturday: (am) 4-5 mile up and down off-road hill session. To replicate the 2013 world champs course all sessions started at the top of the hill with all descents flat-out: (2min, 1min, 2min, 1min x 4) (pm) 35min easy
Sunday: (am) 70-80min steady off-road

» The above sessions are specific to the individual athlete and may not be suitable for other athletes