Targeting a road marathon? Head for the hills

In June last year, Welsh athlete Andrew Davies was part of a five-strong British team at the world long-distance mountain running championships in Podbrdo, Slovenia. He completed the marathon-distance course, which contained a whopping 2,800 metres of ascent and descent, in just under four hours, placing ninth. A few weeks ago, he faced another 26.2 miles – this time on a looped course through the streets of London as part of Great Britain’s World Championship team, finishing in 2hrs 17min and 59 seconds.

Davies is by no means the only top marathon runner with an impressive record on the trails. It is striking that Josh Griffiths and Robbie Simpson, the only British athletes to finish ahead of Davies at the London Marathon this year, have both competed on mountain running’s world stage. Davies, for his part, believes that getting out on the trails is “crucial” to success on the road.

Some marathoners regard off-road running as little more than the low-budget equivalent of Mo Farah’s underwater treadmill. Running on softer ground reduces the impact to the legs and back that comes with pounding the pavements. It allows athletes to add mileage while minimising the risk of injury. Its role in a long-term marathon plan is important but limited: the real work is done on the road.

Davies’ coach, Steve Vernon, agrees that running on grass or hard-packed dirt is important to the avoidance of injury. “Seventy-five percent of my athletes’ training is off-road,” says Vernon, a former elite runner who now coaches the New Balance Manchester team. “I think it’s important to have a good mix to reduce the risk of injury through overuse and impact.” But while some coaches would warn athletes against heading for hillier, more technical terrain, Vernon believes that occasional outings on rougher ground can be advantageous to those looking to run a faster marathon.


“The East Africans have proven that it works,” says Vernon. “They do all their training on rolling dirt roads or forest trails that are uneven and often steep. This makes them extremely strong from the feet upwards and teaches them to be very efficient off the ground.” Hills provide an all-round body workout, he says, and they’re great for building leg strength and developing aerobic capacity.

Davies believes that competing on the mountains in Europe has been particularly valuable to him. “Doing these races strengthens your quads and glutes, and this is very important during the latter stages of a marathon.” With experience in the mountains comes improved foot placement, he says, and an ability to deal with unfavourable conditions. The mountain race brings considerable challenges – the trails can be technical, the weather unpredictable. No wonder, when Davies returns to the roads, he is unfazed by the prospect of cobblestones or rain.

The strength acquired on the trails is not just physical but psychological. “In Europe,” says Davies, “you can be running up hill for an hour and a half at a time.” This doesn’t only make the legs stronger but the mind as well. “I’ve been in some tough places on the mountains,” he says. “You just want to stop. You can’t carry on. But this really isn’t an option: you have to get back to the finish area.” In the mountains, there is little choice but to keep calm and carry on.

Hour-long ascents on brutal terrain would seem like torture to many, but for Davis, it’s a welcome break from the roads. “I’m a mountain man at heart,” he says. I love the thought of going up into the hills. To get out in the fresh air and appreciate the views once I get to the top – this is really important to me.” A summer on the trails provides a welcome break from the drudgery of marathon training, and it leaves him refreshed when it’s time to refocus on the roads.

This is something his coach understands. “I have a mantra – ‘a happy runner is a fast runner,’” says Vernon. He urges all athletes to “go out in some inspiring scenery. Enjoy your running and don’t become bored by the same old routes.” The mental break that trail running provides leaves runners better prepared for hill and tempo sessions, marathon pace work and fartleks, all of which demand more familiar, good-quality (read: dull) terrain.

Davies, who at 37 was also the oldest male athlete on the British world championship team, hopes to continue competing on the road for years to come – but the mountains continue to call. “There are some iconic races on my bucket list: I’d like to do the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and Transvulcania. Maybe the Marathon des Sables, too.”

Clearly, these two ambitions are not mutually exclusive. Davies wore his first international vest at a mountain race in Germany, aged 14. Twenty-three years later, he’s still reaping the rewards of a passion for the hills – on the roads as well as the trails.