Fell Running Guide: What Is Fell Running? 

Running is a diverse sport, with all sorts of different niches and ways to participate. Some people only run on the treadmill at the gym or in their basement. Others love charity races and frequently participate in community 5ks

Then, there are the endurance runners who train for half marathons or marathons, or even ultramarathons and multi-day stage races

In terms of terrain, there are track races, road races, trail races, Parkruns, and cross country courses. And, depending on where you live in the world, there may also be fell running.

Fell running is a foreign concept for many runners outside of the UK, but for those who’ve enjoyed fell running or fell racing event a time or two, it can be almost a way of life, an endlessly engaging challenge and adventure.

In this guide, we will introduce the basics of fell running, answering questions such as what is fell running, what is the fell running association, and how to get started.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Fell Running?
  • How Is Fell Running Different Than Other Forms of Off-Road Running?
  • What Is the Fell Runners Association?
  • Is Fell Running Hard?
  • How to Start
  • Fell Running Gear
  • How to Become a Good Fell Runner

Let’s dive in! 

A person fell running.

What Is Fell Running?

Fell running is a type of off-road running that originated in Great Britain. As the word “fell” denotes a hill or mountain, fell running involves hill or mountain running. 

The sport is said to have emerged in the Lake District or other similar areas in the hills of England back in the 1800s. 

During this time, shepherds and farmers who were working the land were habitually climbing and descending the wet, steep, rough hillsides all day, forging their own paths and building a tremendous amount of fitness and strength while working their jobs and land.

Summer games were developed where shepherds could contest their ability to navigate the fells quickly and with limited visibility and direction.

These games were the genesis for fell running as a sport and for future official fell racing events, which are now open to anyone.

Because fell running events have a very relaxed atmosphere, the sport draws runners of all ages and abilities, and there’s a big social component and lots of support for everyone regardless of experience level, body size, age, or sex.

A person fell running on rugged terrain.

Although this sport is native to England and certainly most prominent in the English hills, similar events are enjoyed in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, though these countries typically refer to it as “hill running.”

The challenge isn’t confined to the difficult topography and elevation gains of running the hills and mountains of Britain; fell running is a highly technical, all-terrain sport that often involves running routes that traverse boulders, fields, rocky slides, moorland, heather, tussocks, bogs, and very steep climbs and descents.

The challenge doesn’t end there. Most courses and races involve significant portions of unmarked courses

You will have to navigate the course on your own using the old-fashioned navigation aids: a map and compass and your own instinct. No GPS allowed.

A person fell running on rugged terrain.

How Is Fell Running Different Than Other Forms of Off-Road Running? 

Like other forms of off-road running, such as trail running, cross country running, and mountain running, fell running involves little to no running on the roads. 

However, it is different than trail running, cross country running, and mountain running in subtle ways that distinguishes it as a unique sport within the larger sport of running in the following ways:

Fell Running vs. Trail Running

Fell running and trail running both take place on trails and paths, but fell running is different from trail running primarily in that it involves much more uphill climbing or elevation gain over the course of the event.

In addition to the difference in gradient when comparing fell running vs. trail running, trail running also takes place on marked trails and well-worn, cut paths or trails—hence the name “trail running”—while fell running is on unmarked land that you have to navigate on your own with a map, compass, and own personal familiarity with the hillsides.

A silhouette of a person climbing a rugged mountain.

Another difference between these two types of running is the popularity of the sports and global participation. 

Fell running is rather confined to Britain whereas trail running is an internationally-popular sport.

One final difference seen is in the atmosphere and “prestige”’of the sport. Fell running has a very relaxed atmosphere and is considered an amateur sport. 

Fell runners are usually in it for the experience, adventure, camaraderie, and personal challenge, not for the prizes or to hit PRs.

These events have super inexpensive entry fees and prizes are minimal—think a mug, gift certificate, or bottle of wine or beer.

Trail running races are usually more competitive and results-driven, and will feel more formal.

A person fell running on rugged terrain.

Fell Running vs. Cross Country Running

Both of these types of running share the fact that you’re likely to get muddy or dirty while racing, and will be running on varied terrain. 

However, fell running is different from cross country running because cross country courses are usually much less hilly, or have fewer climbs, and the courses are well marked and controlled.

As a result, you’re much less likely to get lost when doing a cross country running race.

Fell Running vs. Mountain Running

One of the primary differences between these two types of running, is that mountain running usually permits faster running.

The reason for this is that while both types of running often involve running between two checkpoints, with fell running, the path between the two checkpoints is often unclear and must be figured out or forged by the fell runner, whereas with mountain running, there’s usually a clear trail or path to follow.

A person fell running on rugged terrain.

What Is the Fell Runners Association?

The Fell Runners Association, referred to as the FRA, is the governing body for fell racing in England and the Isle of Man. 

FRA-sanctioned races must abide by the FRA rules and the Race Organizers (ROs) are required to adhere to certain guidelines designed by the FRA to ensure the safety of fell runners and fair competition.

Formed in 1970, the Fell Runners Association now has over 7,000 individual members enjoying the sport in England.

The Fell Runners Association also organizes the annual English Championships, a prestigious race that consists of six individual races (two short, two medium, and two long races), four of which count towards determining medal winners in the various gender, age, and team categories. 

There are also FRA fell running championships for junior fell runners, and an annual awards dinner.

A person fell running on rugged terrain running uphill.

Members of the FRA receive perks such as the exclusive tri-annual Fell Runners Association magazine, which is a colorful publication packed with race results, news, feature articles, and upcoming social events, races, and changes in fell running rules. 

Members of the Fell Runners Association are also granted access to a members-only Fell Running Handbook with all the bylaws, rules, and best advice for runners. 

There’s also a comprehensive event calendar with over 600 detailed listings of races and events in England, Wales, Scotland; and Northern Ireland.

Finally, unique to fell running within the greater sport of running at large, the FRA devotes a significant amount of time, energy, and resources towards promoting environmental sustainability of fell running and protecting the land.

In this mission, the Fell Runners Association does not actively seek to explode the sport, as the more fell runners there are trampling through the natural land, the more environmental damage will be done.

The FRA works with agencies and landowners to ensure these events do not cause irreparable damage to the lovely hills of Britain.

A person fell running on rugged terrain, running uphill.

Is Fell Running Hard?

Fell running, like any type of running, is as hard as you make it.

If you’re just fell running alone, meaning you’re enjoying a run on the fells, your run is exactly what you make it out to be.

On the other hand, races are actually classified according to distance and elevation gain runners climb over the course. 

In terms of distances, there are short fell races(under 6 miles), medium fell races (6-12 miles) and long fell races (12 miles or more), and some are 24 hours.

A person fell running on rugged terrain.

How to Start Fell Running

The best way to get started is to look for local events or support for fell runners in your area through the Fell Runners Association.

Fell Running Gear

You’ll also need specific gear to ensure your safety. If you do an FRA event, the permitted fell running kit will be specifically stipulated in the race information.

With that said, the following are some of the most important pieces of gear for beginners:

  • A hat or visor
  • Maps of the area
  • Compass
  • Whistle
  • Bug spray
A person fell running on rugged terrain.

How to Become a Good Fell Runner

The ability to run a fast 5k or marathon on the roads doesn’t necessarily translate to being a good fell runner.

Someone who spends their days on their feet, particularly if you navigate the hills or mountains in all weather will probably outperform a speedy road racer when it comes to fell running races.

You also need strong navigation skills, meaning that you’re very comfortable using a map and compass, paired with good directional instinct or familiarity with the hills in your area.

Fell runners need to be able to find the best path between two checkpoints on their own.

It requires steep, rough climbs and very technical descents, so a good fell runner is a good hill runner with strong legs, stable ankles, agility, and quick reflexes.

Depending on the event, you’ll also need good endurance and a “can-do” attitude. 

Sound like something you would like to do? How about we start out with some hill sprints?

A person fell running on rugged terrain, running uphill.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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