29-year-old Emma Clayton won a team gold in the Mountain Running World Championships in 2015 and took bronze in the individual event. From mountain running tips to a typical week’s training, the Leeds-based runner chats about she went from hating the fells to winning on them.
Tell us about your background growing up – were you pretty sporty at school?
Pretty much, I was always doing this and that. Just generally being active and playing out with friends or my older brother. I started running properly when I was about 12 when my dad suggested I did a little training before sports day. We went down to the local track in Scunthorpe and one of the community coaches there asked if I wanted to go down to one of the club nights. That’s how it started, really.
You did your first fell race aged 14 and hated it… yet somehow came back for more?
It was awful, I hated every minute of it. It was all my dad’s fault as he saw the race advertised and suggested it could be fun. It was cold, wet, windy, and I remember being stuck in mud up to my knees at one point. I am very grateful to my parents for making me stick at it though, as I wouldn’t be where I am today without their support.
You went on to compete in fell running, didn’t you?
I think I raced on the fells up until 2011/2012. I won the Under-23 British title a few times and loved it. The fell running community is nothing like any other sport I’ve been around. It is exactly that, a community. My dad and I would find a different race each weekend and it would be the same people there every week so it was like one big family. Although it’s still a race, the battle is more against the course, the hill, the fell, rather than against your opposition.
How did the switch to mountain running come about?
I raced at the Smarna Gora race in Slovenia a couple of times for the England development team and loved it. I was racing against all these amazing women but was actually nowhere near them in the race. After a couple more races, I’d realised the main difference between myself and the European athletes was speed. Mountain races are run on hard trails making them fast; fell races take place on wet and boggy terrain so the pace is a lot slower. My boyfriend said to me that to be the best you have to beat the best. I made the conscious decision to race less on the fells and concentrate more on the European mountain scene. Not long after I secured by first senior GB vest for the European Mountain Running Championships.
Can you tell us what mountain running involves?
There are so many different disciplines in mountain running and I think people try to differentiate too much between different types of races. Trail running, mountain running, sky running – in my opinion it’s all the same but with slight difference in distance, height, course and teams.
The races that are part of the World Mountain Running Association criteria, which included the European and World Championships I competed in, are usually between 8-12k long and can be either uphill-only or up-and-down. They will mainly be on hard trails but can contain grassy slopes and sometimes road. Championship races will alternate between uphill-only and up-and-down each year. The uphill races were something completely different to me as there are fewer opportunities to race long, uphill-only races in the UK as we don’t have the facilities. European uphill races will often end at a hotel, restaurant or chalet and there’s a great atmosphere at the end. There will be roads or ski lifts for spectators to get to the finish, so they’re accessible for all.
What kind of physical shape does mountain running require? Is it about very strong legs as well as lungs?
Definitely, I do a lot of work to strengthen my lower body and it’s not just for the uphill running. Without doubt, the biggest strain on your body is when you’re running downhill. The impact can often leave my legs sore for days after a race with a hard downhill section.
Is there a skill and technique to mountain running?
Everyone will have their own different techniques, whether for running uphill or downhill. When running uphill, I like to take much shorter strides so that I’m maintaining a centre of balance over my legs. I keep my head down and focus on the ground about 2 metres in front of me.
Downhill is completely different, it’s often a case of just let yourself go.
You won team gold and individual bronze at the 2015 World Mountain Running Championship – was this one of your career highlights?
This was a massive goal in my life, it was my 10th GB vest and ended 5 years of competing for GB. I won individual silver at the up-and-down World Championships in Poland in 2013 and so this was a greater achievement but to compete at a home World Championships would probably only come round once in your career (unless you’re Italian). For the 2-year build up between 2013 and 2015, there was only one target [for me] and that was gold. Almost immediately I suffered a serious break in my foot and so I lost 6 months training but still managed to be the leading Brit at both the European and World champs in 2014.
The build up to the 2015 World Champs was the biggest thing I’d put my body through, both physically and mentally. The pressure I put upon myself to win meant that coming 3rd was awful, even though the Ladies’ team I was in won team gold. It probably took a few weeks to really appreciate the achievement.
I’ve spent the last couple of years away from the mountains to have a change and refocus the mind and body. It’s something we discussed with Salomon through 2015 and they’ve been incredibly supportive during my little sabbatical.
How much uphill running do you do in training?
When I’m racing on the mountains I’d probably try and hit the hills as much as possible but it’s easier said than done, especially fitting it in around work. A normal week would be:
Monday – A.M – 5 mile run. P.M – 5 mile run
Tuesday – Speed session on the track
Wednesday – 60-70 minutes, off-road if possible
Thursday – A.M – 5 mile run. P.M – tempo run – could be uphill-only, off-road, or on-road, depending on the next race
Friday – 5 mile run
Saturday – Hill session. This would either be uphill-only or up-and-down depending on the session and next race
Sunday- Long Run. Time to hit the hills
This would all make up to around 70-80 miles per week.
What kind of strength training do you do?
Away from actual running I’ll go into the gym on a Wednesday and Saturday for a strength and conditioning session along with one extra core session and one extra calf session per week.
How do you juggle training with a full-time job?
It’s hard, very hard but needs to be done. I’ll be up between 5.30-6.00am for my morning running, go to work about 7.30am, go straight to training for 6.00pm and get home around 8.30pm.
Winter is obviously worse when it’s dark, cold and wet outside but I know it needs to be done if I want to be the best.
Where are your favourite locations in the world to mountain run?
So many to choose. My favourite races are the previously mentioned Smarna Gora race and the Castle Mountain Race in Arco, Italy. I’ve always said that I’d love to do the Great Wall of China Marathon as well as race in the US. I’ve got a bucket list of races, which is never ending so I need to get on with it!
In the UK, there’s nothing I like more than a run around Coniston Old Man with my dad. It’s my favourite place in the world and even more so since my fiancé proposed at the top.
What do you typically eat before a race? And how do you fuel your training and events?
It’s a common misconception that endurance runners mustn’t eat much because of our size, especially females. Whilst there are cases of eating disorders amongst the running community, I’m very much of the mindset that I can almost eat what I want as I need the fuel and will burn off any extra calories anyway. When it comes to eating before races, I’m quite particular in what I eat. I like to ensure that I’ve had enough fuel prior to any race and have been known to wake up in the middle of the night, have some porridge and then go back to sleep before an early morning race.
I’ve got a file on my phone with what to eat for races at different times of day. I much prefer early morning races to evening races as you can get up eat and then race. Racing in the evening is tough as you’re not only trying to kill time all day but you need to be careful about when/what to eat for a longer period of time.
You’ve been injured recently. How challenging has this period been?
Unfortunately the last 18 months haven’t exactly been the best, injury-wise. In January 2016 I partially tore my Achilles which meant I was playing catch-up all throughout 2016, and then in August 2016 I was diagnosed with a stress response in my second metatarsal.
It took around 3 months to get back running and mentally it’s such a tough period to keep yourself motivated. As I was starting back running I rolled my ankle and damaged the ligaments. It seemed to be one thing after another. I’m fortunate to have a great support team around me but even once I was back running I was constantly having little niggles which prevented full training. 2017 has almost been a write-off.
Besides recovering, have you got any goals for the remainder of this year?
As mentioned I’m currently having a small break from the mountains but I’m looking forward to get back on them soon. Hopefully there are a few exciting races towards the back end of the year, but at the minute I’m trying to put together some good training together and doing a few road races here and there.
What kit can’t you live without for racing and training?
At the minute I’m a big fan of the Salomon S-Lab wings. I’ve really got on with the shoe since I put them on for the first time. The Salomon Sense 6 and Sense 6 SG are my go to race shoes, they’re great – lightweight, great grip and really give me confidence when climbing and descending.
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
As part of the Salomon team we’re not only fortunate to have the support of the biggest and best trail running brand in the world but I’m also sponsored by High5 Nutrition and Suunto watches.