Race off the beaten track
Strict guidelines for hill running in Scotland are being introduced to prevent young children taking part in races that are unsuitable for them while their bodies are still developing.
There is a junior hill running league in Scotland, with girls and boys running in age groups of under-14 upwards, but the Scottish Athletics Hill Running Commission is keen to attract more children to the sport.
It acknowledges that if the sport is to flourish, there must be more races for children. Event organisers are rightfully cautious over the distances and terrains they expose young athletes to, so the commission hopes the new guidelines will give reassurance.
Rules set out by UK Athletics, which governs the sport in Britain, are already in place for the protection of young athletes. The minimum age for competition is 6 and the maximum race distances range from 1km (under-8s) to 10km (under-18s).
Compared to track, road and cross-country running, hill running does not offer children as many race opportunities, but the commission is trying to redress the balance. The new guidelines this week encourage race organisers to put on junior races in tandem with senior events.
They emphasise that, while ascent and descent are an integral part of hill running, junior courses should not place excessive physical demands on participants. The total amount of ascent and descent for courses should be 5-7.5 per cent of the length, so a 2km course should have 100m-150m of ascent. The ascent should be spread throughout the race, rather than one steep hill.
The guidelines recommend that courses follow paths and avoid rugged terrain with boulder fields and crags. Courses should be clearly marked, with marshals in place where the route turns or diverges, and every starter should be accounted for at the finish.
Junior courses will not involve athletes spending long periods on exposed hills but the guidelines warn that full body cover may be required in inclement weather, as juniors can be more vulnerable to hypothermia and other conditions than senior athletes.
The commission acknowledges that it may not be feasible for race organisers to have courses for all age groups (under-10, under-12, under-14, under-16 and under-18), so the guidelines recommend distances and ascents for combined age group races. Under-12 boys' and girls' races should be no farther than 2km, with an ascent of 100m; under-14 boys' and girls' no more than 4km with an ascent of 200m; under-16 girls' 5km with an ascent of 250m; under-16 boys' and under-18 girls' 6km with an ascent of 350m; and under-18 boys' 8km with an ascent of 500m.
Dave Armitage, the convener of the commission, hopes the guidelines will help to put more hill running opportunities on the calendar, especially for children who had not considered it before.
"As a father of two teenagers who enjoy running, I am strongly committed to giving young athletes a good introduction to the sport that will encourage them to continue," he says.
"My daughters both started running at an early age through primary schools cross-country races and they have both taken to hill running and really enjoy it."
His daughters, Hilary, 17, and Rachel, 14, who are pupils at Alford Academy, race in junior events regularly. Hilary is currently second in the Scottish junior hill running league rankings at under-19 level after races at Ben Lomond and Scolty, near Banchory in Fife, and Rachel is top of the under-14 league.
"Young people are generally well adapted to running in the hills, in terms of their weight to strength ratio," says Mr Armitage.
"It's not a case of getting children to run up Ben Nevis or anything like that. Courses are carefully graded. We're not seeking to exhaust them or to risk exposure on the hills, and we take care that they are not out for too long."
Mr Armitage thinks children should try the different types of running - track, road, cross-country and hill running - and not specialise in one discipline too early. "It should not be a case of concentrating on one area, as they can all help an athlete develop," he says. "Hill running, for example, will help the endurance of a track athlete.
"I'm not advocating high mileage for a youngster but it's good to try different terrains."
Scottish Athletics' national endurance coach, Mike Johnston, and national development manager, Jamie McDonald, back the guidelines and spokesman Chris Broadbent says: "This offers a good opportunity for youngsters to try a different sort of athletics."
The commission hopes to build closer links with athletics clubs and eventually add a schools' hill running championships event to the athletics calendar, along with the schools' cross-country and track and field championships.
"It's not something we're actively considering yet," cautions Mr Armitage.
"For now, progress is just one or two steps at a time."