Tips from John Lenihan, Ireland’s former World Champion Mountain Runner

This short piece from John Lenihan appeared in the 2010 Irish Runner annual. Definitely worth a read… brings back so many happy memories of running around Irish mountains.

John Lenihan started running in the early 1980s. Living on a hillside farm made him a natural climber and descender and lover of nature. In 1991 he won the World Trophy in Zermatt Switzerland, an accomplishment which he regards as the pinnacle of his many achievements which include twice national half-marathon champion (63:15), 10 miles in 47:19, and 13:55 for 5,000m. Here he distils his 25 years on the hills into some valuable tips for you.

John Lenihan at the Warrior's Run, Co. Sligo.

It’s the real deal, it’s what our ancestors did to survive, there is nothing greater than the feeling of freedom of a human being striding gracefully along forest trails across rippling rivers and with lungs heaving and a sweat glistening on your body as you climb higher and higher until finally you stand on the summit and survey the landscape far below, you may not have won the race but mentally and physically you’ve pushed your body to its limits and you’ve conquered the mountain and that’s a victory in itself.

For someone who wants fulfilment and adventure it’s the total workout, with ascents and descents mixed with flat fast running. Every muscle in the body gets tested, for those with the love of a good mental challenge this is your calling as from start to finish your brain works overtime from working out where your next foot strike will land to how to get the best line across the landscape ahead.

Mountain running takes you to some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the World, and in doing so introduces you to some truly amazing people. I’ve raced track, road and cross country but nowhere will you find the warmth and comradeship as experienced with fellow mountain runners, it’s as if we are all part of the one team and the mountain is our opponent.

John on Carrauntohil, Ireland's highest mountain.

If you want to be a winning mountain runner you need to be flexible, agile and have quick reflexes but above all a passion and a pride that will never allow you to succumb to your pain while an opponent stands between you and the finish line. I trained hard on the road, track and country but rarely trained hard on the mountains, to me the mountain run was sacred, a place where I moved as lightly and as silently as possible, it was here that I trained myself to breathe efficiently, to work on my posture and to focus on the summit, all this kept me mentally fresh for race day and when that gun went I felt as if I was transformed into some creature who was part of that rugged landscape, I felt at home and I felt safe.

When you train on the mountains be part of the mountain and don’t regard it as your enemy, don’t fight those climbs, embrace them, train mostly within your comfort zone otherwise you lose your posture and composure, slowly and surely you will push your comfort zone to a higher level and a faster pace, remember it’s a sport, sport is something that you need to enjoy, too many people get all scientific and wrapped up in trying to change their style, trying to change their diet, wondering about which supplement to take next etc., this is a benefit to the elite few but for the majority of us it soon becomes a chore, the word sport is lost and early retirement is the end result.

John battling the mountain.

Running is a natural thing, don’t confuse it but keep it simple, be consistent in your training, set high goals but with many mini goals along the way, like climbing a ladder the top is the high goal but don’t try to jump from the bottom to the top as you may get hurt and broken and disillusioned, use the steps that’s what they are there for and you may surprise yourself as to how high you can climb, don’t say success can’t happen for you look at what happened for me when I was in national school I was told that I was too slow to catch a cold, 20 years later I was standing on the podium listening to the Irish anthem and receiving the gold medal at the World Trophy mountain race in Switzerland, for someone who was too slow to catch a cold I managed to represent Ireland in track, road, cross country and mountain running, just keep it simple, train consistently, believe in yourself, enjoy your sport and even if you don’t win a gold medal you will be a better person with a better quality of life.

Go not where the path may lead, but go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail that others may follow.

All photos courtesy of

3 thoughts on “Tips from John Lenihan, Ireland’s former World Champion Mountain Runner

  1. Thank you for reprinting this — I really appreciated what he wrote about “be part of the mountain and don’t regard it as your enemy, don’t fight those climbs, embrace them …” Great photos too!
    I am so impressed with John’s running. (If only he would learn to punctuate :-). He runs on and on, but do his sentences have to, too?)

    1. Hi Sarah, yeah inspirational stuff, isn’t it! When I read it, it reminded me so much of how incredibly wild the mountains at home in Ireland are and how amazing the mountain runners are , John being one of many great figures. If you ever have a chance to get to Ireland, you should definitely go to one of the IMRA races to meet the people and the mountains:

      And the photos are great aren’t they? IMRA has loads on their site thanks to people like John Shiels especially

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