Tips for Running Your First Trail Race (as a Road Runner)

While most of my athletes are road runners, many dabble in trail racing. The results have been impressive: second overall, age group awards, and top ten placements. However, even well-trained road runners experience nerves when venturing into trail races.

Your first few trail races can be intimidating when you are accustomed to road racing. Each trail race ventures into the unknown; no two events are alike. These trail racing tips will help you feel confident on the course and prepared for whatever race day brings.

Not ready to race? Try these trail running tips for road runners! And if you are preparing for a trail relay race, be sure to read these tips from Coach Debbie Runs.

How to Successfully Venture into Trail Racing (As a Road Runner) - Tips for Your First Trail Race

Know that the Distance May Vary

Road races are often carefully measured. However, the same measurement process can not be easily replicated on the trails. Your GPS watch or app may be less accurate on trails also, especially in a wooded area. 

For example, a trail marathon can be anywhere from 24 to 28 miles. 50Ks are seldom exactly 31 miles. Rely on the signs along the course, not your GPS, for knowing how far you have left to go. 

Power Hike Steep Hills

Most road runners possess a mentality of absolutely no walking when racing. We all know how difficult it is to start running again once you walk in a race!

Trail racing is not road racing. In trail racing, walking is a strategic tool. Some hills are so steep that running becomes inefficient; you waste precious energy while moving slowly. Changing your gait to a fast, powerful hike is more efficient and conserves energy. 

How do you know when to transition to a power hike? There is no strict rule of thumb, since climbing strength and skill varies. Use your effort and gait as a guide; when you start to feel inefficient, embrace the power hike. 

Wear Trail Shoes

For road racing, you may typically choose your lightest, most responsive pair of shoes – but that is not the case for trail racing. Trail shoes may be heavier, but your road racers are not ideal for trail races. The foam of road shoes is too soft for soft ground. Carbon plated road shoes are definitely a bad idea on trails!

 You want firm soles to maximize your energy return from the ground. Most trail shoes provide more lateral stability than road shoes, which is necessary for the extra lateral movements on the trails. 

Terrain Will Affect Pace, Even on the Same Course

Trail races have more variables, making it difficult to compare race to race – and even the same course across different years. A muddy course will be slower than the same course on a dry day. Fallen leaves or branches are slower to navigate. Part of trail racing is racing the course and conditions, not the clock. 

Bring Your Own Food and Fuel

Trail races are known for their abundant aid stations. However, you will want to bring your own fuel and fluids just in case – the last thing you want is dehydration on the trails. You can plan on being on the course for longer than a road race, meaning you probably want fluids on shorter distances than on the road. 

A hydration vest (here’s how to pick the best hydration vest for your needs) is one of the best pieces of gear for a trail race. You can carry your fluids and fuel without holding anything (you may need your hands available) or throwing off your balance. As for fuel, bring more than you think you may need. Course conditions may require you to be out there longer than planned, especially on longer trail races. (Not sure how to fuel? Follow these general guidelines!)

Have you ever ran a trail race? What helped you have a successful race?

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8 Responses

  1. Whelp, I had to defer both of my fall trail races to 2022. But I’ll be coming back to this post as I return to trail running. Stay tuned!

  2. I have fallen twice on a trail race and hurt myself both times. Granted I did not train properly for it at the time. I know people love trail running but not sure it’s for me! Great tips

  3. Also work on your mental toughness because trail races often involve multiple loops! My only trail half was 3 loops. I’m not a fan of loops! It was also extremely muddy, as advertise, and yes, that can significantly slow you down.

  4. I have not done many trail races (easily less than 10), but they’re fun! As a tall gal, I can power hike the steep (and sometimes slippery) uphills faster than running them, and with a fraction of effort LOL

  5. My last 4 races were all on the trail – they are the only ones that are happening right now. I love them!
    My nemesis is the downhill part. I’m still hesitant and therefore slower than most. It takes a lot of training!

  6. Trails are definitely a different animal. I’ve stayed away because of my ankle, but it looks like I’ll be venturing back out in April! Yay!

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