Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Ten Tips for Preparing for Your First Trail Race (Part 1)

I love trail running. For me it is the ultimate running experience. Runners tend to be proselytizers in general, but trail runners tend to be an even more zealous lot. Almost all trail runners I know are absolutely passionate about it and love to spread the joy.

Trail running is definitely on the rise, with many new runners "crossing over to the dark side," as we sometimes call it, and giving trail running a try.  You may have considered it yourself and might be considering entering your first trail race. Let me give you some tips that can help make the transition to trail racing a little easier for you. (I am splitting the tips into two posts because I want to be able to explain them a little more fully.)

1. Start small:  Many runners who have completed their very first marathon or half marathon want to move on to a new challenge and decide that a trail marathon, half, or ultra will be next. Trail running is a great new challenge, but just jumping into a long distance trail race when you have little or no experience with trail running can be a mistake that will keep you from enjoying the experience fully. The same distance race on a trail is different than that distance in a road race and is generally considerably more demanding. A long distance trail race is a good long term goal; just be sure that before you jump into that longer race you do the smaller steps that will allow you to build up to that distance comfortably.

It is important to realize that while road running and trail running are both running, they are very different kinds of running. Before tackling a long distance trail race, it is a good idea to run a few trail races of shorter distances, 5k to 10 mile, to become familiar with trail running/racing in a more manageable format before going on to a longer race. Unlike a road race, if something goes wrong in a long trail race, you can't always just stop and get a ride back to the finish. If you have problems at mile 16 in a trail marathon, this might mean a 10 mile hike to the finish or a three to four hour wait at an aid station for help getting out to civilization. Become familiar with trail running generally before tackling the more challenging (and longer distance) types of trail running/racing.

2. Learn about the course: Once you have chosen a trail race (or even as part of the selection process), it is important to learn all that you can about the course. Is it hilly (most trail races are)? What types of hills? Is it primarily short steep climbs or longer gentle grades? How much downhill is on the course? Do you have to cross streams? Does it have poison oak or ivy  (a big consideration for some people, me included)? Is it likely to be muddy, rocky, or sandy? Is it single track, which tends to have more technical footing with rocks and roots, or is it primarily dirt roads?  Are there likely to be any other hazards you should be aware of (rattlesnakes or wild boars, for instance)?

Race director humor from the Dances With Dirt Green Swamp course description
Read the course description on the web site, especially if the race director gives a detailed one. The details are there for a reason -- you need to know what you are getting into so that you can prepare accordingly. You can also search the web for "race reports" for your particular race. Often bloggers will give you very good firsthand information regarding a course that can be invaluable. Even think about searching youtube. It is becoming more and more common to have video of sections of races that will let you see what the course is like.

3. Train appropriately: The good news here is that the training is not that different. With a few minor adjustments to your favorite marathon or half marathon program, you can tackle a trail race of the same distance with ease.  You do NOT need to run all your training miles on the trail, and unless a trail runner happens to be fortunate enough to have a good trail system right outside his or her door, most don't.  If you can get one or two trail runs in a week, you will do well. This is necessary so that your legs (and your mind) can adjust to running on trails. Trail running because of the unstable footing, works a lot of additional muscles in the lower leg than road running. Trail running also requires lifting your legs higher than you might be accustomed to especially if you have developed a classic "marathon shuffle."  It also requires more concentration, especially at first. 

You do not need to do all of your long runs on the trail, but you should do some. Your legs do need to feel what that same distance will be like on a trail, especially since the same distance on a trail will take considerably longer for most people (see Tip #7 in Part 2).  I try to do a long trail run every other or every third weekend.

If your chosen race involves hills, it is important that you train for them. Most people will immediately think that means uphill training, but that means downhill training as well, especially if your race has considerable downhill portions. Hills are a little different in long trail races than they are on the roads. Many trail runners walk the uphills by design (something you don't see as often in a road race), so those uphill repeats while they do build your fitness, are often not as important to your race success as how you handle the downhills. Downhills in trail races, which can really trash your quads if you are not prepared. In many 100 mile races, it is the quad failure from the downhills that ultimately causes people to drop from the races, not being tired from the uphill climbs.

If you are entering a longer trail race, like a marathon or ultra, it is also beneficial to do some walking/hiking training. As I learned last year when recovering from an injury, fast walking on a trail uses a whole different set of muscles than running. I was so sore after my first time trail walking that I could not believe it! Working in a little walking will really help you be prepared for the longer races.

4. Learn to be self-sufficient: One of the big differences between trail running and road running is that you need to learn to be much more self-sufficient. In trail races, because of logistics, aid stations are at unpredictable intervals, most often 2-3 miles apart instead of the every mile or so that people get used to in road races. Combine that with the slower paces that most people run on the trails and that could mean that you might be 30 to 40 minutes or more between aid stations Worse, sometimes you might get off course temporarily or have physical problems of one type or another and have a long delay before the next aid station (or even miss an aid station completely). Now that doesn't often happen, but on a trail run it could, and you need to be prepared so that a minor annoyance does not become a disaster.

This means that you will need to become familiar with running with some type of hydration and nutrition. This is trickier than it sounds, especially the hydration. Finding satisfactory and comfortable ways to transport fluids during a trail run is a very individual process involving trial and error (witness my bin of failed hydration carrying devices), and it is the subject of much discussion on long trail runs. You have many choices, all with their advantages and drawbacks (another post topic!), including hand-helds, waist belts, and hydration vests. Finding what is comfortable and works for you is important. A small bouncing or rubbing on a pack can be a huge blister or chafed area after a few hours on the trail.

Besides carrying hydration and nutrition, you may also want to carry other items, such as electrolyte capsules, toilet paper (and a baggie to carry it in and out in), and possibly even vaseline.

5. Be physically and mentally prepared for a longer distance or longer time on your feet than is required by your selected race: This tip is related to two of the tips above: proper training and being self-sufficient. If you run trails long enough, eventually you will make a mistake or have a misfortune and end up going longer (either time or distance) than you intended. Again, as with most things in trail running, that can be a minor annoyance or an agonizing experience, depending on how prepared you are for the unexpected. 

Recently I entered my first trail marathon in a long while. I was a little undertrained, but I thought I would be okay based on my experience. Unfortunately I got off course. I don't know how or where, but I ended up with 28.2 instead of 26.2. I realized it just after halfway in the race, but there was nothing I could do about it. Although mentally I could deal with it because of my experience with longer races, my body was not trained for it, and I ended up walking a lot in the last few miles because my calves would cramp up at anything faster than a slow jog. I also fell once because my calf just buckled on a downhill step. My legs were past the end of what they could do. 

I have also been out on what I expected to be a two hour trail run that has turned into a four hour hike because of having to hobble home on a twisted ankle. In the second instance, thankfully I had the hydration and nutrition with me to make the hobble back a little more comfortable. You can, of course, "survive" if you end up running a few extra miles in most cases, but if you want to be comfortable and enjoy the trail experience, make sure you are prepared, both physically and mentally in case you end up having one of those especially long days.

This covers the first five tips. Hopefully you have found this information helpful. Don't forget to read Part 2.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Beth,
      Yikes, I accidentally deleted your post. I am still figuring this all out. Thank you for your feedback. I have been reluctant to post on the Playmakers site because I was afraid it would be frowned on. Part of the motivation for this post was the interest shown by the Playmakers members to try the trail marathons or half marathons this summer. I want everyone to have a good experience.


I would love to hear from you!! Please feel free to comment, ask questions, leave ideas for future postings, or just say "hi."