Training For Your First Trail Race

April 25, 2024

Decided to dip your toes into the world of trail racing? Your first trail race can be an exhilarating, yet intimidating, experience: new terrain and somewhat unpredictable conditions present a unique challenge! However, with the right guidance and preparation, you’ll be well-equipped to navigate the courses with confidence. So, let’s dive into everything you need to know about gearing up for your first trail race.

A woman running on a partly shaded trail.A woman running on a partly shaded trail.

Understand the Course

The beauty of road racing is a smooth, predictable, and paved course. Trail races, on the other hand, often involve technical, rugged terrain that can be unpredictable. Take time to assess the terrain you’ll be racing on: Is it hilly? Is it rocky? If you have access to it beforehand, running the course (or parts of it) is a great way to prepare before race day. Take note of any technical sections or obstacles so you know how to adapt during the race.

Consider the elevation changes along the route and the race location's altitude. If you’re racing somewhere with a higher elevation, it’s important to factor in how altitude might affect your performance.

Train on the Terrain

A training plan that incorporates lots of trail runs (or runs on similar terrain) is essential to get your body accustomed to racing conditions. By being exposed to uneven surfaces, elevation changes, and obstacles like rocks and tree roots, you’ll develop greater agility needed to navigate trails effectively.

If you don’t live nearby trails for daily runs, try incorporating at least one weekend trail run into your schedule.

Incorporate Strength Training

While racing on softer surfaces (like dirt) is easier on the joints, it can be much tougher on muscles like calves, hamstrings, and quads. These are muscles used primarily (and significantly!) on uphill and downhills. Exercises that strengthen these muscles will be your best friend: single leg calf raises, deadlifts, squats, and lunges, to name a few.

Incorporating stability exercises into your weekly strength routine can help make you a stronger trail runner. In this video blog, endurance athlete Jeff Browning has compiled some excellent stability exercises to help improve your running performance and reduce the risk of injury.

Pacing Strategy

Training for a trail race doesn’t always involve eyeing negative splits like road racing. A 26.2-mile trail race is entirely different than a 26.2-mile road race due to changes in elevation and terrain. Consider training by perceived effort and adjusting your pace accordingly to match the intensity of the terrain, rather than fixating on specific mile splits. 

Invest in the Right Gear

Trail racing often requires more gear than road racing. It’s important to train using gear that will enhance your performance, and that you will use on race day. Be sure to check the race website – some races require participants to carry certain or specific gear throughout the course.

  • Trail Running Shoes: Choose shoes with durable, grippy soles and ample support to navigate varied terrain and protect your feet from rocks and roots.
  • Trail Running Socks: The best socks for trail racing will keep your feet comfortable and blister-free. Injinji Trail socks are designed with midweight cushioning to seal out debris and eliminate blisters.
  • Waterproof Jacket/Shell: A waterproof or water-resistant outer layer is essential, given the unpredictable nature of weather conditions while trail running.
  • Hydration: A hydration pack is crucial where water sources along the course may be scarce.
  • Nutrition: Lightweight, energy-dense snacks like gels, bars, and electrolyte drinks can help you fuel your body during longer efforts on the trails. Don’t try anything new on race day! Keep it simple, and practice with fueling during your training.
  • Trekking Poles: Consider using trekking poles for added stability and assistance on steeper climbs or technical descents during training and on race day.

Need recommendations? Check out professional ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter’s must-have trail racing gear.  

With the right knowledge, training, and gear, you’re well-equipped to take on the challenge ahead. Grab a trusty pair of blister-preventing socks and get out there!