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Everything you need to know before you run your first trail race

So you want to run your first trail race?

Kudos to you!  You’re most likely* going to love it!

*I say “most likely” because there’s always that person who gets dragged into something by a friend and then absolutely hates it.  But since you’re reading this post, I’m going to guess you’ll be a trail running enthusiast by the time you finish your first race. 😉

Trail races offer quite a different experience from road races, with their fun, laid-back atmosphere.

But what exactly do you need to know to be ready for your first trail race?  In this post, I’ll go over four of the most common questions beginners have about trail running in general.  Then I’ll walk you through seven race day-specific topics so you can feel fully prepared to run your very first trail race.

Your first trail race - everything you need to know

How do you prepare for a trail running race?

Before you even get to the race, there are a few things you should consider, especially if you’re new to trail running in general.  Following are a few common questions new trail runners ask.

Questions beginning trail runners ask…

How do I choose my first trail race?

A number of factors should go into this decision.  First of all, how long have you been running (in general, not specific to trails)?  If you haven’t been running for very long or if you’ve only done a handful of road 5Ks, you may want to look for a shorter, beginner-friendly trail race.  Many times, race directors will offer a 5K trail distance along with a longer distance, such as a half-marathon trail race.  But even if you’ve got experience with more miles on the road, a 5K (or around that) is a great way to dip your toes into the water of trail racing.

If you’re a seasoned marathoner, you might be looking at running your first Ultramarathon (which is technically any distance longer than a marathon).  A 50k is a natural progression for marathoners looking to hit the trails for longer distances. Learn more about how to prepare to train for a 50k here.

One of the cool things about trail races is that you’ll find distances from 5K to 100 miles and beyond. So you totally can find the distance that’s right for you!

And while I would never want to steer you away from experiencing a trail race in a location that’s new to you (hey, I love running in new places too!), it could be in your best interest to stay closer to home for your first trail race.  You’re more likely to be comfortable with the type of terrain that’s “local” to you and may even get a chance to train on the race course if you live close enough.

To actually find a race, do a Google search for “trail races in [state you live in]” and see what comes up. I also like using UltraSignup to look for events, as you can filter your search by month, difficulty, distance, or duration. Word of mouth (especially via social media) is another great way to find out about different trail races.

Selecting a trail race with UltraSignup

What is the average pace for trail running?

The terrain plays a major part in determining your overall pace over a given distance.  Runs on flat, double-wide park-type trails are going to be consistently closer to road pace than runs over rocky terrain with huge changes in elevation.

So, because of that, there really isn’t an “average” pace for trail running.  Also, just as with road running, it’s going to vary from runner to runner.

But you should be aware that your pace on the trails will almost always be slower than your road pace.  Depending on how steep and technical the terrain is, your average trail pace could be anywhere from 1-6 minutes slower per mile than your average pace on the road (with the most common pace increase being around 2-3 min/mi).

Is trail running harder than road running?

This is certainly a somewhat subjective question, but I’m going to go ahead and say, “Yes!  In some ways.”  The varying terrain and elevation changes that often accompany trail running work different muscles than straight-up road running.

If you’re just starting out, you’ll probably notice that your ankles are more sore than usual.  And you might feel additional soreness in some of your muscles for your first few runs on the trail (a strong core can help with this).

What kind of gear do I need for trail running?

If you’re new to trail running and plan on running for less than an hour at a time, you won’t need much more than you do for road running.  A comfortable pair of trail shoes (visit your local running store for guidance on what shoe is best for YOU), a way to hold your phone (in case you trip and fall), and something to carry water in will get you started. Ok, maybe a hat or sunglasses as well, if you’re used to wearing either of those on the road.

As you progress to longer runs on the trail and, depending on elevation and terrain, you might start looking into things like:

Want to learn about some of the benefits of trail running? Check out 10 Fantastic Benefits of Trail Running.

How do I run my first trail race?

Now that we’ve touched on a few basics that go along with trail running in general, let’s talk about your first trail race.  Below are a few things for you to think about.

Trail racing etiquette

Just as in life, etiquette on the trails promotes kindness, consideration, and respect for others (and for our God-created environment).  Here are some widely-accepted guidelines for trail racing:

Leave no trace

Leave no trace” refers to a framework of practices that minimize impact to the environment for anyone visiting the outdoors.  It encompasses seven principles, but I’m only going to touch on the one that’s most applicable to trail racing: 

Dispose of waste properly. If you’re accustomed to throwing your empty water cup on the ground as you leave the aid station in a road race, you may be in for a surprise during a trail race. Many race directors don’t even supply disposable cups but, instead, use the more environmentally responsible cupless method. You’ll probably be asked to carry your own hydration reservoir (whether a handheld, vest, or other type) that you can refill at the aid stations. Even without cups though, you’ll still have other trash. Please don’t leave it on the course.

How to pass other runners

Many trail races are run on narrow single-track trail.  This makes it a little harder to spread out, especially at the beginning of a race.

If you find yourself behind someone (or a group of people) that’s going slower than is comfortable for you, kindly call out, “On your left!”  They should step to the side, allowing you to pass.  If it’s possible, look for spots where the trail widens so you have a little more room to go around.

In the same vein, someone else may need to pass you.  Stay alert and keep your ears open so you can hear if someone is asking to get by.

Some runners won’t ask, they’ll just trail closely on your behind until you finally step to the side.  This can be a little annoying, so try not to be that person. 😉  When this happens, just look back real quick and ask them if they’d like to pass.  Many a time, they’ll want to continue to follow because you’ve set a pace that feels comfortable to them.

How to pass other runners during a trail race

One more note on passing.  If you’re traveling uphill and you get stuck behind a line of runners who are power hiking, think reaaalllly hard before you try to pass.  Unless you’re trying to win the race and, especially if you’ve still got a long way to go before finishing, you’ll likely be wasting good energy passing these people.  If they’re still moving too slow for you when you make it to the flat or downhill sections, then you can ask to go around.  But, chances are, they’re going to pick up the pace when they get to the top.

Be kind and helpful to others

One of the great things about trail races is that the runners are often so encouraging to one another.  To me, this is a refreshing change from road races where most people are in their own little world and so focused on themselves.

It’s not uncommon to see two or three runners stop for a competitor who’s pulled off to the side of the trail, injured or unwell.  If you see someone looking ill or hunched over, ask them if they’re okay or if they need anything before whizzing by.  Maybe they ran out of fuel and you have a snack you can spare. Or perhaps you can share a few salt tabs or a band-aid for their blister.

If you’re passing someone else or someone else is passing you, holler out a “Good job!” or something of the like.  A two-syllable utterance is not going to make or break your finishing time in a trail race!  

And don’t forget to be patient with other runners, especially when you get stuck behind a conga line of them. 😉

*A note on headphones. Some race directors allow them; some don’t. If you opt to wear them, be considerate of other runners and have one earbud out or keep the volume low enough that you can hear someone coming up behind you.

What you need to know about running your first trail race

Pay attention to course markings

You might assume you would never get lost during a race but I can assure you, from personal experience, that it IS possible to do so. 🤪

Good race directors will have the trail well marked and will likely let you know what kind and color of markings to look for prior to the start of the race. Even with this, it’s still possible to zone out or get so involved in conversation with another runner that you miss the markings and make a wrong turn. So do your best to stay alert and pay attention. There’s really no need for veering off the marked course during a trail race. If you find yourself bushwhacking through the woods, or something just seems off, stop and try to look and listen for other runners. You should be able to catch a mistake like this before you’ve gone too far off course.

Aid stations

Oh, the aid stations.  These ain’t ya momma’s aid stations.  While things may have changed a bit since COVID (think: more packaged snacks and less buffet-style hot food), trail race aid stations generally have more to offer than your typical road race aid station fare.  You most likely won’t notice much of a difference if a trail race only offers a 5K distance but, for longer trail races, expect to see things like crackers, chips, pretzels, gummy bears, and more in addition to the usual water, electrolyte fluid, and gels.  If you’re running your first ultramarathon, you might even be surprised to see things like watermelon, pickle juice, warm potatoes, or soup/broth.

Trail Race aid stations have so many options

Course distance is usually approximate

If you enter a 10K trail race, know that “10K” is an ISH distance.  As in “10Kish.”  It could be 5.95 miles, it could be 6.4 miles, or anything around 6.2.  The same goes for any distance on the trail.

This is partly due to the fact that your GPS tracking device isn’t going to be completely accurate because of winding trails and tree cover. So while your watch may tell you you ran 12.3 miles, you very well could have run 13.1.  And, because race directors are working with preexisting trails, it’s harder to create an exact point-to-point or loop distance.  

How to tackle hills

Power hiking is a widely accepted skill in the trail running community for making it uphill (this applies to both racing and training). This allows you to maintain a steady pace while conserving energy. Power hiking isn’t so much walking as it is hiking with purpose.

This article from I Run Far gives an in-depth look at when and how to power hike.

How to tackle the hills on your first trail race

If you’re running a shorter race or if the “hills” are short and not very steep, you may prefer to run. That’s fine.

Some runners also utilize a combination of power hiking and running when traveling uphill.

The bottom line is don’t be ashamed to hike during a trail race. You will certainly not be the only runner doing it and it’s much more efficient than running uphill in many cases.

Are you ready to run your first trail race?

A trail race can be a little intimidating if you haven’t spent a lot of time on trails, but these smaller races are full of fun and community. With a little advanced planning and training, you can be ready to run your very first trail race.

Still have questions about trail running or racing? Share them in the comments below.

Running your first trail race - everything you need to know

Disclaimer: You should understand that when participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in exercise or training I recommend, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself, and agree to release and discharge Running With Roots from any and all claims or causes of action, known or unknown, arising out of Running With Roots. Please speak with a medical professional before making any changes to your diet or exercise. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. The views expressed are based on my own experiences, and should not be taken as medical, nutrition or training advice.

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