Get off the Proverbial Path: First Trail Race - Orange Mud, LLC

Get off the Proverbial Path: First Trail Race

Tips for Beginners

Thinking about doing your very first trail race? Many runners start their running “careers” on pavement or sidewalks (not all of course, but some). When we first start running I think we look for something close to home, someplace safe. Someplace not far away so we can get back to the comfort of our front doorstep quickly in case we’re near death from putting in those first couple of miles. After time, of course, we get more comfortable in our running and start venturing farther from home.  Some of us gravitate towards trails and fall in love with them. Whether you live in the mountains, the plains or on the coast, there are typically trails nearby.

Running trails is one thing but to do it with a BIB number is another. It can become a bit intimidating. If you prepare properly, however, you can minimize that factor. Once you decide on a race, make sure you understand what the terrain will be like. For your first race on trails you may want to think about doing something in your local community. You’ll most likely be able to find a course map and will be able to check out the terrain and even run the course prior to the race. There are a plethora of distances to choose from. Choose a distance wisely and within your current skill level. If you struggle with marathons on pavement you may not want to start your trail racing career with a hard, technical 50K. Be smart.

Trail racing is typically not done on “pancake flat” courses. Keep that in mind. Your pace may not be anywhere near the pace you run on asphalt. Go by “perceived” effort and not by what you see on your GPS. I would challenge you to forgo the watch. Every course is different and pace can change dramatically. Sometimes our pace expectations are not met. This can affect us mentally if we dwell on our GPS’ too much and could possibly dictate the outcome of our race. This is certainly up to personal preference but give it a try sometime. You may surprise yourself.

Getting ready for that first race will of course, require training. Preferably running more trails similar to what the race terrain will be like or as I stated before, running the actual course itself. To be successful racing on trails requires training on trails. Trail shoes are not required but I strongly suggest them. They’re made for the varying topography of the trails we run and typically have better “gripping” power.  Depending on the length of the race you choose, hydration could also be a factor. Whether you choose handhelds or a pack, it would be prudent to have one or the other. Longer trail races will most likely have aid stations. Unlike road marathons, however, they are typically not abundant and are spaced father apart. Some trail races are in remote areas, so please, be safe and take water with you.

During the race you’ll want to stay focused. Trails (even easier ones) can be tricky and you need to pay attention. I like to look ahead several strides and mentally determine where I’m going to go. In other words I “plan” my foot strike well in advance of getting there. For me, that’s 10-15 feet, a tad longer if I’m going downhill. This is different for everyone and distances will vary. It’s something that takes practice. I will “scan” periodically (forward and back) as well. If you are constantly looking straight down or looking close to your feet, you’ll find it difficult to determine the “lay of the land” and the probability of a misstep increases. Knowing where your feet are going to land will help minimize the chance of falling.

Going uphill I typically use my arms a bit more.  Pumping them will help you get up those hills more efficiently. On the downhills keeping your arms out from your body (elbows slightly up) will help with balance. Once again, we are all different and how far we hold our arms out and how hard we pump can vary. Practice will help you determine what works best for you. I also like to keep my stride short on the trails. It’s more efficient and will help keep your foot strike under you (or even a little behind). This helps tremendously with efficiency and shock absorption.

For the first race I suggest not to take it too hard, at least in the early stages. Getting a feel for the trails is very important this first time out. Having fun is really what it’s all about. Just do that, have fun! I like to say “run happy”. Smile big and often when you’re tackling your first trail race and I guarantee you’ll have a wonderful experience. The camaraderie I see is truly unparalleled. Some of the best people I have met have been at a race. It’s a fun way to get out and enjoy all that Mother Nature has to offer and to give yourself new challenges. It’ll leave you yearning for more. So what you waitin for? Get out there and do it!!


Big thanks to our guest writer Ed Thomas for this article. 

Ed Thomas Ultra Runner