Your First Trail Race: Top 5 Tips for Any Distance

Registered for your first trail race and looking at how to get started? Here are 2019 Ambassador Josephine Anselin’s best tips for success.


Written by 2019 DBR Ambassador Josepine Anselin.

So you’ve decided you want to give trail running a go. You’ve picked a race and signed up – congrats! Now it’s time to prepare for race day. Here are a few tips to help you get started on your off-road journey. 

Trail Prep Tip #1: Alternate road & trail runs

When you run on the road, it’s pretty linear: you may have to dodge a dog or a cyclist every now and then, but generally speaking you’re just moving forward. When you’re trail running, however, you have to jump over roots, run on lose rocks, go up and down steep hills or maybe even run on the snow. Insider’s secret: The only way to get better at running on this type of uneven terrain is by training on it. 

When you prepare for your first trail race, make sure to include off-road runs into your training. However, if you’re new to trail running don’t go straight into doing all of your runs off-road.

Ramp it up progressively to give your body time to adapt to the demands of the trail. Start by doing one or two runs a week on relatively even trails, for example, groomed forest trails or off-road footpaths. As you get more comfortable off-road, you can progress to more rugged and steeper terrain while increasing the frequency of your trail runs.

Trail Prep Tip #2: Keep up the speed work

Trail running is not all about pace split times, but that doesn’t mean that you should completely leave out speed work from your training. Speed sessions will help you improve your running technique, feel stronger uphills and maintain a good running form when you’re getting tired towards the end of the race.

Consider adding one to two speed workouts a week into your training schedule. These can consist of 15 to 30 seconds strides at the end of an easy run, a hill rep session or intervals. Here are a few examples of hill repeats and interval sessions:

  • 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1 min intervals on the flat with equal recovery in between
  • 4-6 times 5 min repeats on the flat with 1 min recovery in between
  • 6, 4, 2, 1 min up hill with half time recovery down hill
  • 5 times 3 min up hill with 1 min recovery down hill

Trail Prep Tip #3: Complement your miles with strength workouts

When you’re running on the road, the movement is very linear and regular so you’re mainly using your quads, glutes and hamstrings. When you’re trail running, however, there are changes in directions and the terrain can be uneven. Keeping this in mind, it’s important to incorporate some strength workouts into your weekly training routine to help strengthen your lateral muscles and work on your balance. 

Aim for one to two 30-40minute strength sessions a week. These can include squats, side lunges, planks, single leg exercises, Russian deadlifts – anything that will strengthen your core and lateral muscles. You can also add balance exercises like for example single leg squats on a wobble cushion. 

Trail Prep Tip #4: Get the right gear

Compared to other sports, trail running doesn’t require a lot of equipment. However, there are a few pieces of gear that are worth investing in:

A pair of trail running shoes

Your regular road running shoes will be fine for groomed trails, but trail-specific running shoes will give you more traction and support on rugged terrain. Here is a good video with tips to help you decide which trail running shoes to go for:  

A hydration vest or pack

Carrying a vest or pack will allow you to bring water, food and gear on your longer training runs and during the race. Make sure you pick a model with enough fluid storage capacity based on your race distance.

Trick: check how many water stations there will be on the race course to decide how much water you will need to carry with you on race day. Some races also require you to carry mandatory gear so be sure to check the mandatory list before deciding which pack capacity you’ll need. 

A headlamp

When you’re heading out onto the trail it’s always a good idea to carry a headlamp just in case you end up behind schedule and have to run in the dark. 

Trail Prep Tip #5: Leave your watch at home and enjoy! 

Pace is one of the biggest differences between running a road race and a trail race. Don’t try to compare your trail times with your road times (it’ll probably just end up leaving you disappointed, especially in the early stages of your trail training).

Chances are, it may take you up to twice as long to cover the same distance on the trail in comparison to the road, which can benefit from a shift in focus and expectations.

Helpful hint: Leave your watch and your ego at home and focus on enjoying the views rather than obsessing over splits.

This was Josephine’s first article with Dirtbag Runners. Just getting into trail running and want some more info? Check out Trail Tips for the Newbie Runner.