13 Trail Racing Tips for Road Runners

Flickr Commons Image by the Knocksville Track Club.
Flickr Commons Image by the Knocksville Track Club.

After a summer and fall of trail running, the road 5K I was scheduled to race last weekend didn’t seem quite right. Looking for a break for my body and mind, I found a small trail race in a neighboring town with a 5.3-mile option. Perfect!

During the race, however, there were many times I thought to myself: “Huh, this is really a totally different ball game than racing on the roads! I wish I had known….” Those short 5.3 miles taught me a lot, but how much better could I have done if I’d been forewarned of a few key things? Maybe I could have even out-kicked that young runner in front of me at the end; who knows?

I resolved to do my research for next time, and to share my findings with you. I polled my Salty sisters for their best trail-racing tips, and combined these with what I learned. So here you have it: our Salty Collection of Trail Racing Tips for Road Runners.

I knew I loved my regular rambling trail runs, so I suspected trail racing would also capture my heart. And it did! 5.3 miles of leaping from rock to rock, weaving through roots and mud, scrambling up a monster hill, and breathlessly trying to stay on the heels of the college cross-country runner in front of me led to a triumphantly exhilarating second-place finish. To this masters runner, there aren’t many better ways to spend a morning! It’s definitely something all you road racers should give a try. . . after reading these tips of course!

Pre-Race

1. You gotta train your brain to perceive the terrain. Okay, I stole that one from Salty. But it’s true. If you want to race on trails, you need to train on trails at least some of the time. If you are able to train on the course you will be racing on, even better. Get acclimated to dealing with the challenges of varied footing and terrain.

2. Invest in some good trail shoes. When I first started running on trails, I just wore my regular daily trainers. What a difference once I got myself a proper pair of trail shoes! I was able to attack the terrain with much more confidence with the added stability and traction, which served me well on race day. The more water-resistant material most trail shoes are made of is also a bonus.

3. Phone a friend. Recruit some of your more experienced trail-loving friends to join you for a training run or two. They can give you advice along the way, and you can also see and learn from how they approach more technical sections.

4. Be prepared. If you are unfamiliar with the course, arrive early on race day and check it out ahead of time. Run part of your warm-up on the course if possible. Make note of the big climbs and technical sections. Familiarize yourself with the course map and markings so you don’t get lost during the race. If your race is long enough to require refueling and rehydration, make sure you know what will be provided and be prepared to carry anything else you will need.

The Race

1. Put yourself in position. If you’re racing to place, position yourself right up front at the start. Most trail races start on a road or wide trail before narrowing to a single track, so you need run aggressively early on to get out in front and avoid bottlenecks. This can be different for those used to road racing, where controlling the start to achieve even or negative splits is customary practice.

2. Focus on effort, not target pace. Because of terrain variation, it will be difficult to dial into a consistent target pace so try to run by feel instead. Navigating uneven terrain may consume much more energy than you are expecting, so pay attention to what the race effort feels like and adjust accordingly.

Flickr Commons Image by Knocksville Track Club.
Flickr Commons Image by Knocksville Track Club.

3. Technique. Be sure to pick up your feet, and even employ a bounding-type movement with higher knees. On steep downhills, running with a wider stance, skipping, or switch-backing can be helpful.  Though it’s important to periodically look ahead, keep your focus on the trail itself because of terrain variations.

4. Use technical sections to your advantage. You will need to slow down through more technical sections, but you can use these slow-downs to recover from the harder efforts sustained on smoother parts of the trail. Speed up again when you get past the roots or sections of rough terrain.

5. Passing. Passing others is much less straightforward on single track than it is on the roads. You will need to be judicious about when, how, and how often you pass. It takes more energy than on the roads and you will likely be moving into less optimal footing while you are passing – so be speedy but careful. If necessary, it’s okay to ask people to move over or to announce that you are trying to pass them, i.e. “On your left!”

6. Hills. Consider power-hiking the steep hills. You will likely pass people who are running, and you will conserve your energy so you can be more aggressive on flatter or downhill sections. If your race is long enough to require refueling, an ideal time to do it is while quickly walking up a hill.

7. Be conscious of your environment. Don’t litter! Never drop your gel wrapper or cup from the aid station on the ground or near a course marker. Even for shorter races, if you pack it in, you pack it out.

8. Make note of small victories. Challenge yourself to achieve minor milestones during the race, instead of thinking about the race as a whole. For example, notice how many people you can pass on a hill, or how quickly you can get through a technical patch without losing control. Stay in the moment.

9. Place not pace. Finishing times are not nearly as important in trail racing – it’s all about where you place compared to others dealing with the challenges of the course on that day. So go get that person running just ahead of you!

How about you, Salty Readers? What trail racing tips can you add to our list?

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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9 comments

  1. Fuel!! Fueling is so important AND so different on trails. I consume way more fuel during a trail half marathon then I do a road half marathon. I also hydrate more. I use the same type – gels, chews, and sometimes Honey Stinger waffles. You are expending more energy on the trails then you do on the road. The uphills, combined with steps, and managing running over many roots without face planting is way harder then running straight ahead on a road. I do wear my fuel belt with my Nuun in it. My other piece of advice is to give trail running time. It took me a while to get comfortable. My first time on truly technical trails I said to myself “never again, I will stick to my roads”. But then I kept coming back and I gained more confidence.

  2. This is so helpful. I ran on fire trails during my first years running and periodically on/off over the years but really didn’t consider it “trail running” just quiet, private, tree-sheltered places to run. Hiking trails where there are lots of runners out, not even racing, is giving me new perspective and appreciation of trails. I’m scheduled to run the Catalina Eco-Marathon 10k in another week: partly road, partly steep trail…so will take into consideration your advice.

  3. I love trail running! Ads some strategic planning while running that road surface does not. I live in the northwest and often end up running in the rain or getting rained on. Clothing is a big piece to comfortable running and trail running demands a lot more of you so I dress light knowing I’ll beef up my body temp quickly. One thing I’ve learned about trail running is there are no shortcuts! Once on the trail you are committed to completion!

  4. Thanks for the tips! I’ve been running on trails since I recently moved, and trails are more convenient and believe it or not, safer, than my current road running situation. I really need to invest in some trail shoes. Do you have any favorite brands?

    1. Usually the brand of running shoe you typically wear on the road makes a trail shoe. I wear Mizuno, but I wear the Saucony Exodus trail shoe. I had the chance to try out a pair on a trail run and they really agreed with me so I purchased them.

      1. Yeah, this post gets me excited about buying a pair of trail shoes! Never tried them before but sounds like they would add some more enjoyment to trail running.

    2. I wound up getting the Brooks Cascadia, which I have been very happy with. But I did go to a local specialty running store (shout out to Charles River Running!) and tried a whole bunch before I went with these. Obviously in the store I couldn’t simulate what I would encounter on the trails, but it gave me a good idea of what was comfortable. By the way, I usually run in the Asics DS trainers but had tried a couple of Asics trail shoes and they didn’t work as well for me as the Brooks.

  5. I dabbled a couple of years ago and really liked it! To be really good at it you really need to be fearless!

    One tip I’d add is that the culture of trail running is largely quite different than road racing. Runners seem far less aggressive, so going into a trail race like you’re going to mow everyone down like a bat out of hell might not be seen as normal as it would at a road race. So just be cool and aware you might look like a raging asshole if you’re obviously out to WIN at one of the more chill trail races out there 🙂