4 Steps to Your First Trail Running Race

Saturday, June 4, 2016 | By John Hampshire
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4 Steps to Your First Trail Running Race

Runners, and endurance athletes of all types, continue to be drawn to the unique challenge of trail and mountain races. From beautiful locations and stunning terrain to the friendly environment of competitive camaraderie, these events offer something for everyone. If you are looking for your next endurance challenge, running a trail race may be it.

The winners in these races are amongst the best athletes in the world, having chosen to fulfil their dreams in a different but equally challenging environment. The events are also open to everyone who is sufficiently fit to complete the courses. Many races have a variety of options to suit a range of abilities from beginners to experienced competitors. The races are often held on marked trails with refreshments stations so there is minimal risk of getting lost. One of the most striking things about these events is the camaraderie between competitors at all levels and the enthusiasm of the crowds that come out to support. In some races, members of the crowd cheer on competitors by name searching for their numbers in the race program as the runners approach. Here are four easy steps you can take to begin your journey into trail running.

1. Find a Race

There are a number of websites you can look at that have a full calendar of events. It is a case of searching the internet and reading the race details to find something that suits you. Other ways are things like looking in trail running magazines or the websites of national bodies or clubs for event calendars. There are a few things to consider in choosing your race:

  • Are you able to get fit enough to complete the race safely. 
  • Do you have sufficient technical skills to complete the race safely if for example there are technical challenges such as rough terrain, running at night if it is a long race, and mountain navigation, if this is necessary.
  • Spend some time thinking about what you will need to do to prepare. This includes lifestyle and time sacrifices, increased fitness, goal fulfillment, and any compromise to other planned races.

It is important to note that training and racing for trail/mountain running is likely to compromise your performance in road and track races because the hilly and technical terrain means you necessarily train slower than on better surfaces. This may be something to consider and if racing road and/or track is a priority you may want to try a race in the late season after you finish your road/track races. Perhaps a good end of season event.

2. Define Your Goals

Once you have found a race or races you will need to consider what you want to achieve. Will you be aiming to win or place in the race, finish in a good position or finish the race as a personal challenge? Make this realistic by thinking about your current level of fitness, training facilities and whether you have sufficient time to build the skills and fitness necessary.

3. Plan the Details

An important step is to find out the details of your race. How much elevation gain the course has, what is the underfoot surface like, is it marked, etc. are some of the details you should look into. When you chose your race you will have found out a lot of this from the race sites. There are often videos of past races and you can email the organisers with questions (don’t worry if you don’t speak the language of the organisers. Most organisers speak English or can find someone who does and will welcome foreign competitors). Make a list of important factors, including an estimate of your current fitness and what you need to be to meet your goals. Here are some things to consider:

  • What skills do you have and what skills do you need to develop?
  • Do you have shortfalls in fitness such as being able to run uphill for what may be more than an hour?
  • Are you skilled at running on trails and rocky terrain, up hill, on the flat and downhill? Downhill running on rough ground can be tricky and dangerous so be aware of this.

4. Plan Your Training

Now you have a list of things to work on, you can start to plan your training. If you don’t have much experience training or planning for this type of event you might want to get some help from someone more experienced, like a non-judgemental friend or a coach. Whatever you decide, it is good to discuss your plans with someone to reinforce the commitment and share in the experience. Sharing your plans can significantly increase your chance of success. There are two key steps to follow.

First, choose one or two of the most important aspects of fitness from your list of details and one or two of the most important skills to develop.

Second, it is best to emphasise only one or two things at a time to make the most gains but also make sure you keep training all aspects of fitness (if you don’t use it, you will lose it). For example, you may have chosen a long race and therefore your primary fitness goal may be to build endurance so you can run for the required duration. As part of this you can include some faster paced running so you don’t end up getting generally slower in your running. Your skills target maybe to get used to running over rough ground. To train this you can make some of your running sessions on more technical terrain. It would be a good idea to include some of this in your longer runs so that you build your endurance in a specific way to meet your race goals.

Once you have done all this, look over your training plan to make sure that it is something you can achieve and that the sacrifices and training are acceptable to your life. If there is a problem, go back and rethink the plan. It is better to get things right at the outset then find something wrong later that might mean you don’t reach your potential.

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