In 2013, Tim Tollefson finished the California International Marathon in 2:18:29. It was the second-fastest race of his life, but still 30 seconds shy of the Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier he’d been chasing.
“I walked away disappointed, full of self-doubt, and depressed,” says Tollefson, an exercise physiologist and physical therapist based in Mammoth Lakes, California. “I was losing joy in a sport that is a huge part of who I am. I needed to reinvest in my passion for running and liberate myself from concern with mile splits or overall time.”
So last September, Tollefson entered the Flagline 50K in Bend, Oregon—his first trail 50K. He figured his tried-and-true marathon fueling strategy would suffice for the 31-mile endeavor. What he neglected to consider was that on a challenging trail, five miles can take twice as long to cover as it does on the roads.
The oversight cost him. At mile 24, Tollefson’s energy tanked. “As my body began failing, I found it increasingly hard to navigate any technical portions of the course,” he recalls. By mile 28, the bonk crescendoed. Tollefson caught his foot on a root and face-planted into a pile of rocks.
Tollefson went on to win the race and set the course record in 3:24—but he also discovered what so many people do when they take their running off-road: Trails make a totally different set of demands on your muscles, your mind, and your stomach. No matter how fit or fast you are, you have to prepare for the specific rigors of the trail.
Below, pros share their tips for moving a race off-road—while keeping your limbs, tendons, and ego in tact.
Pre-Run the Course
No one is born knowing how to negotiate rocks, roots, mud, ice, and gnarly climbs. That’s why you have to practice running on the same terrain you’ll face on race day, and ideally run the race course, says Ian Torrence, a Flagstaff-based ultrarunning coach with McMillan Running. If you can’t run the actual course, find a trail that mimics the elevation changes and technical terrain. No trails near you? Get creative. Run dirt hills, golf courses, office parks, or moguls. “Anyplace where you can get off the concrete and get off the even running surface will do,” he says.
Learn to Pace Without Gizmos
Measuring pace will be of limited use on the trails. You may lose your GPS signal. The number of minutes it takes you to cover each mile varies according to how technical the terrain is and whether you’re running uphill or down. Instead, listen to your body to determine how hard you’re working and to judge whether your speed is sustainable or if you need to slow down.
Train Your Gut
No matter how fast or fit you are, GI distress can derail you. If you underestimate your fueling needs or can’t take in the fuel you need to sustain your energy, you will hit the wall. Test different flavors, brands, and varieties of foods and drinks to figure out what gives you a boost without upsetting your stomach. If you’ll be out longer than you’ve been before, you may need to eat more on the road than you’re used to. That takes practice. And get used to fueling by minutes, not miles, advises Mike Smith, a 2:19 marathoner who is also a three-time winner of the 120-mile TransRockies Run stage race. Four miles on the roads can take you 40 minutes. On a gnarly trail, it might take you two hours. If you wait to fuel until you see a mile marker, you could already be running on empty.
Find a Comfy Pack
Get used to carrying more fluids and food on your person. Test out hydration vests, fuel belts, and handheld bottles before your race to figure out what feels most comfortable. “People who run on the roads are reluctant to carry things,” says Torrence, a 2:42 marathoner who has finished more than 180 ultramarathons. “Whatever weight and inconvenience it’s causing, in the end, the payoff is worth it by tenfold.”
Expect to Be Sore
Anytime you change anything, you have to give the body a chance to catch up. Transition to the trails gradually, advises Smith, who coaches women’s cross-country at Georgetown University. Trail running uses a lot of muscles in the feet, lower legs, hips, and glutes that don’t get worked on the road. Don’t be surprised if at first “you’re a little more sore in places you didn’t know could be sore,” Smith says. “Each step is different on the trails, in terms of the angles, impact, and force. The body is going to definitely feel that.”
Stop Neglecting Strength Training
To prepare for the trail, do exercises that work one leg at a time to become equally strong on both sides of the body. “With uneven terrain, those weaknesses on one side really come into play,” says Torrence. Drills where you’re barefoot on the grass, balancing on one foot, can help strengthen the tendons, ligaments, heels, toes, and arches, says Smith. Try this: Stand barefoot in the grass, balancing on one foot. Have someone toss you a medicine ball from high, low, left, and right angles. Do three sets, spending 30 seconds on each leg.
Watch Your Form
When you’re going uphill, lean slightly into the hill and drive with the legs. Pump your arms. Going downhill, take short quick steps and keep your body perpendicular to the surface. Don’t lean back, stick your feet in front of you, and brake with the legs. Stay upright and keep your feet under you, says Torrence.
Get Boy Scout Safe
Learn how to read topography maps, and study the area where you’ll be running before you go. If you’re uncomfortable training or racing on your own, buddy up. If you can get a cell signal, bring your phone. On training runs, tell someone where you’re going before you leave. Start with out-and-backs, and make note of any turns you take at intersections.
Let Go of Splits
Racing on the roads, the clock always looms. If you miss your mile splits, “you may freak out, knowing that every second counts,” says Tollefson. On the trails, where success is defined more by survival and overall place, not overall time and mile splits, “you learn to focus more on the terrain ahead and your nutritional plan.” For Tollefson, the difference has been liberating: “It allows me to do more of what I love with less stress.”