How To Prepare to Run Your First Trail Race
A quick guide to running in the woods
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
My first trail race was Rock Bridge Revenge, a 25K near Columbia, Missouri. I’d been logging 50 miles a week on the pavement and decided to jump in the race at the last minute in an effort to support the local running club. Fifteen miles later (despite my road shoes and unfamiliarity with the trails), I was hooked. But if you’re not quite that spontaneous, Nancy Hobbs, executive director of the American Trail Running Association (ATRA), offers the following advice on how to select your first off-road adventure.
Your First Trail Race: Start Local
Chances are, there’s a trail race happening near your home. “Consult your local city or county parks and recreation department, the US Forest Service, a specialty running store, or the internet for trails in your area,” Hobbs says. “Look for trail race calendars and select a trail race in your area.” Visit the race website, and print out the course map. In the weeks leading up to the race, walk or run the course to become familiar with the terrain (let someone know where you’re going, just in case you get lost). “You may like the course so much that you enter the race,” Hobbs says.
Your First Trail Race: Consider the Terrain
You might be a speed demon on the roads, but expect to be slower on the trails, especially if you’re route involves stark elevation changes and technical terrain. “Don’t head out for a run that is beyond your capabilities,” Hobbs says. If you struggle to run a half-marathon on the road, consider a 10K for your trail running debut.
Also, keep your eyes on the ground. Sure, one of the perks of trail running is the great views, but newbies should pay more attention to the trail than to the panoramas. “Most trail running injuries occur when a runner glances upward for a split second and immediately is on the ground with a sprained ankle, twisted knee, or bruised hand,” Hobbs says. “To enjoy the view, stop running and look around you.”
Your First Trail Race: Dress Appropriately
You don’t necessarily need to go out and buy a new pair of trail runners for your first race, but you shouldn’t wear your 5K racing flats, either. “A shoe with good support, stability, gripping potential, and comfort is essential for the trails,” Hobbs says. “A good all-purpose shoe will perform well on short sections of road as well as the trails. There are few people who live right next to a trailhead, so it is helpful to select a shoe based on where you will be doing most of your trail runs.” Head to your local running store for advice on the best shoes for your body type and your local trails.
From your ankles up, think about the weather. “Always be prepared for what the conditions are, or what they might become,” Hobbs says. “You may start in the sunshine only to experience a dramatic change in weather 90 minutes into the run.” If you don’t want to worry about this possibility, consider a shorter course for your first trail race. That way, you can just lace up your shoes and go, rather than worry about carrying a wind jacket, a hat, or gloves.
Your First Trail Race: Hydrate
Due to their remote locations, many trail races have few (if any) water stations. Make sure to hydrate for days in advance, and – depending on the distance of the race – consider carrying a water bottle or hydration pack during the event. “If you are going out for a run under 90 minutes, a single water bottle may be all you need,” Hobbs says. “However, if it is extremely warm, you may need to consider some electrolyte replacement. Anything beyond two hours and you should supplement with some nutrition as well.”