Whether you’ve fallen under the spell of the technicolor fall foliage or just want to add a new challenge to your race calendar, you’ve decided that it’s finally time to sign up for your first trail race. And you’re in good company: More than eight million people enjoy running off the beaten path, according to the Outdoor Foundation. Compared to pounding the pavement (or the dreadmill), trail running is quite literally a breath of fresh air when it comes time to log those miles.
If you’ve clicked register for your first trail race (or you’re considering any of these 15 options), keep these pro tips in mind when you hit the dirt.
Trail Running: More Body, Just As Much Heart
While road running and trail running both involve your two feet, they’re more different than you’d think. “Road racing doesn’t translate well to the trail world,” says Crystal Seaver, trail runner and certified personal trainer. “People think since they’ve run all these miles on the road, they can run the same on the trail. It can be a rude awakening.”
That’s because in trail running, you’re constantly transitioning between running, power hiking and walking, thanks to the elevation and uneven surface. “I call it total-body running. Your body has to constantly react to changes in terrain and it doesn’t allow you to get into a normal stride,” says Seaver. Think shorter strides, dodging roots and rocks, pounding downhills and lateral movements.
If you’re nervous about making the transition to trail races, don’t worry. “Nobody cares about race results,” says Liza Howard, coach with Sharman Ultra and winner of the Leadville 100 in 2015 and 2010 and USATF 100K and 50-mile national trail titles in 2011. The atmosphere is more laid back than you’re typical Type A road race. “There’s a different kind of measurement of success in the trail running world. It’s less about time,” she says.
How to Train for Your First Trail Race
1. Hit the Trails
Seems obvious, right? But if you plan to train for a trail race, you want to experience running off-road beforehand. “Ideally, your training should be on similar terrain to what you’ll be racing,” says Howard. If finding local trails is challenging, try running on the grass or bridle paths of your local park.
2. Slow Down
Howard’s biggest piece of advice for new trail runners? Slow down. There’s a different mentality off-road, and your normal running pace doesn’t directly translate to your pace on the trail. It’s NBD to run slower. And you don’t need to pass every runner you see either. “On technical terrain, you might be running in a single file line and that’s OK,” says Seaver.
3. Find Your Tribe
If you’re new to trail running, you probably have a lot of questions. Howard recommends finding a local trail running group or even an online community. They can be a wealth of knowledge and support and can help you figure out the ins and outs of everything from the best nearby trails to trail running etiquette to the best gear, she says.
4. Think Safety First
Since you likely will be training on trails farther afield, safety can be an issue. It’s best to run with someone. If you can’t find a running buddy, tell someone where you’re headed and when you expect to return home, says Seaver. Howard also recommends learning wilderness first aid. “You need to be more responsible and self-sufficient, especially on more challenging and remote trails,” she says.
5. Gear Up
If you plan to abandon the pavement, you need a good trail running shoe. According to Seaver, look for a shoe with a good tread, which provides grip and extra stability especially on muddy or steep trails, and foot protection. “It’s really easy to hit a rock or root,” she says. “The guard on the front of the shoe will protect you. If you do hit something, you’re not going to break your foot.” FYI: Trail shoes tend to be more stiff and rigid and may feel different from your road shoe.
And don’t forget about water, nutrition and appropriate clothing in case the weather turns. “It’s common to see folks get into situations where they get cold or run out of water,” says Howard. “Set yourself up so those things don’t happen.”
6. Strength Train
While running is the priority (and hill running can double as strength training — score!), don’t neglect strength training. “On the road, you can get away with weaker ankles and stabilizers but they don’t hold up well over time on the trails,” says Seaver. She advocates for strength training as an important complement to trail running, helping build power, stability and overall strength. In particular, focus on weak links such as your ankles, core, hips and glutes.
But what should that workout look like exactly? Nope, she’s not talking about heavy squats. “Take a mini resistance band and do ankle strengthening work, banded squats and bridges,” she says. Whether you fit in one full session a week or 10 minutes while cooking dinner or watching TV, your body will thank you for it. Here’s one you can try now:
The Trail Runner’s Strength Workout
For this workout, you’ll need a resistance band and either a medicine ball, BOSU ball or exercise step (if you don’t have one, you can do regular push-up instead of the off-set push-up). Perform each exercise for one minute.
- Lateral Band Walks (resistance band around ankles)
- Monster Walks (resistance band around ankles)
- Lateral Step-Ups
- Resisted Squats (resistance band above knees)
- Walking Lunges
- Single-Leg Bridge (resistance band above knees)
- Off-Set Push-Ups (use a medicine ball, BOSU ball or exercise step)
- Single-Leg Sit and Stand
- Side Plank (each side)
To strengthen your ankles: Loop the mini band around your foot and secure the other around something sturdy. Then, flex and point your foot. Next, move the loop to the inside of your foot and shift your foot to the left and right, against the resistance of the band. Finally, move the loop to the outside of your foot and shift your foot to the left and right. Complete two sets of 20 for each exercise.