Are you looking for advice on running your first trail race?
Whether it’s a first trail 10k or first trail marathon, in this post we share the key things to know before your first trail race. If you’re specifically training for your first trail marathon (or looking to improve on previous trail race performance) then also check out Alastair’s Ultimate Trail Marathon Training and Racing Guide, which has tons of specific and valuable real-world advice for smashing that race.
1. Choosing your first trail race
I suggest you start small. Not because doing a trail running race with a bigger attendance and profile would not be a good first option, but because smaller, more low-key races are a great way to get into trail running racing, with less pressure than the bigger events.
If you’re already a runner with some experience, then a trail half marathon may be a good first trail race, but if you’re used to running 5-10k, then stick to a low-key 10k trail race as your first one, so you can get used to trail racing before stepping up the distance as well as the terrain.
2. What to expect from the supporters
Expect friendly supporters, marshalls and race organisers. But don’t expect crowds lining the trails, a la London Marathon.
You do get big crowds on trail races, but these are normally only on those that start and finish in a town, such as those in the mountains of Europe, so don’t be surprised if there are only three people and a dog there to welcome you through the finish line of your first trail race (or perhaps more if you’re a quicker runner) – think of it as a more intimate experience and that those few people are solely focused on cheering at you!
Don’t be surprised if there are only three people and a dog there to welcome you through the finish line and be grateful they are there to cheer you through (even if they’re actually waiting for a friend)!
3. Race pace vs effort level
If you’re entering your first trail race, you are probably already running off-road and finding that ‘pace‘ is something that, for all but the best runners, can probably be forgotten, or at least be given less focus than for a road race, where you may be more used to focusing on a target min/km or min/mile goal.
One of the beautiful things about trail running is that you can focus on your effort level and the nature around you, not your watch and even splits!
As soon as you reach a hill, or some tricky terrain, the chances are that your target race pace will go out the window, so don’t stress about it and focus on running with a consistent effort level.
4. Hills, hills, hills
Learn to love the hills. I know it’s hard! I love the hills but they are always challenging, no matter how experienced a trail runner you become.
A good piece of advice I received from a fast runner was to “remember that hills are hard for everyone, they never get any easier, you just get quicker”. This is possibly disappointing news if you were hoping they would get easier, but it does put things into perspective. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and look forward to the view from the top. And remember: walking up hills is perfectly acceptable. Even the elite runners walk the steep hills.
To find out how hilly your potential first trail race is going to be, check out the elevation profile, which the race organisers often share on their website. If they don’t have this information, search on Strava or Map My Run and assuming the race has been run in a previous year, you should find a copy of the route, profile and total elevation gain/loss to study before race day. I find it really helpful knowing where the big climbs and descents are going to be.
5. Terrain type
The type of ground and environment you’re running in can have a big impact on the difficulty and speed of your first trail race. Boggy or muddy ground will slow you down, as will loose, uneven rocks, particularly on steep climbs or descents. Take it easy and focus on where you are putting your feet, you’ll end up being a lot slower if you fall over or hurt yourself so take your time and go at the speed you can do without adding too much wipeout risk (for you or others around you) to the equation.
See above re race pace vs effort level.
If you normally complete a 10k or half marathon on the flat roads in a certain time, a good rule of thumb is to expect a trail race to take around 20%-25% longer than your road time.
Add more time if it’s a really hilly or mountainous race, and reduce time if it’s off-road but not very technical or hilly. This rule has proven true on numerous occasions, for both of us when running typical UK trail 10ks, half marathons and trail marathons.
7. Eating while you are running
See above re time. If you can normally run a half marathon in around 2 hours, you may not need to take much food with you – perhaps a gel or two – when running on roads.
But remember that a trail half marathon may take a lot longer, potentially around 2h30, so make sure you are carrying enough food and drink for your race, or that you know where there will be aid stations you can take advantage of.
8. Trail race aid stations
These vary in quality and stock between races and countries. I’ve run some UK trail races where, despite the race boasting of great aid stations, I’ve arrived at an aid station only to find some water and a few jelly beans. Very disappointing! Conversely, you can find an incredible range of food at aid stations for longer races in particular, and especially in Europe, where they know how to do aid stations in style!
The best I’ve seen in the UK are Relish Running Races (Bath and Somerset local trail races) and Race to the Stones, both of which offered a variety of sweet (fruit, sweets, drinks) and savoury (cereal bars, sausage rolls, crisps) plus electrolyte drinks and water.
9. Follow the trail runners’ code of conduct
Be aware of general trail etiquette, which is deserving of its own post in its own right. In particular, don’t drop litter – it’s never cool, in fact, it’s one of the most ignorant and stupid things you can do as a runner – don’t be that twat! Not dropping litter is one way to be polite, and another way is respecting your fellow runners.
You’re not on roads, your often on small, narrow trails, with gates and slow sections. You won’t gain any friends (or time) by barging past people who are queuing up a hill or to get over a style, in fact, you may even get (some friendly) heckles by all the other trail runners, and then probably overtaken in a couple of miles time 🙂 So chill out, enjoy the rest you’re getting from the enforced pause or jog, and admire the scenery!
10. Be prepared for course inaccuracy
Trail races are rarely as long or as hilly as they say they are. And sometimes, even the start location or route is changed at the last minute! It is perfectly normal for a trail half marathon to be 25k long, or a trail marathon to be 46k, even if it’s called a 42k or 44k race. Keswick Mountain Festival 50k was, in fact, 54k, that was a surprise and killer! Inaccuracy may also mean that aid stations are not where you thought they would be, so make sure you turn up prepared with some emergency snacks and water, just in case you’re caught short.
Learn to love the inaccuracies and unknowns and consider them part of the fun, challenge and adventure of your first trail race, which will hopefully be the first of many!
Let us know if you have more advice for new trail runners in the comments section below! And if you have any questions for us, fire away by dropping us a comment. Happy trails!
For More Trail Running Advice
For the best REAL-WORLD advice on running your trail marathon, read Alastair’s Ultimate Trail Marathon Training and Racing Guide.
If you’re looking to learn more about trail running, check out the advice section of our blog for more great Trail Running advice, and visit our home page to find tons of gear reviews and trail running and adventure inspiration, including the best places in the world for trail running, popular international trail races and interviews with other trail runners, from beginners to elite record-holding mountain athletes!