Remember that when you’re out on the trails, it’s important to pace yourself.
Succeeding at trail running is all about paying attention — to yourself, your abilities, the conditions and wisdom of those who have traveled the trails before you.
Although the popularity of trail running is surging, most races are still small and low-key compared to road events, making it more difficult to find essential details about what to expect your first time toeing the line. Learning from veterans of the sport is something I’ve come to rely on for successful race training and execution.
Read on for five of the most important tips I’ve picked up, so far, in my time on the trails.
Practice What You Race
For training, research the race course and simulate as much as you can the terrain, weather and footing. If you’re running a mountainous trail race, get comfortable with serious vertical and throw in as many hills as you can handle during training. For a flatter, faster race work on leg speed by doing some tempo runs and intervals. But remember, as much as you need to work on your weaknesses in training, don’t neglect your strengths.
Nutrition Is Key
Nutrition comes into play much sooner in a trail race than it does during a road race. If you are a 1:45 road half-marathoner, prepare to spend 2-4 hours covering the same distance on the dirt. As part of preparing to be out longer, focus on nutrition according to time rather than distance. Calories, electrolytes, and water will become important in races over about 1:30 but the amounts of each will be as individual as the runners you’re competing against. (Generally, you can start with 200-300 cal/hour, 200-400mg sodium/hour, and 20-28oz water/hour.) You’ll have to dial it in with trial and error — believe me, there will be some error — to see what you need, can tolerate and what works for you.
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Running a trail race isn’t like a road race. Hills will slow you down significantly and send your heart rate soaring … and that’s OK. Undulating terrain can sap your energy and running in sand, well that’s just something you need to experience to understand. Trust me, it’s hard for everyone. As a general rule, start out a trail race like you would an easy long run — slowly enough so that you could have a conversation with the runners next to you if you had to. Starting conservatively and progressively building your speed and effort over the course of the race means you’ll feel better at the finish, run faster and have a better experience.
Gear It Up
As you get into trail running and racing you’ll come to rely much more on gear. You’ll need a way to carry fluids — whether it’s a handheld, backpack or waist pack is really a personal choice — will want an extra layer to handle changing weather conditions and depending upon the race and requirements, may need to carry a lighting system, whistle and safety blanket. It’s important to use and get used to carrying all of the gear in training. Changing anything, from how much water you carry to what shorts you wear during an event, can cause chaffing, discomfort and uncertainty, all elements you can address and eliminate during training.
Choose Your Shoes Wisely
Shoe companies have taken note of the growth in trail running and responded with a wide variety of trainers, everything from minimal, zero-drop slippers to massive, uber-cushioned shoes. Personally, I think it’s awesome we have so much we can choose from. The best trail shoe is the one that works for you, not necessarily what works best for your friend or running partner. Take advantage of demo days at your local specialty running store and choose a style that fits your foot, provides the support you need and works with your terrain of choice.
This piece first appeared in the June 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.
About The Author:
Although Max King has been trail racing for five years and has won numerous U.S. championships and the 2011 world mountain running championship, he’s always trying to learn from others. He’s the first to admit running fast on trails has a very steep learning curve.