Trail Racing 101

Recently, Cathryn asked for trail racing tips as she prepared to face her first trail half marathon. (Spoiler: she nailed it, which you can read about here.) Not one to be economical with my words, I spilled out every tip I could think of in the comments section of her post, only to realize, “Hey, I’ve probably written enough for a blog post!” I’m no expert, but I feel like I’ve accrued enough trail racing experience to be able to pass along some helpful advice. So, if you’re thinking of taking the plunge into trail racing, here are some tips on how to survive and even enjoy race day:
(p.s. Cathryn has written her own post on trail racing tips for newcomers. Blog twins!)

Trail Racing vs. Road Racing: What to Expect
Smaller crowds: The trail races I’ve run usually have 100-300 runners per distance. Most events have multiple distances, from 5K up to 50K.
More relaxed atmosphere: Don’t expect a lot of bells and whistles. There are usually easier logistics and, if you’re lucky, homemade cookies. Some races have finisher medals, but most don’t — though there are usually medals for overall and age group finishers. There might not be bullhorns or even a start mat, but most races will have a timing mat at the finish. The community has a much different, more friendly vibe. I’ve often had runners pass me on the trail with words of encouragement, which has never happened at a road race.
Different terrain: Depending on the race, you might be running on pavement, gravel, dirt, rocks, roots, sand, mud, or any combination of the above.
Better scenery: This is one of my top reasons for running trail races. The climbs might be brutal, but the views are almost always worth it.
More affordable registration. ‘Nuff said.

Along Nimitz Way, with views of the cows and San Pablo Reservoir.

When was the last time you saw a view like this during a road race?

Pre-Race Prep:
Study the course map. If you take one tip away from this whole post, it should be: DON’T GET LOST. It helps to have an idea of the race route, or at the very least, what color ribbon or markers you’ll be following (see “Race Day” below). A good idea is to print out a copy of the map and bring it with you. Occasionally, random idiots will go out the night before a race and vandalize the course by removing ribbons and markings. So it’s good to be prepared!
Study the elevation profile. This isn’t essential, but personally, it helps me to prepare mentally for big climbs or downhills. It’s also helpful for predicting your finish time. However, if you get easily psyched out by seeing crazy hills, then I suggest you skip it.
Find out what kind of terrain you’ll be running on. This is useful if you have an array of footwear to choose from. For instance, if you know it’s going to be rocky, it’ll probably be better to wear a shoe with a rockplate or some protection instead of running barefoot. I’ve also seen people wear gaiters over their shoes to prevent smaller pebbles from entering. If it’s muddy, pick shoes with good tread. If there are river crossings, be sure to wear shoes that drain and socks that dry quickly.
If possible, research whether the trail is shade vs. exposed. This could have a lot of impact on your hydration and cooling strategies (see below). You can easily do this with Google maps using the satellite view to look at tree coverage. Other sources include previous race photos or recaps, or Google image search the trails you’ll be running on.
Determine the number and location of the aid stations. Unlike road races, where aid stations are evenly spaced apart, aid stations for trail races are dependent on car-accessibility. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to bring some water and/or fuel with you (see below).
As with road races, research race day logistics. Will there be parking, and how much will it cost? Will you have to park far away and walk to the start? Is there a shuttle? Will there be a bag drop?
Goal setting. Unlike road races, it’s much harder to predict how long a trail race will take, given the unique elevation profiles. For me, I try to set goals not related to time or pace, but in terms of execution — as in, “I’ll attack the downhills” or “I might not be able to run that whole hill, but I can do X amount.”

The beautiful hills at Contra Loma Park in Antioch.

The beautiful hills at Contra Loma Park in Antioch.

Race Day: Hydration, Fueling, and Temperature Regulation
Bring your own water bottle or Camelbak. As I mentioned above, aid stations might be spaced out few and far between, so prepare adequately. If you can usually run a road 10K without water, and you’re running a trail 10K, then you’re probably OK relying on the aid station(s). However, for everyone else (those who require more water or running longer distances), it’s a good idea to carry your own bottle. Not only is it eco-friendly, but it can be a pick-me-up in the middle of a long climb, as well as a lifesaver if you get lost. You’ll have to determine the size of your bottle based on how much you usually drink, how exposed the trails are, and hot it will be.
Bring your own fuel, as back up. The great thing about most trail races, especially those supporting ultra marathons, is that the aid stations are very well stocked. Not only will there be Gu and fruit, but there’s usually candy, chips, salty boiled potatoes, pretzels, and PB&J sandwiches. It’s a good idea to bring your own fuel just in case they run out of your favorite things, or if you have a picky stomach that can only tolerate certain foods.
Temperature regulation. I haven’t had as much experience with this, but I’ve heard of people putting ice or cold water on a bandana around their necks or in their hats. I’ve poured cold water on my neck before and that’s helped to prevent me from overheating.

Setting up the Ritz Carlton of aid stations.

The Gypsy Runner and I volunteered at a 6-12 hour endurance event. There was so much food!

Race Day: Gear
Wear what’s comfortable. I wouldn’t say that trail racing clothing is very different from what people wear at road races, except there might be less “peacocking” — i.e., tight clothes in flashy colors. Trail runners tend to be a low-key group.
Shoe choice. I’ve already touched on this before, but basically you want to wear shoes that will work best with the surface you’re running on, whether they’re “trail running shoes” or not. Personally, I think the most important thing is to not show up in brand new shoes. Not only will they be uncomfortable and need breaking in, but the dirtier and muddier your shoes, the better your trail running cred. 😉
A note about compression socks — they might be useful if you’re allergic to poison oak and you’ll be running through overgrown, single track trails.
A hat or bandana might be useful for cooling strategies (see above).

Muddy shoes! You should've seen the back of my legs...

The muddier, the better.

Race Day: Pre-Race Prep
Arrive with plenty of time to park, pick up your bib, make a bathroom stop, and check out the course map one last time.
There are almost always pre-race announcements 5-10 minutes before the race starts. Pay attention to the instructions! Especially the parts about what markers or ribbons to follow.
Line up accordingly. This is a bit tricky, but it helps to know how the course starts. For instance, if you know it’s going to be a single track climb for the first mile, try to position yourself so as to not get stuck behind people, but also not to slow others down. If you’re not sure where to start, and this is your first trail race, I’d recommend being conservative and starting in the back, then passing when you get the opportunity. You can also ask those around you what their planned paces are.

Hopefully you'll never see a porta potty line this long

Hopefully you’ll never see a porta potty line this long.

The Race & Race Etiquette
Slower runners to the right, pass on the left. Run in single file. When passing, call out, “On your left!” Give enough room to allow people to maneuver around you. If it’s not a closed course, watch out for bikers, walkers, and dogs.
Exception to the above rule: when the trail is wide enough to take advantage of smoother/more level terrain. For example, at my first trail race, I was running on the right side, where the trail was quite rocky and technical. What I quickly realized is that almost everyone else was running on the more even/less rocky section to the left. It’s ok to do this once the field has spread out and you’re no longer blocking anyone.
Walk the hills. I was reminded of this after reading both Cathryn‘s and Amy‘s posts about trail running. There’s no shame in walking up the hills in trail racing — especially for longer distances. I like to alternate between walking and running on steeper sections. When it’s too steep, I switch to 100% walking or power hiking.
If you must wear earbuds, have them at low volume or only wear one side. This way, you can hear cyclists or speedsters coming at you.
Pay attention to the markers/ribbons! Do NOT blindly follow the runners in front of you. Don’t depend on aid station volunteers to know anything about the course either.
Allow yourself a little breather at aid stations. Trail races can be long and arduous, so why not take 1-2 minutes to refill your bottle, eat a little snack, and thank a volunteer?
If you have to go to the bathroom, and there aren’t any on the course, pull off into the woods and do you business au naturel. Bring some emergency toilet paper for this purpose.
Finally, and most importantly, ENJOY YOURSELF. Yes, you’re racing, but what’s the point of running on trails if you don’t take a look once in a while to enjoy the view?

So relieved that I made it to the bottom in one piece!

Taking my time down one of the steeper trails in Joaquin Miller Park during the Woodminster Classic.

Wow, so that ended up being really, really long! I hope it doesn’t make trail racing sound complicated, because it’s really not. If I had to distill everything down to two tips, they would be:
1) Don’t get lost!
2) Enjoy yourself!

Do you have any trail racing tips that you want to share?
Any questions about trail racing that I didn’t cover?


Howdy! My name is Jen and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I like to eat, run, and blog, but not usually at the same time.

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Posted in Trail running
18 comments on “Trail Racing 101
  1. […] post is in conjunction with my blogging friend Jen who has done many more trail races than I have. Check out her post here for more experienced hints and tips…and read on for the things that struck me on Saturday and […]

  2. I kindaaaa wanna give this a try…

  3. Hillary says:

    This is great! There aren’t really that many (any?) trail races around Chicago, but my one experience with a mostly-trail 5k showed me that I have no idea what I’m doing on the trails! Ha! Filing this away next time I veer off of the pavement. 😉

    • Jen says:

      Yeah, sometimes I forget how different trail racing is compared to road racing. We’re pretty much spoiled here in the Bay Area in terms of trail running and racing. There’s probably a trail race every weekend within an 1 hour drive of my apartment.

  4. Kate says:

    I love this post, obviously 🙂
    I agree that you should always bring your own water. If I am alone on the trails I carry my phone in case something happens and I need help. Also, it is very common during road races to toss empty gu wrappers on the ground. This is not acceptable to do on trails, whether during a race or not. Respect your environment and carry out any trash you bring in – including tp should you make an outdoor pit stop.

    • Jen says:

      Great points, Kate! I can’t believe I forgot about the trash thing — a definite no-no. And safety should always be a #1 priority… even though I’m ridiculously bad at telling my bf about my intended route.

  5. Cathryn says:

    Great post. Love the points about cheaper registration and the lack of medals as well – I hadn’t realized that NOT giving medals was commonplace at trail races. That’s a boo! I also think Kate makes a great point above about packing out your waste – not throwing gel packs on the floor etc. I feel guilty doing this in road races but on trails it would be a crime!!!

  6. Dominick S. says:

    I will definitely be signing up for trail runs in 2014. I think that is the next progression for me. Great post Jen, maybe we can find a nice starter for me you and Gypsy to do an event together in the bay area!

    • Jen says:

      That would be so fun! And then I wouldn’t have to make you and the GR run as slowly as I do.

      Truth be told, the GR hasn’t run in months. He’d be more likely to challenge you to a game of basketball these days…

  7. Amy says:

    ^^^ Thanks for the invite! (just kidding…I don’t know how much trail racing I’ll be doing from here on out…)

    Great and helpful post! Lots of great points to consider! Good idea on the shade vs. sun thing. Also, checking the weather report for HIGHER elevations (at least for my race). Just because things are happy and sunny on the bottom doesn’t mean that there won’t be snow on the top. And I’ve been stalking the course layout and profile like nobody’s business. The last thing the world needs is an Amy wandering lost in the mountains.

    • Jen says:

      You’re definitely invited! And bring Aaron too! 🙂

      The higher elevation thing is key — thanks for bringing that up. I have yet to run in snow, but I’ve had the experience of going from warm and sunny up to cold and blustery. It wasn’t too bad, fortunately, just disorienting.

  8. I’ve only done one trail race, which was really a XC race with some trail sections. I’m dying to do more! I love trail running. These are great tips. Lots of things I would not have thought about (like bringing TP lol).

  9. vttrailgirl says:

    Great post. I’m loving it, of course!

  10. […] you a trail racing newbie, or interested in venturing off of the pavement in the near future? Jen has some great trail racing tips that I’ll be filing away for the next time I take my Goudas off-road! (RW has some tips, […]

  11. Susan Hayes says:

    I did my first real trail race this past weekend and I loved it! A tough five miler ,but I had so much fun. (Even won my age group) I am 50! So, I am going to look for more next year. I live in Connecticut, so our season is drawing to a close. Two more races on the calendar and then that will be it until the saint Patrick’s day races! Thanks for the great info. I ran the race about 1 minute per mile slower than my road race pace and felt good about that!

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