Trail Race FAQ

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A reader named Tammy wrote in to say, “I signed up for my first trail run (10K) and am super nervous. I can run 5 to 8 miles on my longer runs and have completed a half marathon.  I’m training for another half in November.  I was wondering if you have tips or could tell me what I should expect.  Also, do I need trail shoes?  Do I ever have enough time to break them in – my race is 7/22?  I’m afraid I mistakenly assumed that because I can do 6 road miles, I can do 6 trail miles… and now I’m scurred!”


Trail races are very fun, but Tammy is right – miles on the trail are different than miles on the road!


Now, I’m not a hardcore trail runner (although I have done several trail races), so I’m going to answer Tammy’s question to the best of my ability, but I’d love for some trail running enthusiasts to weigh in, too!


Miles on a trail feel different than miles on the road because the ground is inherently less stable.  This can be a good thing or a bad thing.  Running on trails creates less impact on your muscles, bones, and joints.  At the same time, the uneven surface means your odds of twisting something or tripping are much, much higher.


Here’s what you can expect during a trail race:


  • Generally speaking, trail races are less organized.  There probably won’t be large, corporate sponsors or a big sound speaker system blasting out the latest Katy Perry tune.  It will just be a bunch of dudes and gals standing around in the middle of the forest.   A nice side effect of this is there is inherently less pressure!


  • Water stations might be few and far between.  While a road race may offer water stations every mile or two, trail races might only have one or two for the entire course.  Check the website beforehand and be prepared to carry your own water and fuel.


  • Likewise, there might not be mileage markers or clocks at a trail race.


  • The course during a road race is usually super obvious, with barricades and crowd support.  During a trail race, you might end up all alone and have to follow flags or signage to find your way.


Ideally, if you’re going to do a trail race, you’ll have a few opportunity to train a trail.  At the minimum, it would be a good idea to do at least one run a week on a trail. 


Of course, it’s not always possible to do a lot of trail runs before the race, so here’s a few ways you can ‘fake’ it:


  • When running outside, run in the grass instead of on the sidewalk.  This is a good idea to do, anyway, because it’s better on your joints!


  • Your trail race time will be much slower than your road mileage.  If you haven’t had an opportunity to do a lot of trail runs, slow waaaay down.  Take lots of walking breaks. 


  • Watch the ground ahead of you – keep an eye out for roots, holes, and rocks, or you might end up with a twisted ankle.


  • Use your arms to help balance you as you head down hills.  Run “tall” down and up hills – don’t slouch!


And the question remains:  Do you really need trail shoes?  Well, I would say no, at least not for the first trail race of your career.  Trail shoes provide extra stability and prevent you from rolling your ankle, so they might be a nice investment in the future if you regularly run on trails. 


Like all well-fitted running shoes, you don’t need time to ‘break them in,’ but you should always do a practice run in them.  Bottom line: trail shoes definitely aren’t required for a safe run.  Just go slow and stay alert.


Trail racers, weigh in!  What are your trail running tips?



  • Aine @ Something to Chew Over July 5, 2011, 5:23 am

    Great advice Caitlin! I don’t do trail running but I do a lot of hiking and these tips apply to walking too. Comfy sturdy shoes are a must for me.

  • cathy July 5, 2011, 5:57 am

    i’ll throw in my two cents on the trail shoes question since it’s a subject near and dear to my heart.
    great advice, caitlin. yes: for your first race, use your regular running shoes. trail shoes are super-helpful, though, if the terrain is very rugged (dirt, roots, overgrowth, elevation changes) or if it’s raining. trail shoes are like snow tires for your car: they add that extra traction, plus are lower to the ground so can help with stabilization, not going over on your ankle.
    if you love the trail race experience, then maybe invest in a pair of shoes! have fun!

  • Amy D July 5, 2011, 6:06 am

    Great advice! I’d also recommend leaving the iPod at home. You’ll have plenty of natural distractions and you’ll want to be able to take it all in. Also, remember that even the best of the best ultrarunners walk the steep uphills. It’s very different than road running in that there is no shame in walking an uphills. Save your energy for the flats and downhills. 🙂 Most importantly, have FUN!

  • Cait @ Beyond Bananas July 5, 2011, 6:12 am

    I’ve never done a trail run..but now I kind of want to!

    • Hilary July 5, 2011, 6:43 am

      Me too! Is there a good website to find a list of trail runs??

      • Terry Miller July 5, 2011, 7:12 am

        Depends on where you live. There are most likely websites in your area, but they will be different from city to city. There are likely trail running groups near you, and they are the best source, so finding one in your area would be my first step. If you’re near Denver, CO or Charlotte, NC I can help you!

      • Keri July 5, 2011, 9:56 am

        I especially recommend the Vail trail running series if you are anywhere near Colorado. Beautiful, challenging courses!:

  • Kara July 5, 2011, 6:21 am

    I trail run a lot (I have my 2nd trail 50K in two weeks and a 50 miler in the fall) and this is all great advice. I’d add the following:

    – Be prepared to carry all your fuel AND any trash (this includes toilet paper, even AFTER you use it)

    – Train with eating real food in addition to Gu/Chomps/whatever

    – Don’t expect to be able to use on iPod. On single track trails, that’s just dangerous/annoying to other runners. Also if you’re training, you won’t hear mountain bikers.

    – You’ll have to carry more. I have a 2 liter trail running hydration vest and I carry my own first aid kit. Those aid stations are far apart and if you need a bandaid, you don’t want to wait.

    – It takes longer. A 14.5 mile trail run takes me 3 solid hours, but it would only take 2 hours on the road.

    – It’s WAY more fun than a normal road run. 🙂

    • Terry Miller July 5, 2011, 7:16 am

      You’re right about everything(especially about it being more fun!), but she’s just talking about a 10k, so you don’t need to scare the girl off just yet! I can’t imagine the “real food” or toilet paper issues will come into play on such a short race.

      • Kara July 5, 2011, 8:43 am

        I wasn’t trying to scare anyone, I swear 🙂

        I’ve had to stop and use a portapotty during a 10K before, so the toilet paper thing is still applicable. I carry some in a plastic baggie, so I can just put it back in there so it’s not too gross to carry.

        The real food thing is for longer races, you’re right, so that is more of a general tip for trail running.

        There is nothing scary about using nature’s bathroom, I greatly prefer to a stinky portapotty at a road race. 🙂

        • Alyssa July 5, 2011, 9:48 am

          Kara just loves to scare people. Beware giving her your email address, she’ll send you really scary stuff then. 🙂

    • Tammy July 5, 2011, 10:05 am

      Lol, thanks Kara! I’m looking forward to the challenge, I’m not deterred just yet….I’m getting more & more excited and will keep all your tips in mind, especially the TP! 🙂

      • Caitlin July 5, 2011, 10:47 am

        Kara is scurry.

  • Orla July 5, 2011, 6:22 am

    I would say that as it is your first one – don’t worry about time. The first time I run a new distance in a race I want to finish. I can work on time next time. Do this with the trail run. And enjoy it. I did a mud run/train run recently and my aim was to finish. It was the first time in a long time I had run just to run and not for time. And it was brilliant! Enjoy!

    • Orla July 5, 2011, 6:22 am

      oh and keep your eyes down as much as you can so that you can spot any obstacles that may be there!

  • Lauren July 5, 2011, 6:37 am

    We went for a hike this weekend and I kept thinking how difficult it was just to walk up the trail. I can’t imagine how difficult running would be!

  • Jennifer July 5, 2011, 6:52 am

    I just ran my first trail race two weeks ago, and I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t as scarry as I thought it would be. Definitely leave the ipod at home, you can’t be distracted and you can’t “zone out” like road running. Don’t worry about your pace, my brother told me that he usually adds 30% on to his road times when trying to determine how long a trail race will take him. Practice running through grass beforehand. This was the one part that surprised me the most, was how much resistance there was when running through the grassy areas. Above all have fun! I met two wonderful ladies during the run and we had a good chat along the way. Have fun!

  • Lisa (I'm an Okie) July 5, 2011, 7:08 am

    i’ve never ran a trail race, but it sounds like something i’d be interested in! I adore nature, so this would allow me to “be more in it”

  • Sarah@The Flying ONION July 5, 2011, 7:16 am

    I would LOVE to start trail running, so this post came at the perfect time. I love hiking and backpacking, and while running on the road is great for every day, there’s something awesome about “roughing it” in the woods. 😀

    Thanks for this! 😀

  • Terry Miller July 5, 2011, 7:31 am

    Warning: When you’ve tasted trail running, you may become dissatisfied with road running, and become an addict! A couple of pointers I’d add to the above, 1) It’s ok to walk if there are steep uphills. Even super-fast veterans will walk uphill if it’s steep enough. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to be tough. 2) I would definitely try to find some real trails to practice on ahead of time. The best benefit of grass would be teaching you to pick your feet up more quickly, but it’s no substitute for actual roots and rocks, where you’ll want to be used to picking your feet up quickly to avoid tripping.
    Trail running is generally more relaxed than road running. Most trail runners run for time, not miles (“I ran 2 hours”, rather than “I ran 10.3 miles”). And it’s great for your strength, as you get so much uphill/downhill and lateral movement, stepping at all sorts of different angles as trail conditions dictate. It works muscles in a different way than just one foot in front of the other on the road.
    Welcome to trail running, you don’t know what a treat you’re in for!

    • Tammy July 5, 2011, 9:59 am

      Great tips Terry!— I did my first practice on Sunday and I can definitely tell I worked my muscles in a different way! — you are right about the addiction factor– I cant wait to do another practice run..loved it!

  • Bee Goes Bananas July 5, 2011, 7:43 am

    I love running on trails! There is so much more to look at and the uneven ground is a lot of fun. Unfortunately, trail running hurts my knees more than road running. 🙁

  • Katie July 5, 2011, 7:46 am

    USE TRAIL SHOES. I ended up majorily injured due to instability I have rugged trails though depends on the trails :). I am addicted to trail running, but it is harder. Don’t be afraid to walk everyone else will at some point 🙂 Practice on trails because wellllll roads are awful anyway plus you get used to the whole idea! Once you go trails you won’t go back. I have a trail 50k this weekend that I am excited to go do. Oh and trail runners are the best people, they are usually hardcore runner that are so open to helping you so if you are at the race ASK for advice. The trail runners I have met don’t mind slowing down for me or helping me out since I’m a relatively new trail runner, but I will never go back to roads after doing trails. Good luck! This will be the most fun race you’ll ever do.

  • Fit Chick Britt July 5, 2011, 7:51 am

    I’ve only done one trail run and I didn’t ever train on a trail. I say you don’t need trail shoes, but be VERY prepared to slow way down and make sure you’re constantly looking at the ground to watch for rocks, roots, trees, sticks, etc. I agree with other commenters that trail running is so much fun and you will have a blast!! Don’t fret about pace or the distance just go out and enjoy the scenery and you’ll enjoy yourself.

  • Hillary July 5, 2011, 7:54 am

    I’ve never done an official trail run before, but it is something I’d like to try. As much as other people might find it scary (or annoying) to constantly be on the lookout for tripping hazards, I like the idea of literally being on my toes!

  • Molly @ RDexposed July 5, 2011, 8:30 am

    My tip would be to not trail run. I hate trail runs.

  • Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday July 5, 2011, 8:40 am

    I’d like to do a trail race one day. I love hiking so I’m sure I’d love running on trails too.

  • chelsey @ clean eating chelsey July 5, 2011, 8:43 am

    I’ve never done a trail race – they’re kind of intimidating! One: because I would fall. Two: I don’t like bugs and bugs are in forests. I know, I’m a girl.

    • Kara July 5, 2011, 8:46 am

      I never have bug issues because I spray the crap out of my hat with bug spray before (and my shoes). Also, as long as you have someone running ahead of you, spider webs are taken care off too. 🙂

  • Holly @ The Runny Egg July 5, 2011, 8:53 am

    I’d love to do a trail run one day — there is actually one I am still considering signing up for, but I really wasn’t sure what I’d be getting myself into!

  • Katherina @ Zephyr Runs July 5, 2011, 8:53 am

    I got my trail shoes for hiking mainly but look forward to trail runs! I bet they’re way more fun than normal races… they’re scenic AND you have to keep watch on the ground to make sure you don’t trip so I bet the time goes by faster! I can’t recommend my shoes enough, and they took 0 time to break in:,,s6-240-325-329-0-0-0-0-1519,00.html (They’re Saucony Progrid Xodus)

  • Willow @ My Own Trail July 5, 2011, 8:53 am

    I have never run any trail races, or even done any non-race trail running, so I don’t have any advice to add. However, this post made me REALLY want to start trail running. I love the feel of running on the road, and I love hiking, so I bet I would love trail running. Hmmm…off to look into it more.

  • Gina @ Running to the Kitchen July 5, 2011, 8:57 am

    Great tips, I’ve been looking for a local trail race recently to sign up for my first one!

  • giordin July 5, 2011, 9:08 am

    i highly recommend trail shoes!!! i think they really help you grip the surface and prevent slipping and sliding and rolling…especially if you’re new to trail running and maybe haven’t developed the stabilization muscles in your ankle yet.

    • Tammy July 5, 2011, 9:56 am

      I scored some Adidas Kandida TR5 shoes this weekend on sale!..Love them!!! I absolutely think they helped my grip and stablization on my practice run, great tip!!!!!

  • Amanda @ There Are 2 Sides July 5, 2011, 9:19 am

    I have my first trail run in under two weeks – a half marathon. Mainly flat through meadows, forest and marsh lands (on a boardwalk) so it should be exciting. Getting some great ideas reading the other comments.
    Luckily my trail run is very organized, they told us where all aid stations are and exactly what they are offering at them. I am geeked!

  • LindseyAnn July 5, 2011, 9:25 am

    I’m not a trail runner, but I do work at a running store where we sell both road and trail shoes. Our rule of thumb is that if you’re doing greater than 60% of your runs on trails, that’s the point where you would need trail shoes. Also, road shoes translate better to trail than trail shoes do to road, so if you can only afford to have one pair, go for a less flexible pair of road shoes. Of course, once you do start to do more trail running, especially once you get in to the longer races and thus the longer runs, then you will need a trail shoe.

    • Caitlin July 5, 2011, 10:48 am

      Good info! Thanks Lindsey.

  • Jennifer Cook July 5, 2011, 9:30 am

    I agree with all of Caitlin’s tips. I was super surprised how slow I was at my first trail race (5 miles). It was sooo much harder than a road race- probably the hardest race I’ve done (and I’ve ran 2 half-marathons). I fell twice, got really muddy, but it was a blast! It’s a totally different atmosphere than a road race, but in a good, fun way.

  • Angela @ Eat Spin Run Repeat July 5, 2011, 9:37 am

    I’ve never done a trail race before – I guess I just like the organization of road races better! But I think it would be a great way to mix up training and challenge your body to something new. These do sound like great tips, so I’ll be referring to them in the event I ever do sign up for a trail race. Good luck to Tammy!

  • Tammy July 5, 2011, 9:41 am

    Caitlin!! You are awesome. Thanks so much for addressing my email in a very informative post. These are awesome tips, and now I’m getting excited. I still had jitters this weekend so soothed them w/some retail therapy. I found some some trail shoes on sale (Adidas Kandida TR5, 40 bucks!) and took the plunge (this will motivate me to stick with it, I’d like to mix it up). I’m happy to report, I love them, and even did a practice run for a solid hour on the trails, ~4miles worth– everyone that commented about how nature can be so fun was right on! I took my time, paid attention to the ground and took my camelbak. Now thanks to you and your readers, I have more tips for more practice. It was quite different, tougher, but I loved it! My pace did slow, but I’m not worried one BIT… dont worry, nobody scared me off 🙂 besides, I already paid and registered, now time to DO IT!– Again, many many thanks Caitlin- I’ll slam dunk the 10k in your honor 😉

    • Tammy July 5, 2011, 9:44 am

      Also.. the commenters were right about engaging different muscles– my legs are sore in a “different” way– more in the soleus area so now I know what to strengthen/stretch more–oh, and picking my feet UP was key!

  • Shannon @ Mon Amour July 5, 2011, 9:42 am

    This is great advice! I have never done a trail race but I love running on the trails near my house. They are so beautiful and peaceful

  • Alyssa July 5, 2011, 9:45 am

    I just recently completed my first trail race – a 50K!
    I didn’t do a ton of a training on trails, but I did some,a nd I really felt it helped. I REALLY REALLY recommend doing at least one training run on trails, even if it’s only a few miles. My tips are use a ton of bug spray, bring more water than you think you need, and bring salt tablets. I discovered that those were extremely necessary because I was running so much longer than in a road race. We brought extras and they helped more than one person along the way! Also bring baby wipes and bandaids, falls are common and almost inevitable, at least for me. Bring a cell phone, if you end up running all by yourself in the woods, you’ll be glad you have it, even if it’s just for piece of mind. If you falls miles from an aid station and there are no other runners around, you need it! Lastly, walk up the hills and put your arms out and bring your legs further apart (you’ll almost look bow-legged) to keep your balance on the downhills!

    • Kara July 5, 2011, 10:09 am

      Geez Alyssa, way to scare her about falling. Meanie 🙂

      Maybe I should post that link to the video of that guy running that 100 mile race in Hawaii who broke his foot and had to get a helicopter ride out? Everyone likes a good video. 😛

  • hippierunner July 5, 2011, 11:08 am

    I would definitely recommend trail shoes. I know with my regular road running shoe, rocks easily get stuck in the bottom of the shoe and I wouldn’t want to have to stop every 5minutes to pull them out during a race. Find out how technical the course is so you can practice on similar terrain. Trail running is completly different from road running so just remember to start out at a pace way slower than normal so you can make it through! Good luck Tammy! 🙂

  • Annette @ EnjoyYourHealthyLife July 5, 2011, 11:15 am

    How fun, I have never done a trail race…..yet 😉

  • Kate (What Kate is Cooking) July 5, 2011, 11:27 am

    I’m really clumsy, so I don’t think I could ever run a trail race!

  • Julie (A Case of the Runs) July 5, 2011, 11:29 am

    I ran my first trail half about a month ago, and I would echo that the race directors should have SOME recommendation for whether trail shoes are needed or not.

    I didn’t need them, though I could see how they would have helped. I had a blast!

  • Ali July 5, 2011, 11:52 am

    Great advice!
    *My #1 tip : carry your own water!
    *If you’re doing a trail race in July, start running on trails now. You have to be so aware of each step you take in order to avoid branches and roots so you don’t trip.
    *Try not to listen to music, it can be very distracting
    *Practice eating real food during the run
    *Be prepared to pop a squat and carry some tissue!
    Good luck!

  • Chelsea @ One Healthy Munchkin July 5, 2011, 12:43 pm

    I’ve never done a trail race before, but I’ve thought about doing one. I never really considered how different it would be from road running. Thanks for the tips!

  • Amber from Girl with the Red Hair July 5, 2011, 2:08 pm

    I LOVE trail running! It’s almost all I’ve been doing for the last few months because I was training for a 25 km – which ended up being a 27 km MOUNTAIN CLIMB – trail race. Since I was running on the trails 3-4 times per week I invested in a pair of trail shoes and they were really great. I could definitely feel the difference in my stability.

    When I trail run with my group we usually walk/hike up all the steep hills and then run the flats and downhills. There is no point wearing yourself out trying to run up a steep hill! Also, my friends husband (who has ran multiple ultra’s and 100-milers) ALWAYS tells us that time on our feet is much more important than distance when trail running. It can easily take two hours or more to do a single-digit run. Don’t let that discourage you!!

    Also, I recently wrote a blog post about my experiences with training for my big trail race and some other things I learned:

    Happy Trails! 🙂

  • Scott July 5, 2011, 2:10 pm

    I’m in the minority here but thought my perspective may be helpful for some. I have found that “trail” shoes are the not a good option for trail running. The rigidity that most say they need cause me to be too confidant and roll my ankle more often. I have switched to a thin light shoe. You feet will adapt (but be sore at first) and your overall balance will be much better. Trail running is fun but way more fun when you can feel the trail. The most extreme options would be something like a luna sandal or the RunAmoc. Either one is seriously fun on the trail.

  • deep south runner July 5, 2011, 10:02 pm

    I was totally unprepared for my first and only trail race! It is definitely different from a road race; I found your post to pretty much cover it! Don’t expect to be as fast as you are on the road and bring water just in case. I had a blast and can’t wait to do another one!

  • Laura @ Cookies vs. Carrots July 5, 2011, 10:04 pm

    Interesting post! I used to run trails in high school, but haven’t run one in years. I’ve been interested in working them in once I build my mileage up. I’ll definitely be keeping your tips in mind!

  • Jennifer-Anne July 6, 2011, 9:04 am

    As a race director of a trail race [25k & 50k] and an avid trail runner with well over 40 trail ultras under my belt – I immediately had my nose twisted out of joint at the ‘less organized’ comment referenced to trail races.
    With a moment to take pause – I would encourage runners to consider trail races so different from road races that the only similarity they offer is the running part [I’d argue even that is a bit different]. It is very much a different culture of runner and a different adventure. Think different gear, different fuel, different challenges. And what might appear to be ‘less organized’ is often more accurately termed ‘more relaxed’ as in reality the logistics to organize a trail run often far exceed anything required on road or multi-use path.

    • CaitlinHTP July 6, 2011, 11:00 am

      Sorry! I didn’t mean to imply that you were disorganized 🙂 It’s just the trail races I have done ARE more ‘relaxed’ it terms of herding runners to corralls, etc. Bad word choice.

  • leeann July 6, 2011, 12:41 pm

    Love trail racing! My Brook’s Cascadia’s are awesome. I wouldn’t have made it through my races without them-I think it depends on the toughness of the terrain. Mountains of Colorado=must have trail running shoes! Also, they are much more “relaxed.” I just did a 10k and luckily it was just for fun because they have me under the wrong bib number and over 25 minutes slower than I finished :-/ Do it for the love of running….and enjoy the scenery!!

  • Dean August 3, 2011, 11:58 pm

    I’m doing my first trail run tomorrow evening. It was kind of a last minute decision, so I haven’t trained on trails at all. (And I’m rehabbing a knee injury similar to yours.) I just thought, Caitlin must have something about trail runs and viola I found this post. While I don’t have time to implement many of your suggestions, the info was helpful. At the very least, it should be a fun event with a BBQ when we finish!

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