Last Updated on October 9, 2019 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
You’ve registered for your first trail race. You’ve (hopefully) taken your training off road. Race day is approaching and the unknown differences between road and trail racing have left you feeling nervous. Good news: self proclaimed Church of Trail Running ambassador Coach Heather is here to answer all of your questions! Here’s what to expect at your first trail race, as well as other tips to help you get safely and successfully to the finish line.
Expect a Laid Back Atmosphere
Let me preface this by saying: I love ALL runners. I don’t care if you specialize in half marathon on the road, 1,500 meters on the track, or 100 milers on the trail. Anyone who runs for fun is alright in my book.
That said, trail races, by nature (pun totally intended) seem to have a more laid back atmosphere. I attribute this partially to the fact that most trail races are significantly smaller, grassroots type events. I’ll never forget when Geoff and I showed up to our first trail 50K together. We had our printed race registrations and government issued ID’s in hand. The volunteers at packet pickup laughed at us and said “this is trail running. We trust you.”
When you compare the logistics needed to put on a trail marathon of 100 people versus something like the New York City marathon with it’s 50,000+ runners, it makes sense that the races tend to feel more relaxed.
“Trail” Can Mean Almost Anything
You already know you’ll be off of the pavement. But the word “trail” can be open to interpretation. Trails can be: gravel roads, grassy fields, rocky single track, smooth double wide cart trail, or a combination of all of the above. It’s also not unheard of in trail races to cross streams or rivers (yes, your feet will get wet!) Further, depending on the weather, that dry, smooth trail can turn into a muddy, slippery mess.
Point being: expect anything. If you’re really uncertain about the terrain you can expect at your first trail race, talk to participants who have run this race before. Or, reach out to the race director for more information.
Distance is Approximate – Sort Of
First time trail racers are always surprised to see that the advertised race distance is typically never exact. There’s a number of reasons for this:
First, race directors will often utilize available trail, instead of blazing their own or cutting trail sections short. And rarely are trail loops an even number. So if the race director says it’s a 5K, it may be closer to 3.3 miles, or maybe 2.9, simply because of the pre-existing trail.
Second, GPS watches aren’t always 100% accurate on trail. This is due to both tree cover (older GPS watches have a harder time locking onto the satellite), and the very windy nature of some trails. So in this case, the trail may ACTUALLY be an exact 5 mile course, but your GPS reads 4.8 or maybe even 5.5 miles.
Point being: use your GPS distance as a guideline, not an exact measure, when running a trail race.
You’ll Have to Pay Attention to Directions & Trail Markings
Unlike a road race, trail races can take a little more navigational skill, depending on how thorough the race director is with trail markings. You may be instructed to follow race specific markings. Or you may be instructed to follow pre-existing trail blazes.
Either way, if the race course intersects with any other trails, it can be easy to get turned around. Pay attention to the race directors instructions, and pay attention to where you are going.
Related post: Trail Running Safety Tips
The Conga Line
The start of a trail race, especially if it’s held on a single track trail, can get a little tricky. It typically takes a good half a mile or so for people to fall into their actual race pace. This is equal parts because of “start of the race excitement” (who hasn’t gone out too fast?), and also because the single track trail makes it more difficult to run at your own pace. Instead, at the beginning of the race, you can often get caught up in what many call the”conga line”. And it’s exactly what it sounds like: a long line of runners all running the exact pace of the person in the front.
If you’re running a longer trail race, I highly suggest being patient with the conga line. Don’t over-exert yourself early on just trying to get ahead of the crowd. And don’t let what other people are doing (or how fast they are running) cause you any anxiety. I find many people tend to start out too fast and then fizzle. You’ll catch them soon enough.
If you’re running a shorter trail race, and you’re hoping to do well (beat your goal time, place in age group awards, or even win the race) try to seed yourself accordingly, so you don’t get caught up in the conga line.
Lastly, if you’re not concerned at all with pace, and think you might be in the slower half of the pack, seed yourself accordingly, as to not contribute to the conga line chaos.
Passing is Slightly More Involved
Speaking of the conga line…what do you do if you need to pass someone? I’m glad you asked. If you need to pass someone, loudly and politely say “ON YOUR LEFT.”. If the trail allows and there is room, begin passing on the left side of the runner in front of you. Don’t try to pass in an area where it may be unsafe to ask the runner in front of you to move to the side of the trail (like if you’re on the edge of a cliff).
If you hear “ON YOUR LEFT!” from behind, move to the RIGHT side of the trail as soon as safely possible and let the runner behind you pass.
Don’t be the person who hears “ON YOUR LEFT” and then speeds up, but only for the next 100 yards before slowing down again, because you don’t want to be passed (yeah, this happens, unfortunately.) Be a good sport, and yield to the runners having a stronger day than you.
In both cases, stay ON the trail as best as you possibly can. Staying on trail and off of the surrounding vegetation is not only proper trail etiquette, but it’s the environmentally friendly thing to do.
Move Off Trail If you Need to Stop
I know I just told you that the most environmentally friendly thing to do is to stay ON the trail. And it is. But that said, if you need to stop for whatever reason, move off of the trail. Don’t block trail by stopping to tie your shoes, adjust your hydration pack, text your mom, etc.
Further, if you’re in the middle of one of the aforementioned conga lines, and you need to stop or walk, let the person behind you know you are going to do so. You never want to just stop short – you might cause a trail collision. I’ve accidentally done this to my husband, causing him to nearly dive off trail to avoid slamming into me. Let’s just say…he doesn’t like that.
Leave the Music at Home
Listen, I’m the first one to say “do you” when it comes to running and what makes you happy. But in a trail race? Please leave your music at home. Or at least turn it down so low that you can easily hear what’s going on around you. In addition to needing to hear people who would like to pass you there are a number of other safety concerns on trail that you NEED to be able to hear.
For example, I’ve run a number of races where other runners or hikers going in the opposite direction have warned me of hazards such as an angry swarm of wasps up ahead on the trail.
Related post: Trail Running Etiquette Tips
And if you’re thinking about playing your music out loud on speakers – please don’t. At the risk of sounding like a purist, I will say this: many of us escape into the woods for the peace and quiet that nature brings. Nothing ruins that like being stuck behind someone playing Taylor Swift or Lizzo at top volume from their phone. (No disrespect to Taylor Swift or Lizzo).
Enjoy the amazing and plentiful sounds mother nature has to offer, and respect your fellow racers by keeping your music turned down low in your headphones, or better yet, at home.
People Fall…and It’s OK
Falling on trail is actually quite common. But, it’s still startling to see someone faceplant into the dirt, especially if they come up with bloody elbows or knees. If you see (or hear) someone fall, stop and make sure they are OK. Chances are, they are just fine, and you can continue on your way.
Further, chances are YOU may fall on trail. It’s scary, but most of the time you’ll pick yourself back up unscathed. Take a deep breath, brush yourself off, and keep going.
Your Paces Might Be Slower
Due to the uneven and varying terrain, as well as potential significant climbs (especially in mountain trail races!) chances are your overall running pace will be significantly slower. This is not only OK, it’s common.
You’ll be surprised to see that most people will be running a bit slower than they would on pavement. In fact, most people will power hike up steep climbs during trail races, rather than run them.
Your finishing time will be relative to the difficulty of the course . Definitely do not try to compare your finishing time to that of a same distance race on pavement.
Related Post: How to Transition from Road to Trail Running
Trails are Dirty
I know this may seem obvious, but trail races can be dirty.
So…you’re probably going to get dirty.
Embrace the mud puddles, the stream crossings, the dirty hands from crawling up steep hills. Like my Grandmother used to say to me “you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die”. Might as well get to it!
You’ll Have Fun
I can almost guarantee it. While trail races may be a little bit (or a lot) harder than road races, they are a ton of fun. There is nothing quite like the feeling of barreling through the forest, leaping over roots, and climbing over rocks. Running my first trail race was a life changing experience (Umstead Trail Marathon, back in 2011), and I haven’t looked back since. I hope the same for you!
Have any questions about running your first trail race? Leave a comment below and I will do my best to answer!
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.