10 Tips For Succeeding in Your First Trail Race

10 Tips For Succeeding in Your First Trail Race

Whether you are a hardened road runner, a frequent park runner or a complete newbie, running your first trail race can be a daunting prospect.  This post intends to provide an insight into things that I find helpful and wish I had known when preparing for my first trail race.

Trail running is a wonderful sport.  The beautiful locations, lung busting ascents, technical single tracks, thunderous descents, muddy woodlands or boulder hopping, its got it all.  The beauty of trail running is the freedom of running, far away from the hustle and bustle of city life in beautiful places. 

Its not always pretty, a steep ascent can make your legs shake but lifting your head at the top and seeing out into the beauty of nature makes it all worthwhile.

Looking forward at the iconic and gruelling Jacob’s Ladder climb to the top of Pen y Fan

There are 10 things that you should think about before getting to the start line.

Number 1 – Shoes

My very well worn Salomon’s. Left, Speedcross 4 and the right, Speedcross 4 GTX (GORETEX)

Trail running shoes are very different from road shoes.  Typically, they’re stiffer and have a more aggressive sole.  When running on the road, a lot of shoes have a very thick and spongy sole.  This is to protect your knees (and other joints) when pounding your feet into an unforgiving tarmac surface.  Trail shoes on the other hand are generally a bit thinner and much stiffer.  This is so the sole does not flex as much when running on undulating ground, helping protect your ankles.  Secondly unlike road shoes, trail runners have a more aggressive grip on the sole.  This is to give traction when running on loose, muddy and/or slipper terrain.  From experience, trying to cross a muddy field in road runners is a hilarious but not efficient means of doing it.

The choice of shoes is huge: Salomon, Innov 8, Merrell, Scarpa, Nike, ON, to name a few.  If this is your first pair of trail shoes, think about what you are wanting to achieve whether it is the Snowdon Marathon or a local cross-country trail.  If in doubt, go to a local running shop, they are helpful and can give great advice. Try on a range of shoes and make sure that they are comfortable. Importantly, break them in before you race for the first time so you don’t discover they give you blisters on the big day.

My shoe of choice is the Salomon Speedcross 4.  It has an aggressive sole giving grip when needed and it has good cushioning which I find saves my joints when running longer distances.  

Number 2 – What to wear

It goes without saying, if you are in the UK the forecast is probably lying so take a jacket.  Obviously make sure it is waterproof but also with taped seams.  This protects the stitching from leaks and is a requirement in some events such as Rat Race Coast 2 Coast.  Internal pockets aren’t always necessary but a couple good external pockets for carrying maps or just loads of food, is helpful.  I have an OMM and a Montane, both pack down small and are lightweight.  When it is not raining, I can stow them away with ease into my bag. You can read my review of the Montane Via Trail Series Jacket here.

Socks.  Do not wear cotton.  Go to a running or sports shop and buy some dedicated running socks.  They need to prevent chafing and be breathable.  Anti-chafing socks will help you avoid getting blisters and developing sore feet whilst running.  You don’t want your first event to end early because of poor sock choice?

For the rest of your body, wear what is comfortable, wicking and light.  Cotton gets heavy when wet and I find it uncomfortable when I get sweaty. I usually wear a long sleeve compression top as my base layer. This works well when wearing a jacket as you do not have bare skin on the jacket material.

Pack appropriately for the event you are running, if it is cold, take warmer tops or extra layers.  Something to bear in mind; Be Bold, Start Cold. If you put on all your warm layers at the start, you’ll find after 10 minutes that you are boiling hot so best to start lighter and add as you go.

Importantly, try all your running kit before the big day.  It is essential to make sure it doesn’t pinch or get uncomfortable before you are at the start line.

Number 3 – Carrying your race kit

Trail races are very different to road races, there can be times when you are completely on your own for long sections, unless you are running with a friend.  It is therefore essential to be able to carry water, snacks, spare socks, phone, that new race jacket and sometime a map and compass (depending on the event).  So, my recommendation is to get a running vest. Salomon Skin, Innov 8 Race Elite Pack, Patagonia Slope, Nike Running Gilet…. the list goes on and on.

Unlike a traditional rucksack, a running vest fits tightly to your frame meaning it doesn’t sway from side to side when running.  This is important when moving quickly on a fast technical descent.  You do not want to be thrown off balance. 

Typically, running vests have areas at the front to store soft flasks or bottles.  These are helpful as you can always access your liquids, instead of having to fumble around getting into a big pocket behind you.

Number 4 – Nutrition

Trail races are well set up with feed stations throughout but as mentioned above, you can be in isolation for long periods of time so you need to be self sufficient. It is mandatory on some events to take your own food but I would definitely recommend that you take your owns supplies even when it is not. It is an awful feeling bonking on energy, trying to drag yourself on. 

I had a bad time on my bike in the second section of day 1 on Rat Race’s Coast 2 Coast.  I didn’t eat enough on the bike section and I ran out of energy about 10 miles away from the end.  Valuable lesson learnt there, EAT MORE. 

Not in a good place in this picture….

Gels are great, they come in all shapes and sizes.  My get out of jail free card is the SIS Double Espresso gel, they pack a punch.  However, I try to avoid gels as they can give me indigestion which isn’t great on a run.  My advice is, eat normal food.  Something you would have at home on a normal day that can be swallowed with ease.  

There are many options for fancy race nutrition, but it is good to try these things out first rather than indulging on the day and suffering with heart burn or feeling nauseous!!

On anything over a half marathon, I will carry a bagel.  Peanut butter and Nutella are an excellent combo that goes down easily and is full of energy.  I often don’t eat it on a half marathon but then I have something to look forward to at the end of the race.  

Number 5 – To pole or not to pole

You will see, especially on the longer mountain races, people running with poles.  Poles are great but for anything less than a mountain marathon, in my opinion, they’re not necessary.

Number 6 – Day before

So hopefully by this point you have trained and are feeling ready.  You might be gearing up for you first 5 km, 10 km or 20 km on the trails.  So, let’s get past the obvious, get a good night’s sleep.  Always want to be well rested.  Races are mostly at the weekend so however tempting it is to open a beer, leave it for after the race. Your future self with thank you.

I always have a big carb heavy dinner, usually a large pasta.  It does not need to be fancy, just full of nutrition and carbohydrates. Stick with what you know to avoid feeling nauseous the next day. 

Top “quality” campsite pasta

I put a bit of extra salt into my evening meal as well.  Now, before you get any funny ideas, I am not a nutritionist or an expert so what I say works for me but might not be scientifically correct.  When you run, you sweat out electrolytes such as sodium as you go.  This needs to be replenished as you run, which is why “isotonic” drinks are full electrolytes.  The benefit of electrolytes is they help your body store water, this stored water helps you avoid getting muscular cramps.  Because of this, I add a bit of extra salt to my dinner and breakfast.  It is a fine line between enough and too much.  Too much can be worse than not enough as you can feel dehydrated.

I want to reiterate a point – I am not a medical expert.  But an extra pinch of salt the day before and in the morning works for me!

Number 7 – Morning

First things first, wake up in good time so you can either get to the race or just make sure you are ready for the predetermined start time.  No one wants extra stress arriving late to the start line when embarking on something new.  Once up, have a good breakfast.  Nothing too heavy that will take a lifetime to digest, save the fry up for tomorrow. 

I have a breakfast mix which consists of a mushed-up banana, oats, mixed nuts, chia seed, yoghurt and as mentioned before, a pinch of salt.  This is my go-to whether I am running 10 km or 50 km. 

Coffee.  Coffee is something that gets spoken about a lot.  A lot of people say you should avoid caffeine for a week or 2 prior to the event so you can truly reap the rewarding boost of energy when running.  This might work for some people, but I find if I avoid it, I can feel scatty and a bit shaky when I do have coffee before or during the race.  Plus, I loooove a morning espresso so why would I take that away from myself?

Finally, morning poo.  Everyone needs one, so make sure you aren’t in a que 5 minutes before your start time.  Get up early, arrive early, go early, start line ready.

Number 8 – The race

Adrenaline levels can be high when stood in a bustling energetic group, read to run.  Do not let this fool you. Do not go sprinting from the start like a greyhound.  When the cow bell, air horn, gun shot or whatever indication of go time is sounded,  stick to plan.  Remember the tempo you’ve been training at and stick to it.  It is so easy to get carried away and go full tilt for the first kilometre only to run out of energy early on because you couldn’t help yourself at the beginning.

Big hills.  Walk them.  You might find that walking is faster than trying to run up a big ascent.  It will certainly save valuable energy that you need when running out of steam nearer the end.  Once you have completed a few races, you might have increased hill reps and find that actually you can run them without breaking a sweat. Rather you than me! 

Number 9 – Look around

It is important to remember to look up.  Wherever you are running it is probably beautiful so pull your head up and have a look around.  If you are starting to suffer it helps to look up and remember where you are and how bloody awesome it is.

January Fan Dance in the Brecon Beacons

Race at your own pace, chat to other runners.  You get to hear some brilliant stories and a lot of your fellow races might have even done what you are wanting to do in the future so you can gain valuable information.

Running by Lake Como

Number 10 – Enjoy it

Enjoy your event.  Trail running is an amazing sport that I am so proud to be a part of.  When you are running ultras, marathons or 10k.  Run it with pride.  When you finish, bask in the glory of your new medal and excellent achievement.  Eat the bagel that you have carried for the last few hours.  Be proud!!

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