8 Tips Before Taking On Your First Trail/Ultra Race

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Are you a first time trail runner? Are you thinking about moving over from the roads? Odds are you’re going to have some questions about the transition, what to expect, and how to prepare. I know when I ran my first ultra trail race I had no clue about some of the most important differences between trail and road racing and wish I had read up a bit more before my race. Below you’ll find 8 tips and insights to help you prepare for the trails.

1) Hydration/Nutrition Strategy

One of the most important things that you can do prior to running your first trail race is to nail down your hydration and nutrition strategy. When you’re on the trails there are more unknown variables, making it pertinent that you have a plan before going into the race. Make sure to practice eating, drinking, and consuming the exact items that you will be using on race day to ensure that your stomach is prepared. Since everyone’s body works differently, practicing eating and drinking on your long runs will give you a sense of how many calories you need to take in along with the amount of fluid per hour based on your sweat rate.

2) Elevation Gain/Hills

A major difference between road and trail is the elevation gain and hills that you will experience over the course of your chosen race distance. Often times in road races, the total elevation gain is typically a very small number, depending on the distance you are running and the location of the course. In most trail and ultra races you will see some flat courses, but expect to see a minimum of 2,000+ feet of elevation for a 50k or 50 Miler. Be sure to incorporate hill workouts into your training to make sure you’re prepared for the course you will be racing.

3) Pacing. Slow Down.

Trail running is a big difference from road running. Elevation gain, rocks, river crossings and tree roots are just a couple of items that will alter your pacing. Make sure to start at an easy pace to ensure you’re able to push through your entire run/race. You should add at least a minute to a minute and a half to whatever you consider your easy pace when you take on trails.

4) Time Based Runs vs. Distance Based Runs

Try to change your mindset to time based running instead of distance based running. Trail races, especially 50K’s, 50 Milers and beyond require you to be on your feet for more hours than you have run before. It’s a good idea to get your body used to running around half of the time you expect to finish your race in. If you’re aiming for an 8-hour 50 mile finish, make sure to do at minimum a 4 hour trail run a few weeks prior to your race.

5) Know The Course (Elevation Map, Course Guides, Course Marking)

Before you toe the line on race morning, make sure you’re prepared for what’s ahead. Check the race website for elevation charts and course guides as well as read all of the information provided so you know exactly what to expect going into the race. This will not only help you be 100% prepared come race-day, but can also help you plan your training prior to the event.

6) Aid Station/Menu

This goes back to #1 and #5. Make sure you do your research and know what will be available for you at each aid station on race-day. This should play into your training runs before hand so you can become acclimated to running and eating/drinking exactly what you’ll be consuming in the race. Sometimes races will advertise that they have gels or certain items at aid stations, but when you run into an aid station on race-day, they actually don’t. Be prepared for this by bringing extra items just in case. Most races will offer fully stocked aid stations that include PB&J sandwiches, gels, chips, pretzels, assorted candy, potatoes, salt, and much more, which can help supplement those items that you will be carrying in your pack or pockets.

7) Crew

When you move over trail and ultra running from the road, the amount of on-course support increases dramatically. When you ran your last road 5k, 10k, Half Marathon or even Marathon, you were probably only greeted at aid stations by volunteers passing out cups of electrolyte drink, water, and occasionally gels. You also probably only saw your family at the start of the race and once again at the finish line. When you move to trail and ultra races you not only gain those heavily stocked aid stations we just discussed, but you often times gain the ability to utilize your family and friends to a much greater extent. Depending on the event and distance, races will allow you to have a crew at certain aid stations. This is a person or group of people who cater to your needs when you come into an aid stations, They can refill your water bottles, give you food that you asked to have available at that specific point in the race and offer a great deal of emotional support. Some races will offer several crew accessible aid stations along the route, making it easy to just focus on running and allowing your crew to provide your essential needs.

8) Pacers

In addition to your crew, some races also offer you the ability to have a pacer. This isn’t like your typical marathon group pacer who runs the race holding up a sign with the time they are pacing and tries to pull everyone aiming for that time along throughout the race. Pacers in trail and ultra races are your best friend, your mom, or your dad, really anyone who you know will be able to keep you moving during a race even when it hurts and can help motivate you when you’re feeling mentally exhausted. You’ll start seeing races allow people to have pacers when the distance starts getting closer to 100 miles in length or longer, but some smaller races will allow them for the 50K or Marathon. If you do use a pacer, make sure to choose someone who you are familiar with and knows how to push your buttons to achieve your effort.

These are just a few of the many tips and suggestions that first time trail/ultra runners will find useful as they make their transition to the sport. Which of the tips and suggestions do you wish you knew before running your first trail/ultra race? What other advice would you give?

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10 responses to “8 Tips Before Taking On Your First Trail/Ultra Race

  1. Thanks for the tips. Like most ultra runners I learned most of it on the trail with tips from people like you. There’s no better teacher than your own experience but I don’t mind avoiding pitfalls if someone can get through to me.

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    • Very well put. I agree 100% with that statement. The more ultras/trail races I run, the more I learn and the more I learn, the better and more prepared I become. Thanks for the thought! I look forward to checking your blog out and catching up on your running adventures.

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  3. Practice wearing what you’ll wear in the race. Particularly the rucksack/belt which may seem the most comfy thing ever on a 15 mile training run, but becomes heavier and heavier as your shoulders and back tire after hours of running -even though your water bladder MUST be getting lighter you’d think!
    Be prepared for having to make yourself eat! I’d planned my nutrition down to the number of grams of Carbs at exact points on the race only to find that after 4 hours I didn’t feel like eating and had to force myself to swallow it. However it works and I’ve never (yet… Touch wood) hit the wall!
    Lastly – Take on plain water as well as electrolytes.

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