Group of trail runners finishing a race in the rain (but still smiling)

Tips for your first trail running race

Trail running races are a blast. They tend to have more of a relaxed vibe than road running races, and usually have a smaller group of runners on the course.

To kick things off, watch MEC staffer Chris and Dan from Canadian Running chat about how to get ready for a trail race:

How to choose a trail race

If it’s your first trail race, congrats! While you might feel inspired to sign up for a 50-miler after watching some epic trail running videos, it’s smart to start small and build from there. Remember that your trail running pace is most likely going to be slower (sometimes quite a bit slower) than your road running pace. When you choose your trail race category, think about “time on feet” and the difficulty of the course, along with distance.

It’s nice to stick close to home for your first trail race, since it keeps logistics simple and means you’ll likely  be on familiar trails. When you feel ready for a destination race, go for it. Races in other cities give you a great excuse for an active weekend away, and also let you sample trails in other cities – with the bonus of having pre-planned, marked routes.

“I felt overwhelmed leading up to my first trail race, and even during it, but as the race went on I gained confidence. I was absolutely elated when I finished… and felt pretty much unstoppable.” – MEC member Jim W.

How to train for a trail race

Two trail runners in the forest

In many ways, training for a trail race is similar to how to prep for a road race. You’ll want to include a range of training runs, like running hills (both up and down), long runs and tempo runs. But the most important thing is to spend time on the trails. For many runners, that might mean doing weekday runs on the road, and then hitting the trails on the weekend.

Check out the race map and route descriptions for your trail race and plan some runs on the actual race course if you can. If that’s not possible, run some similar trails. For example, if the race has a lot of elevation, plan some hill workouts. Or if it’s on highly technical trails, work on your technique and do some cross-training to strengthen your ankles.

MEC trail race clinics

Weekly meet-up runs or trail running clinics make it easy to explore unfamiliar routes. Plus, many MEC group run routes include the same trails as the races, so you can get a sneak preview of upcoming races.

How to have a great race day

Group of trail runners celebrating after the race

Before you set your alarm for race day, set yourself up for a fun day on the trails with a few simple tips:

  1. Pace yourself and start slow: Don’t burn out 1km into the race. Let everyone else blast off the start line while you keep a steady pace and finish strong.
  2. Check the weather: Use the forecast to plan what to wear on race day. Morning of, do a quick weather double-check before you leave your house.
  3. Check the course map: Know when the race whoppers are coming, like big climbs, steep descents, and long stretches where you can open it up if you’re feeling good. Oh – and where the sweet views are for a quick race selfie.
  4. Know where the aid stations are: And what they’ll be stocked with so you can plan your own water and snacks accordingly.
  5. Stick to what you know: Resist the temptation to wear new shoes/socks/tank-top/anything. Race day is for tried, trusted and true gear that you used in training.
  6. Prep your cheer squad: Let your family and friends know the best vantage spot to give you a mid-race high-five, or when they can expect to see you cross the finish line.
  7. Have fun! Smile at least once when you’re sweating up a big hill, thank volunteers you see on the course, wave to race photographers, and enjoy that finish-line banana and massage. You earned it.

“Thank the volunteers! The marshals, the aid station people, their dogs, their children (always high-five the kids). They’re out there longer than you and they’re great people – and sometimes they have treats.” – MEC member Kim M.