So, You Signed up For a Trail Race. Now What?

Perhaps you got the bug to challenge yourself during your morning run. Maybe your co-workers signed up and you thought it sounded interesting. Or maybe your run club cajoled you into it after one too many post-run beers. Now you’re in, and you’re excited to undergo training. The thought of race day sends a pang of anticipation and eagerness. An adventure, just what you need.

But deep in the pit of your stomach, you feel a twinge of fear.

What if I fall on the trail? What if I don’t run fast enough? I have to run at what time at night?! You mean in the dark with a headlamp?

I’d be lying if I said none of these thoughts crossed my mind while flipping on my headlamp fifteen hours into a trail race. Trail running can be scary. Whether this is your first trail race or you have the experience of a hundred trail ultra-marathons under your belt, each time you put on that race bib you are heading out into the unknown.

So how can we overcome our trail fears? Here are three tips.

Train for race day specifics

If you were training for a road half-marathon, I’d say put in the mileage, recover well, and show up on race day with a smile. However, trail events are a whole different kind of beast, requiring additional gear and a set of skills that are unique to trail running. Elements like technical terrain, running in the dark, and the necessity for gear while out on a run is what makes trail running exciting, but it can also be a little overwhelming.

The key to showing up on race day with confidence is to train for race day specifics. Throw on your headlamp and hit your favorite trail in the dark. Get comfortable running with your hydration pack stuffed with more than you need and practice taking in calories while out on an easy training run. When your legs are a little more tired than usual, go out for a jog to simulate the fatigue you’ll be sure to feel in the final leg of the race. Practicing the most challenging elements of trail racing will ensure that you toe the line with confidence.

Let go of pace, time goals, and even expectations.

The time you can expect to run a 10k in on the roads is going to be hugely different than the time you can hope to run a 10k on trails. Even a flat trail can significantly slow down the most gifted trail runners. Trails tend to have more elevation change and uneven, rocky terrain making pace an inaccurate and irrelevant measurement. By getting too caught up in splits, you will drive yourself crazy. So let go of pace, time goals and even expectations. Instead, run off effort level. From your training, you know what a hard effort feels like, and that effort is the only relevant gage in a trail race. If you’re running at an effort that feels challenging, you are running fast enough.

Pro tip: It’s OK to walk the climbs! When especially tired or trekking up a particularly long hill, hiking can be more energy efficient than running. If the pros do it, so can you!

Embrace the Challenge

There is no getting around it, your trail experience will challenge you. It’s going to be hard, and at times you may question why you signed up in the first place. But if you toe the start line knowing that it’s going to be hard, you are arming yourself with preparedness. When the lows inevitably come, and thoughts of doubt linger, you will be ready to fight through them. Embrace the challenge and you will be rewarded with the highs that make the lows of trail running worth it.

More importantly, when you come out on the other side as a finisher, the challenges you faced will only make the accomplishment of completion all the sweeter.