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Hey everyone has to start somewhere. Some length.

Trails come in any variety of forms, and that’s what makes this sport/hobby so versatile and interesting. Sure you can run all different roads up and down, but mainly your foot stays in the same plane: flat to the ground. You can also see all sorts of scenery from the roads and travel through a lot of neat places. However, trails most often times gets you deeper into those mountains or woods…places you would not normally traverse.

If you pick up a local trail race, or one far away even, just remember that the race director chose those trails to run on because they thought people would enjoy them most. Either that or there is some very unique feature that would be really cool to see up close and personal!

But just what is involved in running a trail race, and what should new-comers expect? Even if you come from a road running background, there are key differences to note. For the sake of this article, we are going to assume you have never ran a race.

Race Course

From Zion Ultras.

Typically, trails are softer footing, and people generally move slower on them, not being able to always place their feet where they want. May this be due to roots, rocks, sand, or mud. Running trails is a mental game, one that usually takes some of your attention at all times. If you want to get better at running trails, run various trails! Start gaining muscle memory for weird steps and improving those tinier stabilizer muscle groups.

Sometimes courses are structured a certain way. Whether that be loops, out-and-back, or point-to-point, you gotta go somewhere! Here’s the breakdown of each:

  • Out-and-back. These are pretty common. You start in one place, go out to a marked point, and come back the way you came.
  • Loop(s). You start and come back to the same point, without retracing any of your steps, similar to going around in a circle, but rarely do trails make perfect shapes. Some are one giant loops, some have multiple loops, and some more than one of the same loop.
  • Lollipop. Similar to one loop, you start in one place and head out in one direction to meet up with the start of the loop (think, actual lollipop shape). This “out” is generally called the stick. You will eventually come back to this point once completing the loop and head back to the start.
  • Point-to-Point. You start in one place and end in another, generally not retracing any of your steps. A one way ticket.
  • Branched. These are not very common but can be a component of a race. Basically, these are smaller out-and-backs from a main trunk of a trail. Think tree like. You start and head out on the main trail, taking small detours along the way that branch out from the main trail, returning to the main trail every time.

Your race may be one of these or a combination of these! One of the highlights of running trail races is that it is usually never boring and keeps you on your toes.

Aid Stations

These are the bread and butter of trail races. Although they may be far apart (ordinarily 3-7 miles apart, versus 1-2 for roads), they pack a punch. Aid station thoroughfare commonly offer an assortment of goodies such as soda, real food items (think candy, chips, even sandwiches!), along with the usually water and electrolyte beverages.

The reason for their distance apart is because it is very challenging to access the trails by road sometimes. In that you have a large amount of supplies to provide a runner and need to set up the station where you can get to it easily. Some people get upset when they don’t know about this ahead of time (the distance between aid stations/frequency of aid stations). But know this is standard.

Gear

There are a lot of people out there who love buying new stuff for their new hobby! So let’s dig into this a bit.

There are so many questions that arise from runners concerning what to use. Going off of the frequency and number of aid stations potentially on a course, let’s introduce the hydration vest.

Hydration Vest

A hydration vest is a very good tool to invest in when you are considering trail races. They generally have quite a few pockets for storage (food, phone, other supplies). You can also carry several liters of water if you feel so inclined (although most find more than 2L more than enough to make it between the aid stations). You can either get them in a bladder style, or now the use of the front pockets for soft flasks is becoming popular…or both! Some people use a soft flask to carry their own electrolyte mix in.

A hydration vest is very useful if your race is short enough that you may not have to refill it, and can skip aid stations altogether.

An alternative to hydration vests is also the handheld water bottle. Companies also make handheld flasks you can comfortable carry 8-16 oz of water on you so you are lighter. The downside is that you lose the ability to carry other items on your person. Another alternative worth mentioning is the hydration waist pack, which you carry small 4-8 oz bottles around your waist.

Apparel

Weather is probably going to happen. It is always happening! Be prepared for whatever mother nature is going to shove in your plans. In that respect, there are a few gear items you can use to make things more comfortable for you in the long run.

Invest in a waterproof jacket. A cool trick is to get one slightly larger than your actual size. Why? Because you can use it to layer when it gets cooler out. Putting a fleece under a waterproof jacket is a good hack to staying warm when it’s 40°F and raining.

Trail shoes are a nice item to have, but not a must-have. Trail shoes are characterized by larger lugs on the soles, that are more gripping than road shoe soles. This can help in wet conditions or conditions with loose footing and uphill/downhill maneuverability. Note, they will wear down faster on roads if worn on pavement than road shoes.

Other Useful Items

If you plan on being out more than an hour, consider packing a gel or some food on your own to get you by between aid stations. Some also plan on toting wet wipes or tissues/toilet paper, just in case something happens out in the wild. Not all races will provide you with port-o-potties! Hat/visors will provide shade, but are actually useful when it rains (this can be said the same for any run or race). Lastly, some bug spray, anti-chafe, and sunscreen are all good runner tools for your toolbox whether you carry them with you or not.

Vibe

Trail races certainly have a different vibe or mood than road races, and tend to be more laid back and friendly. You’ll find a wide variety of people out there doing their thing. It’s typical in trail races to see people walk more, especially on any sort of incline/hill. This is perfectly ok!

Use this opportunity, when slowing down, to talk to others, and say hi (and for courtesy, use “on your left”, or “coming up behind you” since a lot of trails are more narrow). Everyone out there is in the same situation as you essentially. The “in it together” mentality.

And finally, you probably will fall, at some point. Take some time in your training to work on your upper body and core. This could very well help prevent falls or making them less ugly in the end. Trails after all use more muscles than road running for stability.

In the wise words of founder Scott Jones, “have fun!”.

Do you like what we do and would like to keep these educational articles coming? Consider donating on Patreon, it mean so much to us. If you’d like to be part of Team BU, go check us out, we’d love to grow our team and it’s a place for everyone. Check out our coaching page too as we accept new clients one the regular, whether it’s shooting for your first or 100th ultra. Every form of support matters.

Stephanie Dannenberg

Steph has been running really far in really hot, cold, dry, and rainy places. She is the newest coach for Becoming Ultra and contributes on the podcast regularly!

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