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Avoid These Common Mistakes When Transitioning from Road Racing to Trail Racing

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Transitioning from road racing to trail racing might seem straight forward…you just go out, find a trail, and train on that more, right? That will help, but there are key differences between road races and trail races that are important to consider with your overall training and racing day preparation.

Here are some common mistakes to avoid when running your first trail race:

Expecting to be able to maintain the same pace on trails as you can on roads:

Trail running is always going to be slower than road running. Especially if the trail is really technical with a lot of rocks and roots or if there is a lot of change in elevation. Whatever your road PR is for a distance, expect to add at least a minute per mile. Try to get out and do as many long runs on as possible. If you can find trails that are similar to the race, that is even better! This will help you have a better idea as to what your pace is on trails.

Having too much focus on finding the perfect shoe vs doing exercises for your feet and overall balance:

Trail shoes make a world of a difference when running on trails. Try out a variety of different trail shoes and find one or two pairs that you like. There is no trail shoe that is “the best,” and what works for you will likely be different than what works for your best friend, your running group pals, or people in a running Facebook group. With that said, many runners focus too much attention on their shoes vs. bigger concerns with mobility, strength, balance, coordination, and movement patterns. Your shoes are likely not the issue. It is much more likely that there is something else going on. Trails typically are not perfectly flat and smooth like roads are. This means that they challenge our balance and foot and ankle muscles a lot more because our body is trying to help us not fall on our face every 5 minutes. Do exercises that challenge your balance, make your feet stronger, and improve your overall strength to better stabilize your ankles, knees, and hips.

Structuring your training the same as road training:

If you are doing a trail race that is a 30k or shorter, you can follow a road training plan and do well. Once you get over the 50k mark, structuring your training like a marathon plan will likely lead to injury and burnout. If you are doing a 50 miler, there is no need to do a 40 mile training run. That will take an insane amount of time to recover from! Instead, work up to doing back-to-back long runs on the weekends.

Viewing falling as something that is not normal or expected:

If you are doing a trial race for the first time, expect to fall. It is going to take time for your body to get used to running with slightly different movement patterns than road runner so that you quickly adjust to uneven terrain. When just starting out, focus most of your attention on the terrain that is right in front of you. That way, you can adjust your running to the roots and rocks that are right by your feet. As you get more experienced, practice scanning the terrain that is further ahead of you. Your body will get better at recognizing the terrain and adjusting to it without having to stare at your feet the whole race. If you do fall, try rolling with the fall so that you are not have a straight blow to the body parts that hit the ground first.

Focusing too much attention on what your watch is saying vs rate of perceived exertion:

This is an area that often leads to new trail runners underperforming on race day. If you have spent a lot of time focusing on your watch to see what your heart rate or pace is to tell you how hard you are working, then you will likely have a tough time doing well on race day. During your runs, learn to have an internal sense of how hard you are working and how you are feeling. This will lead to you performing 1000x better on race day, especially for longer races. People who focus all of their attention on heart rate or hitting specific split times tend to ignore how their body is feeling, which leads to completely crashing towards the end of the race. Work with how your body is feeling on any given day vs trying to force it to perform above what it is capable of doing.

Running up the hills:

For longer races, running the hills is going to use up a lot of energy. Think of your body as a battery. You only have so much energy available on race day. Do you want to use up a ton of it so you can go a little faster up a hill or do you want to conserve that energy so you can move fast on the flatter section and have some solid energy left over for the end of the race? If the race is going to be hilly, have some key workouts every week that involve hiking hard up hills. Being a great hiker will allow you to conserve a lot of energy while also moving at a great pace.

Not doing enough speed walking training:

If you are a fast runner, then you will be a fast walker, right? Unfortunately, not. Walking and running involve two completely different programs in our body and brain. If you know you will be doing some walking during your trail race, then incorporate speed walking into your training. You are only as fast as your slowest mile, so walking fast will make your slowest mile fast!

Not focusing enough on nutrition and hydration:

With road races that are a marathon and shorter, you can get away with not fueling well. You will still finish the race, although it will not be your best performance. With longer trail runs, it will be a lot harder to finish the race if you do not consistently take in fuel. Try to eat something every 30 minutes and consistently take in an electrolyte drink and water. This will help your body to stay strong throughout the whole race. Whatever you plan on using on race day for fuel, make sure to also use that same fuel during all of your long runs. Your GI system does not magically change on race day to suddenly be able to digest gels and other products. Avoid GI upset by using food that you are used to eating. Something to also consider on race day is that the time it will take to get from aid station to aid station is going to be significantly longer than in a road race. Four to five miles might not sound all that far, but in a trail run, it could be around an hour before you hit the next aid station.

Not doing homework on the course:

I am very guilty of this one myself. Take time to do some homework and read about the course of the race. Make sure you know how far apart the aid stations are and what will be provided there. Is the course really technical? How much elevation gain is there? Having a general idea of where the course goes is also helpful so you can avoid getting lost.

Not trying out gear before a race:

Whatever gear you plan on using on race day, make sure to practice using it on long runs. Things to consider are hydration vests, handheld bottles, bladders, flip belts, gaiters, shoes, socks, and other running clothes. You do not want an unpleasant surprise on race day that your gear/clothes cause chaffing, blisters, or other annoyances.

I hope these pointers help so that you can train and race smarter, healthier, happier, and longer at trail races!

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