How to run your first trail race

Charlie Sproson shares the top five techniques you need to master to ace your first trail race

Credit: Paul Mitchell

Credit: Paul Mitchell

1 Wear the right kit

Look at the weather report over the preceding week. The race organisers will send you an up-to-date weather forecast a few days before the race, but get clued up in advance. Ask yourself what the ground conditions will be. Will it be dry and hard, or has it been raining all week and liable to be a mud bath? This will help you with your kit selection. 

Let’s start with footwear because, to be honest, for a 10k this is the most important piece of kit to consider. Don’t just grab your old road shoes; you’ll be all over the place. From experience, we advise a good trail shoe. Make sure the tread is good – this will give you the confidence to run at your best.

When it comes to clothes for summer running, consider a long-sleeved base layer or a t-shirt – whichever your preference – but remember a windy and rainy day can be cold if you’re not moving fast. Then there’s the question of windproofs or waterproofs; the race director might advise waterproofs, but if you’re planning to break records, opt for minimal kit. If you’re just settling in for the ride, however, and a downpour is forecast, go for comfort and protection.

2 Pace yourself

Pacing yourself is really hard. You have to know yourself and you have to
have raced before, plenty of times, to get it right. If it’s your first 10k then take your training-run times and look at results from previous years. Try to work out what time you think you will achieve. Will you be at the front of the pack? Are you a mid-runner, or do you like to have
fun and enjoy bringing up the rear? Be honest with yourself. 

Once you have a rough time estimate, look at where in the results you think you will finish and then work out if it is in the top third, the middle of the herd, or the latter third. This is roughly where you should start in the pack, so you don’t out-run yourself. 

It’s never great to be passed, but it feels wonderful to run past others, and if you get it right and pass runners whilst you are racing you will be more likely to achieve your PB than if you constantly have runners passing you. Remember, though, there is not much time in a 10k to recover from starting too far back, so its important to get this right. 

3 Walk up steep hills

Hills – are they your friend or foe? Do you run hills well? Are you used to them? Do you relish them? This can make or break your race, and the KMF 10k Trail Race has a cracker in the first half. You can demolish your legs if you run it and you’re not used to it. My advice is to know your strengths and weaknesses and, again, be honest with yourself. So the runners around you are attacking the hills? Well, you’re either in the wrong part of the pack or it’s just not your strength. 

Most runners will walk when the hill gets to a certain gradient; only the elite keep running to win the race. More ground can be gained on the flats and the downs than on the hills. Speed walk the hills, try to keep your back straight, keep your cadence high and keep moving at a steady rate. Breathe well and don’t be tempted to talk to the runners around you. Keeping a straight back will help you intake the maximum amount of air, and this will help when you start running again. It’s far better to run as soon as you hit the flats than have burning thighs from running hills and suffer during easy sections. 

4 Use the downhills

Downhills are fun! Think of it like this and you’ll fly. If you’re scared of them, then you’ll move like a snail. So practise downhills until you feel relaxed, and enjoy them. Make them your friend and you will literally cruise past people – they will become your secret weapon. Hold your own on the uphills and fly on the downs: it’s that simple. 

So how do you do this? Find a gentle slope in your local area, check it for debris and roots. Once you’re happy its clear of obstructions, stand at the top, think of fun, relax, and run down. Lean into the hill slightly, as if you lean back you’ll be braking all the way. Once you have this downhill bossed, find the next one, slightly steeper, and repeat. Then keep finding steeper and steeper hills. 

Next, look for more technical terrain and do the same thing. Once you’re happy on the technical terrain, find steeper technical terrain. 

In a nutshell, stay light on your feet, lean slightly into the downward slope, stay relaxed, look five to ten paces in front to pick your line, and think speed. Remember, practice makes perfect! 

5 Keep your head

You can ‘think’ yourself into running badly and you can ‘think’ yourself into becoming a champion. Of course, the physical must be trained and in shape, but if you don’t have a positive frame of mind then you might as well not turn up to the start line. Seriously! 

Mantras can really help. Pick your own, and make it personal. Positive affirmations really help the mental side of your running psyche.

  • This article first appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of Trail Running