Preparing for a Trail Race

November 10, 2017

It’s almost an oxymoron to use the words trail and race, since trail running requires a different examination of your running skills set, compared to road running say. So the fastest runner in the field will not necessarily be the fastest runner on the day.

Key requirements for trail running include balance, a strong core, good ankle mobility and adaptability to different terrains. Improving these should also provide confidence in your resilience beyond running.

You can hone these skills by running on a variety of terrains but if you are not a sheep farmer who spends all of his time on his feet, the chances are you’ll also need a degree of self-maintenance.


Ten things you can do which will help to improve your trail running performance:

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Assess what kind of body you have

Is your body a warm weather friend or fit for all seasons? To get the most out of your training, it is worth recognising if you have the type of body which leaps in to action upon command or takes a while to warm up. Decide what time of day suits you best and run then. Perhaps in really low temperatures, your muscles feel tight and constricted? Bit might be better to leave it to later in the day when your body temperature has increased.

If you are doing a 20 minute fast tempo run in your lunch break because that’s all that time permits, (running at your optimum pace for that distance), you may want to get a sweat on before leaving the office/house by lunging, skipping or jumping on the spot. Otherwise treat the first five to fifteen minutes of your run as a warm up, to break your body in.

If you experience breathing difficulties in cold weather. Make sure your chest and upper thorax is warm and relaxed before you head out in to the cold.

Build quality and confidence in to your running through play:

Incorporate a good mix of quality or confidence runs in to your training, as well as maintenance runs, by which I mean maintaining aerobic fitness through steady state running, as much of it off road as possible. Your maintenance runs can be recovery runs or slow longer runs but the long run should not be done when you are feeling really tired.

You should aim to make at least half of your runs quality/confidence runs. So if you are using a seven day cycle; that may be two runs if you run three or four days a week, or three if you run five times. These hardwire your body to accept higher levels of intensity and positive feedback in to your neuromuscular commands.

The point of a training plan is not to follow a formula like a bus timetable, which will suck the life out of running, but to lift bits and to mix and match according to your requirements and commitments.

Try to run with others whenever possible, especially on your maintenance runs. The group cohesion helps to provide some motivation for the other days of the week, which is pivotal.

Sessions should be rotatable and can be made to fit a seven to ten day, or even a two week cycle: It doesn’t matter. As long as you give yourself time to adapt and recover.

Set your intentions and run positive. If when you get out of bed, the first thing you do is grumble, you may also recognise this mind set when you’re running. Change this by reminding yourself why you are running or running towards something positive- a feeling or a concrete thought. A hill is just a hill, but it can also be a physical boundary, so reward yourself with a positive thought when you get to the top-whether it’s stopping to admire the view or freewheeling down the other side.

Instead of seeing running as a chore that has to be done at the end of a long day, embrace it in a playful way. Instead of running for distance, run for time and always warm down at the end of a run, which could mean walking or jogging the last five to ten minutes of a run. This gives your muscles and lymphatic system a chance to drain. If you need to stretch, incorporate dynamic stretches-stretches on the move when your muscles are already warm. Pump blood to your major muscles by doing some deep squats and lunges before setting off.


Run like a sprinter to build gears

Incorporate some speed drills and sprints in to your training-preferably barefooted around a cricket pitch or park. This need only be for ten to twenty minutes or four flat out sprints of 30 seconds. But the onus is on form, high knee lift, fast feet, driving off from your big toe, with an upright to slightly forward leaning cadence (from the ankles not the waist). Make sure your muscles are warmed up first. The barefoot option is mainly to reduce stride length, to encourage good form and improve sensory feedback. It doesn’t mean you should always run barefooted.

It will enhance your pleasure of the running experience if you cultivate an understanding of pace, by going through the gears (where first gear is walking and second gear a slow trot, to third and fourth which is a higher intensity). You may think you only have two gears but you can work on this.

A long run of 60 minutes to 150 minutes off road in second gear. Choose an interesting route, preferably with a coastline, some green lanes or a national park with some hills. Grab a friend, if you are able, plot your route on a map before setting out but allow yourself the luxury of changing this.

Build in Balance (good for downhill running) and Mobility:

Balance is key for downhill running since it is basically a controlled fall. Find yourself a Swiss ball and balance on one. You can start by holding on to something, then standing eventually for 30 secs, then up to a minute at a time, two or three times. One thing I would say though is stretch your psoas afterwards because they can get a little tight. This is the muscle that connects from your lumbar and thoracic spine to your pelvis.

One of the many things that makes Africans such natural runners is their ankle mobility. If you run a lot on the track or road, you can lose some ankle mobility. Counter this by sitting on your feet, then kneeling in the sprint start position, so you are dorsi flexing and plantar flexing your ankles. Also practice standing on one foot and bending your support leg at the knee. Then try this with your eyes closed.

You can build ankle strength just by walking around barefooted on your toes and/or heels. Combine strength work with stretching/mobility work though as strengthening can also mean shortening of the muscle. Skipping (with a rope) and jumping (on the spot or burpees). This is good for foot placement, balance and rhythm.

The important thing is not to work on individual muscles but on the whole limb, or at least to see it as a functioning whole. Your primary and secondary movers work in unison, which is why you have to stretch, as well as strengthen, sometimes to compensate for an inherent weakness. But there is no substitute for good movement.


Work on your Core

In a way this is the most important thing you can do because without a fully activated core, you are carrying around a sack of potatoes.

Try to fit in at least one activity a week which involves testing your core’s resilience.

This could be (climbing, a really excellent holistic work out) pilates or yoga, even ice skating, or some simple breathing exercises.

For core strength you will need to strengthen your diaphragm. One way of doing this is by pressing in to your diaphragm as you breathe in and breathe out slowly against resistance. Resist that runner’s thing of doing as many as you can though. Only do as many as seems right.

Race Day Preparation and Tactics: Study the course, check the weather and respect SOD’s Law!

Check what kind of race it is? TRA or FRA: As there is sometimes a bit of an overlap between Trail Running and Fell Running (although whisper this to seasoned fell runners), it is worth knowing under whose auspices the run is held, as this will determine the rules. A Fell race which is being supported by the FRA, means you can choose your route, as long as you make the relevant checkpoints. Most trail races, held under the auspices of the TRA however, have a pre laid route without the chance to freestyle it!

Most trail runners study the distance and gradient involved, almost obsessively but this only gives a partial picture. This does not account for two other vital factors, such as the weather and the downhill sections.

Check the weather and the downhill sections

If you are running along a ridge against a prevailing wind, it is useful to know the duration of such sections. If the wind is gusting, i.e. when the wind changes speed or direction, you may even feel as though you are running in the wrong direction, unless you are prepared for it by studying local weather patterns. The wind often changes direction at weather fronts, the curved black line on an isometric chart, which can be a warm or cold front. Leaning in to a wind will tire you far more than you realised and sap your hip flexors, which are working harder now to do their job.

The downhill bits may take more out of your legs than the uphill sections. So it is useful to know how steep and how long these sections are. This is also where your shoe selection counts. If there are lots of downhill sections and it’s a technical descent, i.e. rocky or gnarly, or the rain has created a gloopy, slimy surface for example, then shoes will be a priority (see box out).

Study the course and run it in your mind. If you get the chance for a sneak preview, study the course. Most races are fairly well marked but it will, remove any uncertainty about what to expect. There is no substitute for proprioceptive feedback and since your feet are your smartest tools on a trail run, they need to be acquainted with the terrain.

The best way to prepare for the trail, is to know the contours, surface and quirky features, which will remind your body it has been here before. Take in to account though, that the weather may have changed everything beyond recognition. A glistening brook may have swelled and flooded, a river spilled its banks, creating a quagmire, a steep section of tarmac made perilous by a stealthy sheath of ice.

Sod’s Law

Sod’s Law rules on Race Day. The traffic won’t respect your plans (even more so if you’re travelling a long way), the weather won’t abate and as you’ve decided to stay somewhere else overnight, you can’t find the pre-race food that you’d usually eat.

If you have to travel a long way, especially by car, give yourself time to stretch on route and drink plenty. It sounds obvious but major muscles like the glutes can go in to sleep mode if not activated for too long and secondary movers will step up to take their place, causing tightness and spasms. You can mediate this by propping yourself up, or support your lower back, so that your hips are higher than your knees.

Have some idea of where you will leave your kit in advance and preferably with a friend or relative who will hunt you down after the trace. This means reading the race FAQs and briefing, which should always contain this information. Find your optimal level of arousal for a race and tune in to it. If you are over anxious before the start, the chances are you will go off too fast. Conversely, if you are too chilled out, you may not have prepared the details. I am occasionally guilty of this!

In fact I can vouch for the veracity of Sod’s Law. I was running in the Bournemouth half marathon, had no prearranged place to leave my clothes and could not find the friends I was supposed to meet. So I was forced to hand my wallet and tracksuit over to a complete stranger at the start. As the race got underway, with me at the back of 2,000 runners, behind a long, all too narrow seaside promenade, I was forced to chase down the entire field by running along the promenade wall and jumping the gaps. Luckily the injection of adrenaline didn’t appear to do any harm, as I finished at the front of the field. But I couldn’t really enjoy the experience until being reacquainted with my clothes and wallet and the still slightly surprised Samaritan!

Race Day Tactics

Choose a narrative for motivation and optimal arousal (as sports psychologists tend to call it). A narrative is your reservoir of intrinsic motivation, to dip in to, when you’ve almost reached your limit. This could be proving your doubters (or yourself) wrong, or more prosaicly a fox or deer, escaping the hunt! Everyone has a different tipping point between positive arousal and stress and anxiety. You can raise the threshold by cultivating a positive outlook on stress. For instance, it makes you feel alive!

Relax on the hills, take advantage of any flat, firm surfaces, concentrate on what’s under your feet and immediately up ahead and forget about the end of your half ways splits. This will only psyche you out, especially if you are a perfectionist.

KIT Box Out

Trail shoes: Which choice depends on your feet as much as the terrain. Generally speaking though, the rockier or gnarlier the terrain, the more stability you will want in your shoe, which could mean a stiffer heel or midsole. La Sportiva do an excellent trail shoe; the Bushido Trail, which has grown on me since I first used them and for ultra runners, the Raptor has had good results.

If you want something that will dry quickly, which you can wear on the tuftier off road sections and which will offer some sort of cushioning, the Salomon Fellraisers are great. They also have a toe cap to protect against kicking something much sturdier than the dirt.

Running Crampons: In icy wintry conditions, if you are planning an adventurous ridge run in Snowdonia or the Lakes for example, you may want to bring some slip-on micro spikes, elasticated spring crampons, which use Carbide spikes, as they can fit over your running shoes and can be kept in your pocket, allegedly!

Compression tights and calf guards: These will help recovery and if they come with a back pocket, you can store your gels or electrolyte tablets in them

A pouch with a bottle cavity: This will allow you to drink on the run. Very useful for efforts longer than two hours.

Ceri is a former member of the British Endurance Squad, a qualified Mountain Leader and outdoors journalist and runs a trail running business called Wild Running, based in Devon, which stages camps, coaching courses and events.