Tips for Your First Trail-Running Race

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Woman smiling as she nears the finish line
While it’s entirely possible to be a lifelong trail runner without ever pinning on a competitor number, many runners eventually find themselves drawn to the starting line. Some simply like the idea of gathering with like-minded souls in the woods. Others are driven by a compulsion to test their physical limits in a supportive environment.

Whatever your motivation, this article will give you tips for:

  • Choosing an appropriate trail-running race
  • Prerace preparation, including physical and mental prep
  • Race-day etiquette and tips for getting off to a good start

Choosing a Trail-Running Race

Trail running’s growing popularity means you have an abundance of race options. As you consider your choices, keep the following in mind:

Know thyself: Don’t get overly ambitious about distance for your first race. Be realistic about your physical abilities. A 5K race, though, is well within the reach of most new trail runners.

Allow training time: Don’t sign up for an event next week. For a 5K race, give yourself at least four weeks to train—six weeks is even better. For a 10K, plan on eight to 10 weeks of training time.

Consider camping or lodging details: If you select an event in a remote area, you’ll want to arrange for nearby camping or lodging. If it’s a popular event, book well in advance to be sure you get a spot. Most races start early in the morning, so staying as close as possible is desirable. 

Where to find a trail-running race:

Local Running Clubs and Classes: These are a great place to get both race recommendations and training support. Several REI stores offer them.

Online resources: A growing number of websites have searchable race calendars. Look at both general running sites and trail-running sites.

Preparing for a Race

trail runner checking their fitness watch

If you’ve been trail running for a while already, your gear setup, along with your nutrition and hydration approach, should work fine for a 5K or 10K race. Race day is no time to pull out some fancy new shoes or chow down on some completely different fuel. A few things will be different, though, so you should plan for them: 

Study details about the aid stations. What will they have and how far apart are they? Factor station data into your nutrition and hydration plan.

Study the course details. You need to know where you’ll be going and which sections might be mentally or physically challenging. Also check to see if there are any special rules for your race.

Plan to run by effort, not pace. Factors like elevation profiles, trail conditions and the altitude of a course can make races of the same distance dramatically different in terms of difficulty. Runners who focus on pace, not heart rate, set themselves up for early burnout.


example of a trail running race course elevation chart

Look at the weather forecast. Then bring appropriate layers.

Lay out your gear the night before. On race day, you can just grab and go.

Decide how you’ll attach your race number. Many race belts, as well as hydration vests and packs, have an attachment system. Safety pins also work.

Check batteries in your fitness device. Using a tracker or GPS watch can help you prevent race-day adrenaline from turbocharging your pace so that you bonk halfway through the event. You want both your batteries and your body to last.

Pick up your race packet early. Why wait until the day of the race? That simply adds one more complication to the Big Day.

Two nights before, get a good night of sleep. Most runners are too amped up to sleep well the night before, so this is your best chance to get quality sleep.

Make sure your toenails are clipped. Why inflict damage upon yourself?

Race-Day Tips

a cluster of trail runners at a trail running race event

After all the training and prep work, this is your moment. Embrace it. The tips below should make things run more smoothly:

Eat smart. You want a light meal at least an hour or two before the race. You don’t want to arrive at the start hungry, or to expend energy to digest things that are high in fat or fiber during the race.

Arrive early. Plan for a mandatory prerace meeting or timing-chip pickup (if your race requires either one). Give yourself enough time to overcome any unanticipated traffic snarls.

Ease into the race. Mass starts are common, so relax and settle into a comfortable spot in the pack. Stick with your training pace. 

Singletrack passing etiquette: Look for a wider section of trail and be sure no hazards lurk to the left or the right. Shout “passing on your left” as you approach, then give the runner ahead time to move to the right.

Singletrack being-passed etiquette: Move to the right as soon as you hear “passing on your left” and you can make that move safely.

Leave the music at home. Even if it’s allowed, running with buds crammed in your ears is bad form. You can’t hear approaching runners or anticipate hazards ahead of time. Immerse yourself fully in the race experience.