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How to Train For Your First Trail Race

photo of two women trail racing

TCTC Frosty Fifty on Saturday, January 7, 2023, at Salem Lake in Winston Salem, NC. (Photo by Robert Hill)

This post was written in partnership with Ultra Trail Drakensberg.  As an official Coach Partner of the race, we write training blogs to help runners achieve their best performances.


We’ve all been there.  Hitting the ‘enter’ button on a race that brings equal parts excitement and fear.  Maybe a friend convinced you to enter the race alongside them, or you felt it was time to conquer a new challenge in life.

Committing to a race is a huge and important first step.  But what now?  Head directly out the door for a huge training session?  If the race distance will be completely new to you or if you are new to trail running, we’ve got some tips to get you well on your way to smart and effective training preparation.

1. Now is the time to lay a good foundation

The closer you get to a race, the more specific your training should be to prepare for it.  If there are several months before race day, now is a good time to lay the foundation to prepare your body for specific training in later months.  What does a good foundation entail? If you are new to trail running, the foundation would entail you starting with hikes and slow walk-runs on trails before running intervals on trails or doing hill sprints.  Firstly, you will want your muscles and joints to adapt to trails.  Work on choosing the best line to take on a technical trail and how to efficiently move uphill and downhill.  It generally takes the body at least 4 – 6 weeks to get used to a new stimulus.

Another key thing to work on now is to slowly build up your running volume if you haven’t been running much.  For example, let’s say a runner is currently running twice per week for 30 minutes each session and they want to run a trail marathon.  The first step would be to increase the run frequency to three times per week.  Two sessions of 30-minute runs + one session of a 30-minute walk-run pattern.  The runner can slowly increase running time from there until they reach a good base weekly mileage before starting a specific training plan.

2. Increase frequency before long run volume

Long runs are taxing on the body, and it takes a lot of time for the body to adapt to running long distances.  When new to running or coming back from an injury or break from training, it is more effective and safer to run, for example, four 60-minute sessions per week rather than one 4 hour run per week.  Think about how many runs per week you feel you can consistently maintain in your training for your trail race.  First, build up to this frequency per week before adding a long run to your training.

3. Long runs should be no more than half your weekly running volume

There are exceptions to this rule, but I think it’s a good principle to follow when first getting into running or training for a new distance.  For example, if you are currently running 30 km per week, your long run distance should be no longer than 15 km.  

4. Get Strong

If you don’t have an established strength training routine, now is a great time to introduce one.  You don’t want to wait until the highest training volume and longest runs to start strength training.  Give your body adequate time to adapt to strength training so you aren’t sore when run training ramps up.  If you need some resources for strength training, we wrote blogs on the topic for the Ultra Trail Drakensberg training blog in 2022 and 2023.

5. Commit to good recovery habits from the beginning

Recovery is part of training, and it is only with adequate recovery that your performances can improve.  Recovery includes nutrition, sleep, planned rest days and recovery weeks, and things like massage, foam rolling, physio sessions, etc.  If the topic feels overwhelming, focus on nutrition and sleep – those are key.  Are you eating an adequate amount for the training that you are doing?  There are ways to calculate if you are getting adequate nutrition as an athlete.  If interested in the topic, there is an open access research paper about it.  Are you getting enough good quality sleep on a day-to-day basis?  One simple way to know what your ideal sleep hours are per night is to observe how many hours you sleep while on holiday.  After 1 or 2 nights, your body finds a natural rhythm.  Bonus if you also minimize screen time while on holiday as this impacts sleep duration and quality.

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