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Down & Dirty: Trail Racing vs. Road Racing

Two converted road racers share their three best tips for tackling off-road racing.

Two converted road racers share their three best tips for tackling off-road racing.

If you’ve never tried a trail race, adding one, or more, to your race schedule will give you the incentive to vary training, broaden your scenic vistas and add new skills to your running tool box. But be prepared for some distinct differences.

For starters, trail races are generally low-key affairs. From self-seeded starts resulting in top runners and first-timers all milling about together before a race, the sense of adventure that comes from setting off on an unknown route based upon a photo-copied map encourages a sense of we’re-in-this-together camaraderie — which is beneficial when racers get lost…because that does happen. Whether runners are more focused on the view, oxygen depleted because of a tough climb or course markings are hard to decipher, racers can go astray. Personal responsibility as to awareness of the markings, landmarks and a general familiarity of the course will keep you from running more than planned.

Self-sufficiency goes hand-in-hand with personal responsibility — much more so than in most road races. Read race literature carefully and be aware of what is and isn’t available on the course. Carrying your own food and hydration is always a smart option, especially for longer races, as aid stations can be remote and have limited supplies.

You may see a few fun signs during trail races, even costumes or the occasional tutu. Swag often comes in the form of dirt, a sense of accomplishment and the errant cut or scratch. Larger races will have t-shirts, some even medals, and most race directors pride themselves on the quirkiness of their prizes. One thing you won’t see is where you’re going. Trails twist, turn and undulate making pacing and mental preparation a challenge.

After reading all of this, you may wonder why bother with a trail race — because it’s fun! Or, maybe trail racers are just a little crazy. For tips on making sense of the scene, we checked in with Sage Canaday and Alicia Shay, both successful road racers who have made the transition to being successful trail racers. Canaday ran on the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project team and is a two-time Olympic trials qualifier, who now races and wins in trail races from 10K snowshoe runs to 100K trail running championships, while still competing in the occasional road race (he finished second at the 2014 Carlsbad Marathon in 2:22:15). Shay is a two-time NCAA Division 1 collegiate 10K champion and was the U.S. 20K champion in 2007. She has since won the TransRockies RUN3, a three-day stage running trail race in Colorado, and is now the official coach for the event. While they made it look easy, Canaday and Shay both admit to having to learn some lessons on the run. Thankfully, the two were kind enough to share some of their insights.

Sage Canaday’s Top-3 Tips

1. Prepare

I’d say a main difference with trail racing is that you need to be physically and mentally prepared for hills. Trails tend to not be very flat and therefore you have to prepare your muscles for being able to climb up steep slopes and withstand the pounding of flying downhill.

2. Traction & Weather

Another thing that differentiates trails from the road is traction. Depending on the trail you could be running through water, sand, dirt and/or sharp rocks. Weather plays a bigger role in trail running over road running too, as rainy conditions can turn a dry dirt trail into a mud bath. Shoe selection becomes more important because certain trail shoes are going to have better traction in more extreme conditions.

3. Effort instead of time

Trails vary a lot in terms of how rocky they are, how wide they are, and twisty they are (some are like rollercoasters!). You have to be used to rolling with the extra challenges that trails dish out and be more conscious of your effort rather than a certain mile split or pace.

RELATED: 5 Questions With Sage Canaday

Alicia Shay’s Top-3 Tips

1. Mental Adjustment

Mentally it is important to prepare for the ebbs and flows of being on a trail. If you are used to the predictability of typical training paces on the road and track, it’s best to either not wear a GPS or pay little attention to exact pacing. Just focus on covering the terrain as quickly and as safely as possible while soaking in the beauty of the surroundings.

2. Training Intuition

Since the terrain lends to a wide variation of paces compared to the roads, it is extremely important to really listen to the feedback your body is giving you. I like to refer to this as running intuition; you want to have the ability and confidence to adjust effort according to breathing, muscular fatigue and the course you are running. It’s extremely rewarding when you learn to run in sync with the flow of the trail and use different gears and mechanics on various sections–a little like driving a manual verse an automatic.

3. Technical Skills

Trail running will challenge your athleticism and ability to move in different planes of motion. You use your muscles and mechanics in a different way as you twist and turn, power up and down steep hills and mover over rocks and roots. It’s a little like mixing in plyometrics and speed drills in the middle of a run. Adding in extra strength work in the gym will help the transition from road to trail running by making you a stronger and more well-rounded runner.