Trail Racing: How To Become An Off-Road Animal

A few top trail runners share their racing wisdom.

A few top trail runners share their racing wisdom. 

In a previous article I gave an overview of some of the whats and whys of trail running, with an eye on how taking to the trails can improve your performance in “conventional” races. But trail racing is an increasingly popular discipline unto itself, combining the strength and guts of cross-country running with a degree of agility and fearlessness normally reserved for gymnasts and their ilk. Here, the fundamentals of trail racing – its allure, its quirks, its intangibles and its don’t-forgets – are explored, with a slate of expert competitors brought into the mix to share their wisdom.

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On the matter of race-specific preparation, while it seems like a given that the best way to get ready to race on trails is to train on the types of trails the race will feature, it’s more nuanced than that. Says Sarah Dasher, a sub-24-hour Western States 100 finisher and the winner of last year’s Old Pueblo 50-Miler, wryly puts it: “Imagine going out for a road run where things constantly dashed out onto the pavement in front of you. That’s a bit what trail running can be like.” That is, every step run on even a moderately rough trail carries a greater risk acute injury than a perhaps hundred steps taken on a road or a treadmill, and anyone running on trails alone would soon find herself robbed of all semblance of foot speed. Therefore, figuring out how to allot your training miles is essential.

Stephen Peterson, an engineer, top-30 finisher at the venerated Dipsea 7.4-Miler (the nation’s oldest trail race) and longtime fixture on the New England mountain and trail-running circuit, has had success doing more than easy runs through the woods of Massachusetts. “I feel that training on trails gets you used to racing on trails,” he says. “I love doing tempos on the trails, especially trail hill repeats. Pace is unimportant; effort and feel are. I focus on maintaining or quickening the pace when doing repeats.”

Peterson admits that the right mentality, which may or may not be negotiable, is a sine qua non in off-road events. “A lot of being able to be a fast trail runner comes down to guts,” he says, “especially when it came to technical downhills.” He also cites the need to become exquisitely familiar with any trail course in advance. “I got burned in a 13-miler in California when I was catching the leader and was right there,” he recalls, “but we rounded a corner and had 20 yards to the finish line. I did not have enough time to react and lost by less than a second.”

Dasher believes that for the less innately gifted or bold, practice can mitigate natural hesitation. “Training on trails to race on trails is important,” she says, “because you want dodging obstacles on the ground to be second nature so you can focus on other elements of the race.” She adds that proprioception, or the sense of how moving parts of the body interrelate, is vastly more important in trail running than road running, especially if the course includes steep descents.

Not every trail veteran, however, agrees with the trail-runs-as-high-end-workouts approach. Dave Dunham finds the opposite to be true. “I have a lot more difficulty in training on trails than I would in a race,” says the Boston-area native, a renowned record-keeper who numbers close to 200 off-road events among his nearly 1,200 lifetime races. “I think my mental focus is heightened during a race, or maybe I’m just fearless during the excitement of the race.  I constantly think about where I’m going during a training run but rely on instinct during a race.” Dunham says that he doesn’t practice running fast on trails, but puts in at least 50% of his running off-road.

Dunham agrees that scouting a course in advance is important – and not just from a natural perspective. “Reviewing any topo-map or plain-map info can help me visualize the race,” he says.  If he can’t scout a course in its entirety, he’ll always run his three-mile warmup over the last 1.5 miles of the course. “I want to have a good mental picture of the last part of the course,” he says, so I can plan a kick.” (In snowshoe races, he’ll even place a large stick in the snow a half-mile from the finish so that he can really have an idea of how much he can kick; there’s no reason you can’t do this even with no snow on the ground and while wearing ordinary running shoes.)

Dasher adds that checking out the course ahead of time helps greatly with pacing. “Trail races commonly gain 1000 feet in just a couple of miles,” she notes. “A climb like that can feel like forever, if you don’t know when the end is coming.” She says that it also helps to practice on the course if there is some especially tricky or unique part, such as the Dipsea, which includes a set of about 1,000 uneven stairs that runners climb and sometimes descend.

Finally, if you’re a front-runner, you might opt to take risks on steep and rocky descents that rank-and-file runners may not in order to keep your position. But such behavior is hardly the sole purview of the top finishers. Dasher was recently en route to a third-place finish at the Zane Grey 50-Miler, and at about mile 18, when she hadn’t seen another runner in about an hour, she got a surprise. “Some young guy came absolutely barreling down the hillside at me, yelling ‘on your left!’” she recalls. “So certainly, people take risks in race situations. I’m just not one of them!”