While most of our coaching efforts focus around our club members who want to get faster at 5k, 10k, half marathon and marathon, we do have a lot of members that are training for a trail race who often ask us for advice. This can include questions as straight forward as “how do I train for a trail race?” or “how do I get quicker up hills?”.

For many, they don’t realise the need to train for a trail race, either because they don’t do them often enough or because they believe that because they are quick on the roads, they will get away with smashing out a hilly trail race. It’s not completely unfounded, your speed will help. You will certainly be quicker over the flatter terrain and make up ground here but I have seen a fair few runners get absolutely smashed on a climb by someone who is much better equipped to deal with elevation – they often fail to understand how a person so much slower than them on road can beat them off road.

I learnt a few lessons in my first few off road runs, as do many of us. After a successful training programme for a marathon when I was at my fittest that I went for a gentle (haha) 10 miles off road with my coach. He decided it would make a nice change. I thought ten miles off road after all those miles of training would be a nice easy break from pounding the pavements. That was my first mistake. As I watched him climb the first hill leaving me breathing out of my backside, I realised that as fit as I was, as strong as I was and as good as I felt, I was ill equipped to deal with the elevation. That’s not to mention the amount of times I almost lost my footing. This was harder than I had anticipated. I hadn’t seen anything yet. Imagine if I had entered a trail race with the same perception. That’s why it is so important to train for the race you have entered and take heed of the following advice:

Do Your Research 

If you think that you can run an off road trail 10k in a decent time because you happen to be a decent road runner, you may be a little disappointed. I know someone who once ran a 10k in 47 minutes and was convinced they could smash out a trail 10k they had entered. What they didn’t prepare for was the fact that it was a 10k with lots of elevation! 1:42 was the finishing time! Not so good. If only they had done a little research. While this particular example is a tad extreme for a 10k, it goes to highlight the point that you can be an excellent road runner but not so great off road. Always research the course when you enter a race. Look at the type of terrain, the elevation profile, where the hills are. If you can find the race route on Strava or any of the other running apps, you can soon figure out the profile and how steep the climbs are. Most race websites will show you the course profile – you can see the bottom half of the image below which shows the elevation with the route map and check points above it.

training for a trail race


Train for the Elevation 

If you have entered a race that’s 2,500 feet of elevation, train for that. We have written a whole article on this and how to achieve that in your weekly training plan. It’s important to be able to handle the elevation. Climbing engages different muscles to running on the flat and you will certainly feel the difference when you start training for a race with elevation.

It’s not just the elevation gain either – you need to train for the down hill. One thing I hadn’t considered when running an ultra a couple of years ago was how much my quads will take a battering on the descents. By mile 38, the pain of descending was worse than the climbing. So much so, I was dreading every descent after that. 

Cross training will help with your core strength too – you need to use your core when dealing with tricky terrain and keeping your balance on a downhill.

Other Advice for Training for a Trail Race

Prepare to be out for longer. What could normally take you an hour, could take you half an hour more. A road half could take you two hours, a trail half could take you closer to three. 

Choose the right shoes – Consider the terrain, the distance, the profile of the course etc. While some people may have a one size fits all approach to running shoes, we find that different trail shoes suit different environments. 

Test your kit – if you are running with a vest, new kit, new jacket, new vest etc. be sure to test them first. Don’t wear new kit on race day – especially if it’s a longer race!

Specificity of Training 

It’s all about specificity of training. If you’ve read any of our training advice pages, you will have seen us mention this before. Train for event you have entered. This includes: 

Training for the distance – if you’re training for an ultra marathon, you need to ensure that you are including longer training runs in your plan. You also need to get in those shorter runs and make sure you are running enough miles in the week. We like back to back runs on a weekend to give us the similar tired leg feeling that we get during an ultra. If you have entered a 10k, run a few 10k training runs on similar terrain.  

Training for the elevation  – don’t train on the flat if your race includes thousands of foot of elevation. Try and achieve the same amount of elevation over the course of a week as you will be undertaking in the race itself. If it’s 10k feet, on your highest week, you need to achieve 10k feet of elevation over the course of the week.

Training for the terrain – if your race includes lots of mud or rocky terrain, and you can’t actually train on the course, be sure to find trails  that are similar. You need to emulate the same conditions. Crossing muddy, boggy fields, descending gravelly, rocky paths and putting your legs through the same sort of duress that they will experienced during a trail race.

These principles don’t just apply to training for a trail race. It’s the same concept for whatever race you are training for. If it’s a flat 10k, train on the flat at suitable distances mixing up some tempo runs with slower miles and speed work. If you are running an off road marathon you will need less short speed work and more hills, long steady runs and back to back runs.

If you have any questions about training for a trail race or training in general, drop them in the comments.