From Asphalt to Adventure: A Guide for Transitioning from Road to Trail Races

Runners run on a tree-lined trail.

The arrival of spring signals a time of renewal and growth, with flowers blooming and trees regaining their green crowns. For many runners, spring also signals a return to dry, passable trails and the return of trail races. If you’re someone who is typically more focused on road races, now is the best time to turn off the asphalt course and explore something new.

Over the years, there have been noticeable seismic waves in the trail running community from incoming competitive and amateur road runners. Trail races offer runners a different experience, taking place on more varied surfaces, providing a stronger sense of camaraderie and offering challenging yet scenic routes. They also accommodate numerous options and additional challenges, such as ultramarathon events like 50K or more. If you’re a road runner getting ready to transition to the trails, here are a few things to keep in mind to make your first trail race as smooth and enjoyable as possible.

Take the leap: Signing up for your first trail race

A woman runs downhill on a trail filled with rocks.

So you’ve been thinking about signing up for a trail race and have finally made the decision to do so. Most likely you’ll go to, a website for runners to register for trail races and ultramarathon events in addition to tracking race results and rankings. There you can search for races by location, time of year and distance.

What you sign up for may depend on your previous race experience and fitness level. For many runners, a 10K or half-marathon trail race is a good place to start. If you’re looking for more of a challenge, the traditional ultra-distance to start with is the 50K. You may be joining a trail-running friend or perhaps you can talk a friend into racing with you; having support makes a world of difference.

Pass muster: Understanding entry requirements

Remember that trail running requires different skills and experiences than road running, and trail races may have other kinds of entry requirements. You may likely have experienced paying high race fees, race lotteries, or know about qualifying times for one of the bigger or more competitive road races like the NYC, Chicago, or Boston Marathons, but trail races have these too, especially if the trail race is an ultramarathon distance.

While trail races often have lower entry fees, they can be just as difficult to sign up for depending upon popularity, strict limitations to the number of participants and even experiential requirements. For example, some ultramarathons may require you to complete previous ultramarathons of certain distances or in a certain time for safety reasons. Other races may require you to volunteer in a trail running event, trail maintaining or pacing for other runners.

Get to the starting line: Training for a trail race

A man checks his watch before starting his trail run.

Trail running gets anything but boring. It can involve navigating roots, holes, boulders, downed trees, slippery logs, river and stream crossings, sugar sand, steep climbs and technical descents. Understandably, this can make it more physically challenging than road running, even if that variety is one of the reasons to get into trail running to begin with.. Therefore, it’s important to adjust your expectations and approach trail running with a growth mindset and a willingness to adapt to new challenges.

Runners are known for scoping out their race courses ahead of time, either on the race website, through GoogleMaps, or even in person–if they’re local. It’s important to be prepared for course logistics such as asphalt to grass transitions, inclines, and out-and-back versus loop courses. This is perhaps even more important for a trail race, since the terrain will have a larger impact on your performance. Sometimes race directors even offer course preview runs, which you should try to do since the course markings may be minimal. Keep in mind that trail conditions are much more susceptible to changes in weather, so the smooth, dry course you practiced on a month ago could turn quite muddy on race day.

Gear up: Packing your bags for your first trail race

A woman smiles while standing at the top of a trail holding a hand held water bottle.

Appropriate gear plays a large role in trail-racing success. Trail running shoes are designed to provide better traction and stability on uneven terrain, which is crucial for staying safe and injury-free. Depending on the kind of terrain, you may also want to invest in (and train with!) running poles for extra balance or trail gaiters to keep debris out of your shoes. Additionally, you should consider investing in a hydration pack to carry with you during the race, as aid stations are typically less frequent in trail races.

But it’s not just about extra water and nutrition. Many races require a basic minimum of supplies for navigation, first aid and safety that runners must carry with them, since trails are often in remote regions and you’ll likely be out there for a lot longer with minimal course support. This makes trail races more self-sufficient than road races, where runners can rely more on aid stations to meet their needs.

Blaze the trail: Setting goals for a trail race

If you’re used to road racing, you may be used to memorizing your splits in the hunt for a new PR. But trail races typically see a lot more change in speed from one mile to the next and require preparation for unpredictable factors such as wrong turns and variation in course lengths. Staying flexible is a must.

When it comes to pacing, you’ll be more dependent on the terrain than in a road race. Not only is every course different, making it hard to compare the pacing in one trail race to the next, but you must constantly be mindful of your surroundings during a trail race to avoid potential hazards such as rocks, roots, or wildlife. You have to maintain focus to avoid tripping and spraining an ankle, getting a scrape, or worse. You should aim to maintain a steady effort level and adjust your pace accordingly to tackle steep uphills and downhills, as well as technical terrain. It’s also important to keep in mind that the race is about enjoyment as well. The beauty of trail running lies in the experience and the connection with nature. Take the time to appreciate the scenery and enjoy the unique challenges that trail running presents.

Given that courses vary due to trail conditions and elevation change, it may make sense to think of competing for place versus time. You can also set non-performance goals, like nailing down your fueling strategy or keeping a smile on your face for the entire race. Especially if you’re a first-time trail runner, it’s hard to know how you’ll handle the terrain of a new-to-you course, whereas runners who’ve run the race or distance before may be more likely to aim for a specific time goal. Some may even be aiming for a course record!

Game time: Tackling the race

Three runners race on a tree-lined trail.

When you get to the race venue, things are already going to look a lot different than at a road race. Fewer participant numbers can mean less amenities, but also easier parking and shorter portajohn lines. Family and friends may be setting up chairs, pavilions, and coolers, and runners may be setting up drop-bags, personal aid stations and catching up with people they met at their last race.

Once you’re ready and it’s close to the start time, make sure to listen to the race director giving instructions. Beware of last-minute course changes that may add (or subtract) extra mileage to the advertised course distance, timing mats that may not be where you’d expect them and a race clock that’s only seen at the beginning or the end. The race director will highlight course conditions, details of the aid stations, and how to get help if needed.

And then, you’re off! This is where you’ll start to see one of the biggest differences from road to trail races: more camaraderie. The camaraderie in road races and trail races can be quite different due to the nature of the events. Road races are often larger and more competitive, with a focus on individual performance and personal bests. In contrast, trail races are typically smaller, more laid-back and emphasize the shared experience of running in nature.

Often, the goal in trail races is to finish the race, not necessarily beat others, which means runners are more likely to look out for one another. Also, due to the more remote and natural environment of trail races, runners often need to rely on each other for support and encouragement. This can create a strong sense of fellowship as runners deal with the same challenges of a hard incline, sandy patch or the unrelenting sun overhead. Strangers, who stop being strangers at the end of the race, help fill up bottles at aid stations, give you a hand to get up from the ground after you’ve removed a pebble from your shoe and share fuel or motivational quotes with their fellow racers.

You may also notice a difference in aid stations. Aid stations during a trail race go beyond the typical water and electrolytes you see at road aid stations, offering more substantial foods like sandwiches, soup or pizza. Since you will likely be on the course longer than you would for the same distance on the road, it’s essential to take breaks to fuel and make sure you’re getting enough energy. It’s also a good idea to carry more than you think you need, as aid stations may be fewer and far between, and they also may be left unmanned.

Finally, it’s important to follow trail etiquette to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all runners. This includes yielding to faster runners, staying on marked trails and leaving no trace.

Put your party hat on: After the race

Runners celebrate after completing a trail race.

What many runners may look forward to at the end of a road race—the awards fanfare or official race photography—may not be available at the trail race you’ve chosen. But the feeling of success after such a novel challenge can be just as sweet. Plus, who says you can’t take your own photos to celebrate your accomplishment?

Recovery after your trail race can be faster than from a road race. While you may be out on the course longer–due to undulations in terrain–you’re engaging a wider range of muscles and your running motion is less repetitive than it is on flat pavement. You’re also running on softer surfaces like dirt, sand, grass, or gravel, which reduces the impact on your joints compared to harder surfaces. This can result in less muscle soreness and stiffness.

After making that transition from road race to trail race, you may find yourself bitten by the trail-race bug. While the pinnacle of road racing may have to do with beating your personal records, trail races are about reaching new heights (literally!), or exploring new distances or trails.

To make that transition from road to trail race less bumpy, it’s important to approach trail running with an open mind, invest in appropriate gear, adjust your training regimen and appreciate the unique challenges and experiences that trail running presents.

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