Keen to hit the sin­gle­track? Here’s an in-depth guide to pre­par­ing and train­ing for your first trail run­ning event.

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Outdoor Fitness - Words & Pho­tos Chris Ord

YOU AL­WAYS RE­MEM­BER your first. For me, it burst ev­ery pre­con­ceived no­tion I had of what was at the time a fringe pur­suit. It was harder, the ter­rain was tougher, I should have put in more train­ing, it took longer than it should have and it hurt way more.

But then my first trail event was also much more fun, way more ful­fill­ing and ul­ti­mately more ad­dic­tive than I could have imag­ined it to be. So much so that I went on to make a ca­reer in trail run­ning – not as an ath­lete, mind you (no speed), rather I launched a trail mag­a­zine, es­tab­lished a se­ries of trail run­ning events and be­gan host­ing guided trail run tours across the planet. And when I do get down­time, I run more trails; a healthy ob­ses­sion sparked by one lit­tle jog through the bush.

Yet like any solid sin­gle­track, the jour­ney to be­com­ing an ex­pe­ri­enced trail run­ner was chal­leng­ing. In­jury, pain, ex­haus­tion, un­der­train­ing, in­cor­rect train­ing, or no train­ing at all… the lat­ter three were sig­nif­i­cant traps for me as a new­bie.

So how can a be­gin­ner get on trail and make the phys­i­cal go­ing as smooth as pos­si­ble to en­joy the rough go­ing un­der­foot a whole lot more? Let’s break it down. PICK A TRAIL TAR­GET Mo­ti­va­tion is key to main­tain­ing any train­ing pro­gram, so pick a tar­get event that suits your level of fit­ness and ex­pe­ri­ence. If you’re a reg­u­lar road marathoner, you might take your first step off-road at the half-marathon dis­tance be­fore tack­ling the Full Marathon Monty, which off-road is a sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent chal­lenge to any on-road ver­sion. Or if you are not only new to trail run­ning but new to run­ning al­to­gether (more com­mon than you’d think) start out at 5-10km dis­tances.

Pick an event that specif­i­cally ap­peals to your ad­ven­ture sen­si­bil­i­ties – if you like forests choose an event that runs through a few. If you like moun­tain ridge­line views, scour the cal­en­dar for an event that makes best use of one or a few. If you’re ner­vous about run­ning deep in the wilder­ness, choose an event based on trails that stick closer to in­hab­ited ar­eas – there are trail events based in and around most big city and re­gional pop­u­la­tion cen­tres.

Even bet­ter than just pick­ing one tar­get event, en­rol in a trail-run­ning se­ries, which ex­ist in nearly ev­ery state in Aus­tralia and across New Zealand. The beauty of a full se­ries is that you can’t fall off the wagon once you have crossed the line once. You’ll have an­other tar­get event on the hori­zon to keep you on track. TOO MUCH, TOO EARLY Ease your way into it. It’s very easy to get swept up in the ex­u­ber­ance the trail com­mu­nity has for trails and it’s all too com­mon for new­bies to punch out their first 10-kay event only to ea­gerly start eye­ing off ul­tras (dis­tances in ex­cess of a marathon) the fol­low­ing week. Hold up! You’ve got plenty of time to en­joy run­ning trails – there are 70-plus year olds knock­ing off 100-mile events – so take a step-bystep ap­proach to your event tar­gets and your train­ing. In­deed, rather than up dis­tances too quickly, try up­ping the in­her­ent chal­lenge by choos­ing same-dis­tance events that be­come more and more tech­ni­cal ac­cord­ing to the ter­rain. Once com­fort­ably con­di­tioned to a ‘hard’ 10-15km event, then take on the half and full marathons in a gen­tle in­crease over the course of a year or two.

Those who do ramp up dis­tances too quickly risk de­bil­i­tat­ing (and com­mon) in­juries like ITBsyn­drome, which can quickly (and painfully) cur­tail your mo­men­tum.

Mo­ti­va­tion is key to main­tain­ing any train­ing pro­gram, so pick a tar­get event that suits your level of fit­ness and ex­pe­ri­ence.


If you’re com­ing from a road-run­ning back­ground your lin­gua franca will be time, as in “my marathon time is 3 hours and 45 min­utes”. On road, dif­fer­ent events of the same dis­tance gen­er­ally can be com­pared. On trail, no two cour­ses, re­gard­less of be­ing the same dis­tance, can be com­pared, be­cause the ter­rain and mix of tech­ni­cal­ity and as­cent pro­file will al­ways be dif­fer­ent. And for­get com­par­ing road dis­tance times to those on trail. A 3h30m road marathon can still cor­re­late to 5h30m on a beefy trail marathon course!


If you are start­ing out, you just need a sturdy pair of shoes (yes, road will suf­fice in a pinch), espe­cially for shorter dis­tances. Sure, a trail-spe­cific pair of shoes with bet­ter grip will help, so they should be your first bit of kit, but hold off on all the fancy com­pres­sion wear and hy­dro-packs un­til you have a few trails un­der your belt. Once you start up­ping dis­tances, a hy­dra­tion pack is rec­om­mended as many longer events have manda­tory gear you will need to carry and there are far fewer aid sta­tions than you’ll find in road-run­ning events. In­deed, some­times on the re­ally wild ones there are none!


For­get Gore-Tex; your feet will get wet. Don’t try to hop­scotch stones across the creek; stomp right in. Wet feet are part of trail run­ning with­out ex­cep­tion. Don’t com­plain.

Walk­ing is part of trail run­ning. Yes, even the elites do it. There comes a time where the in­cline is steep enough that you ac­tu­ally go slower (and waste more en­ergy) try­ing to run it. Power-walk it in­stead. It’s more eco­nom­i­cal, just as fast and it ex­as­per­ates those try­ing to run it huff ’n’ puff style while you walk the same speed right on their heels.

In Aus­tralia, snakes are ev­ery­where. Hone your ‘radar’ and scan the trail when in sea­son. Carry a snake ban­dage. Read up on what to do if bit­ten. And don’t sweat it too much – they are more fright­ened of you clomp­ing through the bush.

Right, so you have a tar­get or three, you know not to be a bull at a trail gate, you’ve for­got­ten time ex­pec­ta­tions based on your flier at the lo­cal Park Run, you’ve packed a snake ban­dage and have a pair of old shoes you’re happy to get dirty and wet.


Grad­u­ally build up your weekly train­ing dis­tance. The ma­jor­ity of run­ning in­juries are overuse in­juries and train­ing should be about adap­ta­tion, which re­quires gen­tle in­cre­ments that push your body’s lim­its in safe mar­gins over time. As a gen­eral rule,

As a gen­eral rule, in­crease to­tal dis­tance over an en­tire week of train­ing by about 10 per cent.

in­crease to­tal dis­tance over an en­tire week of train­ing by about 10 per cent. So if you run 50km one week, the fol­low­ing week should be 55km in to­tal.

Strength and con­di­tion­ing train­ing is just as im­por­tant as pure mileage. Es­sen­tially, run­ning is hop­ping from one leg to the other and balanc­ing each time you land so leg strength needs to be good, as does your core. In­cor­po­rate squats and lunges (quads and glutes) plus calf raises as min­i­mum. Throw in some sit-ups, plus the dreaded burpees.

Train for the type of trails you are aim­ing to run. Most trails – in­deed the most fun trails – fea­ture tech­ni­cal ter­rain: rocks, roots, pot­holes, un­even ground, tree branches to duck and never-end­ing as­cents and de­scents. If the event has a lot of steep in­clines, you’ll need to train on some hills, or at least some steps (not­ing that the ac­tion of go­ing up steps ver­sus a hill in­cline is ac­tu­ally dif­fer­ent). Also, it can take those used to run­ning gen­er­ally flat roads a while to adapt to the con­stant roller­coas­t­er­ing of a trail. You’ll feel out of breath with a high heart rate and strug­gle to find a happy rhythm. This is just down to prac­tice and adapt­ing your aer­o­bic and mus­cu­lar fit­ness to em­brace a state of con­stant flux where the de­mands keep swing­ing be­tween in­tense (climb­ing) to less so (de­scend­ing).

The tech­ni­cal skills of as­cend­ing and de­scend­ing are im­por­tant for im­prov­ing over­all speed but also for safety and pre­vent­ing in­jury. Find those hills (again) – how­ever short – and run up and down them. De­scend­ing is about quad strength, bal­ance and con­fi­dence, the lat­ter com­ing with rep­e­ti­tion. You’re also look­ing to de­velop bet­ter pro­pri­o­cep­tive abil­ity and equi­lib­rium by do­ing ex­er­cises that de­velop pe­riph­eral co­or­di­na­tion. If the trails are go­ing to be tech­ni­cal un­der­foot, train on rough ground with lots of un­der­foot ob­sta­cles (rocks, roots etc.) so your foot/eye co­or­di­na­tion im­proves. Climb­ing is about hold­ing off the lac­tic burn us­ing a pow­er­walk tech­nique that can in­volve press­ing hands on knees. Other times (pend­ing steep­ness) it is about eyes and head up, chest out and for­ward and, im­por­tantly, re­mem­ber­ing to breathe deeply.

Train as you race. De­pend­ing on dis­tance and re­mote­ness, trail run­ning will at some stage mean wear­ing a hy­dropack and, for longer runs, hav­ing to re­fuel with some form of nutri­tion, such as en­ergy bars, gels and gen­eral snacks. The golden rule is al­ways train with what you’ll rely on for event day. It’s best to sort out any tech­ni­cal is­sues or sore rub zones be­fore you line up to race. Also train with the elec­trolytes and nutri­tion you will use on race day, to avoid po­ten­tial stom­ach up­sets. * Chris Ord is the edi­tor of Trail Run Mag AU/NZ

(www.trail­run­ and owner of trail run­ning event and tour com­pany Tour de trails (www.tour­de­

The va­ri­ety of ter­rain – and scenery – you en­counter is what att­tracts all types of ath­letes to the sport.

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