As trail running grows in popularity, so do trail races.

And it’s no wonder, really. They’re hella fun, and more scenic, challenging, and exciting than most road races.

They have mud. They have sand. They have roots, rocks, climbs, river crossings, and Bigfoot.

Well, maybe not Bigfoot, but you get the picture. Trail racing is fantastic.

For many runners making the transition from road racing to trail racing, the unknowns can be intimidating. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some major differences between the two, but with a little explanation and heads up, the fears and unknowns will start to vanish.

I often get emails or tweets from new trail runners with questions about what to expect. With race season is nearly upon us — I have my first trail race of the year on Saturday, the Black Mountain Marathon — I’m going to tackle some of those common questions today.

So here we go, 6 common trail race questions, answered:

1) What kind of hydration system should I use?

This is one of the most common questions I get about trail racing, and quite frankly, one that most new runners get wrong.

New trail runners see photos of hydration packs and bottles, and because they know aid stations are further apart (typically 5-10 miles) than you’d find in most road races (2 miles), many runners feel the need to bring a lot more gear.

So what determines your hydration pack needs? It’s mostly the terrain, distance between aid stations, and overall distance.

Scan over a course map and find the average distance between aid, then do a little math to predict how long it will take you to get between each station. If that turns out to be an hour, you really only need to plan to carry an hours worth of liquid. If the terrain is tough and it could be 2-3 hours between aid stations, you’ll want to plan for more water and nutrition.

For longer ultramarathons, think 50 miler and above, you will probably need more gear throughout the run (a headlamp, layers, nutrition, etc.), and should plan to carry a larger pack for that reason.

The big thing to avoid — and the common mistake I see almost every race — is carrying too much. For example, when running a trail half marathon, you don’t need a full Camelback with two liters of water. It’s just too much weight and bulk.

While it’s completely up to the race conditions and your personal needs, here’s a general breakdown of what I like to carry:

  • < MarathonHandheld bottle only
  • Marathon to 50k – Handheld bottle and maybe a small vest or belt for nutrition and layers
  • 50 Mile+ – Full hydration pack with two bottles. One of the bottles will be a handheld for convenience.

And in case you’re wondering, I usually avoid bladder systems because they’re harder to fill at aid stations.

Heads up: The links above are affiliate links, so if you purchase through those links I will receive a small cut. Thanks!

2) How do I pass other runners?

It’s no secret that this is the one of the most frustrating parts about trail racing. Unless you’re in the lead, the first few miles are often congested and slow. Don’t let this frustrate you. Enjoy the company, joke with the fellow runners, and watch out for each other. There will be plenty of time to pass as runners begin to separate.

But that’s not what you asked…

When you do want to pass a runner, wait for an opening in the trail or opportunity to squeeze by off the trail, then call out to the leading runner that you’re about to pass.

“Passing on your left!” is the most common and polite way to do this.

If you’re getting passed, move to the side of the trail to make room for the passing runner.

3) Should I run the hills?

This was one of the biggest differences I noticed during my first trail race … runners were hiking! I couldn’t believe that within the first few miles of the race, runners were already slowing to a walk.

Because climbs on the trail are often steeper than on the road, many runners find it more efficient to hike the tough sections. This is a strategy — often a smart strategy — to keep your effort steady.

A good rule for new trail runners is to follow the lead of others. If everyone else is hiking, you probably should too. If only a few people are hiking and you feel strong, go after that hill.

4) Should I wear headphones?

Never wear headphones during the first few miles of a trail race. It’s too congested and busy, and I’ll be pissed if I’m trying to pass when you can’t hear me calling.

If you don’t know, not many things piss me off, but this is one of them …

For longer races, throw in an earbud after a few miles if it helps keep you moving, but leave one ear open at all times.

5) Will the trail been cleared?

No. It’s a trail race. You should expect rocks, roots, mud, dirt, sand, leaves, snow, and whatever else the trail has to offer.

Don’t let mud or rough conditions get you down. Embrace them as part of the adventure, and remember that everyone else has to run the exact same trail. You can do it.

6) What about water crossings?

Water crossings are common place at many trail races, adding to the fun and adventure. But any runner who has run with soaking wet feet knows how it significantly increases the risk of blisters and other foot issues.

So here’s my rule, if it’s easy to avoid the water by hopping on rocks or using a fallen log, avoid the water. If it means going way off trail in search for a good place to cross, I never waste more than 10 seconds scanning the creek or river for a place to cross.

Bite the bullet and jump in. You never know, that cold water might even provide the refreshing rush you’ve been waiting for.

Experience it for Yourself

There you have it, 6 common questions I receive about trail racing. But the only real way to learn is to experience it for yourself.

The trail running community is welcoming, enthusiastic, and badass, and the atmosphere and adventures simply can’t be replicated on the road.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up for a local trail race and hit the dirt.

But I’m warning you, if you see me out there and I want to pass, make sure you can hear me calling. 😉


Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

Support Rock Creek Runner by shopping at:


One thought on “6 Common First Time Trail Racer Questions, Answered

Leave a Reply