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17 Tips Every Runner Should Know Before Their First Trail Race

The trail race scene has some unique characteristics and vibe that will be unfamiliar to runners that have yet to run the trails with a bib number.

To help with this transition to the dirt racing world, here are 17 insights to help reduce the look.

Welcome trail newbie

1. Bib number placement and meditation

Instead of pinning your bib number on your shirt, you will often see the number pinned on the thigh area of the shorts.

What gets real interesting is the number preparation…or number meditation. You will see runners get into this zen-like state as they fold all the sides of their bib so you see only the number. I am amazed at how small some people are able to get their bib.

Zen bib foldage

2. “go”

Welcome to the race start. Somebody may provide a countdown and simply say “go”. I can’t even add an ‘!’. When you see others start to move – follow.

3. “Tell me about yourself”

A roadie may be used to the focused stare, head forward, hit my splits attitude. In the early miles of a trail run, there will be all kinds of chatter. You may even have someone you don’t know just start talking with you. Don’t be surprised or frightened…this is trail running.

4. Trail Fashion

You will see anything and everything (or lack thereof) worn in a trail race.

A couple accessories you may not be familiar with:

  • Neck bandanna – In the warmer months a few runners will wear them to help keep cool (get them wet) and up their fashion flare.
  • Gaiters – These highly fashionable pieces of fabric cover the top of the shoe and ankle to help prevent dirt and small rocks from messin’ with your cute little piggies.

Gaiter time

5. Buffet stations

Aid-stations are more like Convenience Store Gone Wild. You will often see a collection of simple carbohydrates (pretzels, candy, fruit) and for longer events some aid-stations will provide a warm food menu that will seem like a three course meal without the nice linens.


6. How far till water?

Aid-stations are never every mile or even two miles. It could range anywhere from 3 – 10+ miles depending on the course. Know thyself and be prepared to carry a handheld (or some other hydration carrier) or run very, very fast.

With hydration systems ranging from small 8 ounce handhelds to 100 ounce pack systems, there really is something that can work for everyone. Plus reduce the amount of event garbage (cups, etc)!

7. Take Care of the Little before they become Big

Hot spots, chaffing, sand or small rocks in shoes can become big issues after miles on the trail if you decide not to address them early on. Pick your poison.

Additional goodies – Two simply ways to prevent blisters and improve running shoe fit

8. “…After you”

Very little clawing, elbowing, and bloodshed (between runners) on the trails. If runners are getting funneled onto some single-track or have to pass through a narrow gate, people will position themselves in a fairly orderly line. Very few get stressed…plus more time to chat with your running neighbor.

9. Trail Language

goo-shob = A runner’s attempt to say “good job” to their fellow runner after hours, and hours, and hours of running.

digger = tripped on a rock or root and fell to the loving earth. Usually includes some dirt and blood.

sh*t – Often heard after runner hits a rock or root with their little piggies…for the eighth time.

There has to be more trail talk…help me out!

10. Follow the Peanut Shells

There are a few trail races where you can simply put your head down and go but most races are intertwined within a spaghetti trail system. Be alert to your running environment, pay special attention at all junctions. Slow or stop if necessary. Getting lost or backtracking a half mile or more is not so fun…although free mileage.

The course may be identified with ribbons, signs, flour, etc.

Follow me!

11. Quick, Quick Happy Feet

Not a bad idea to shorten the stride and lift the feet to improve mobility around and over those rock, roots, and cute little snakes.

Yep, you run down this rock littered trail.

More movement tips for the dirt:

12. Stop and Look Beyond Your Nose

There will be moments along the course of many trail races where nature is waiting to be seen. Take a moment, take a look, you won’t regret it…but be sure of your footing or briefly stop to prevent a digger.

13. Chips (potato) included, Chip Timing Optional

Some races are digitized and some are not. Many races still have some amazing people jotting down times on a notepad.

Go with the flow.

14. The Fast Bling

For races that have awards for top finishers, it is not uncommon for the award to be handed out immediately as the runner crosses the finish line.

15. Kitchen Sink

Many of the 50 km or longer trail races will often have locations where you can place a drop bag with any additional personal stuff you may want during the race. (such as extra nutrition, socks, clothing, shoes, etc) No suitcases please! 🙂

16. Results will be posted…

…sometime within the next 7 days.

Accept it. You already know if you finished or not, right? 😉

17. Enjoy the Journey, Hang out, Have Fun, Smile!

Pre-race, during-the-race, post race.

Life is good!

What other insights would you share with any runner new to the trail race scene? Feel free to include them in the comment link below.

Be active – Feel the buzz!

David –

About the author

David Hanenburg David Hanenburg is the passionate dirt-lovin' creator of Endurance Buzz and has been playing in the endurance sports world since 2000 after knockin' the dust off of his Trek 950 hardtail thanks to a friend asking to go ride some local dirt. In 2007 he ran his first ultra on the trails and fell in love with the sport and its people. For more information on David's endurance sports journey, check out the About page.

12 Responses to “17 Tips Every Runner Should Know Before Their First Trail Race”

  1. on 01 Apr 2011 at 7:56 pm David

    18. Wildlife or other animals (eg. very large bulls) may encourage you to seek an alternate path. Free bonus miles!

    19. If you run long enough, there may not be anyone there at the finish. We’ve run an event where the organizers told us we ‘won’ (and then left) before we started the last loop!

    20. A beer makes a great trophy.

  2. on 02 Apr 2011 at 5:40 am The Trail Jogger

    Great post! Love #20!

  3. on 04 Apr 2011 at 9:06 am David Hanenburg

    @David – True, true indeed. 🙂
    @The Trail Jogger – Thanks and happy healing with that ankle!

  4. on 04 Apr 2011 at 10:59 am Kate

    Registration can be little more than a coffee can for cash (someone went to Sam’s for tip #5) and a waiver. Don’t expect t-shirts and swag.

  5. on 05 Apr 2011 at 11:05 am David Hanenburg

    Kate – Nice additions! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  6. on 11 Apr 2011 at 10:51 am Greg

    21. Portapoties not included. At my first ultra i asked at an aid station where the portapoties were? The volunteer pointed to a tree.

  7. on 11 Apr 2011 at 6:54 pm Dave Elliott

    Great stuff….and why I love the trail….

  8. on 11 Apr 2011 at 7:45 pm Julie Lewis

    22. Bring baby wipes 🙂 I use to think you needed them in case you got dirty.

  9. on 12 Apr 2011 at 7:01 am Kari K

    Learn to do your business in the woods, just off trail. Ladies, a couple of individually wrapped handiwipes are a good addition to your stash that you carry. I carry a tiny roll of duct tape to cover hot spots before they turn into blisters (get ’em at REI for $1).

  10. on 21 Apr 2011 at 6:27 am David Hanenburg

    @Greg – Classic…and true! 🙂
    @Dave – Thanks man.
    @Julie – Another functional choice. 🙂
    @Kari – The power and versatility of duct tape announces itself once again. Nice!

    Great additions everyone! Love it.

  11. on 02 Jul 2012 at 6:41 pm Bill

    Especially like goo-shob. More so prevalent in the multi-lap
    runs. After the third its goo-shob…yah whatever…these loop courses suck.

  12. on 03 Jul 2012 at 12:08 pm David Hanenburg

    Bill – Thanks for sharing! If you want to really test your loopy sanity, try a 3/6/8/12/etc hour timed event. These are usually 1/2-2 mile loops…and in a surprising way, actually a lot of fun. There are a few of these types of events on dirt but most are on pavement.