How to Train for Your First Trail Marathon

Updated

If you’ve been running for a while on roads and maybe sometimes on trails too, you might be getting to the point where a 5k or 10k run isn’t a challenge for you anymore. So you’ve set your sights on a trail marathon and want to see how running on trails differs from a road marathon.

Or are you a several-time marathon finisher looking to branch out into trail running? There are a few key differences between training for a road vs a trail event, which influence everything from weekly mileage to training schedules.

In this guide on how to train for your first trail marathon, we’ll cover the differences and similarities between road and trail events, how you can create your own trail marathon training plan, and what are some other important elements to consider when you prepare for race day.

Note: The plan and advice included here can also apply to a half-marathon on the trails or even your first 50k ultra race, by tweaking the long run days to adjust the weekly mileage.

How is a trail marathon different from a road marathon?

The difference in training for a trail marathon as opposed to a race on the road stems from the differences between trail running and road running generally. Off-road running is more technical, with natural obstacles and steeper climbs and descents than an urban environment. Additionally, running on trails will put you in natural surroundings, away from other people, for longer periods of time. You may find yourself in remote sections of national parks, having to navigate for yourself, for example.

However, there are many ways in which a trail marathon training plan is easier on the body than road running training. On the road, you’ll be going through repetitive motions on hard tarmac several times per week. This can take its toll on your joints and lead to back, knee or ankle pain, or the risk of injury. In fact, many professional athletes like British Olympian and European 10k champion Jo Pavey turn to trail running even as part of their road training plans to keep their body safe from injury.

Trail marathons also tend to be less rigid in their measurements and less “scripted” than road marathons. Frustratingly, there are many races calling themselves a marathon that will have you running 45km or more! This is because running off-road can be less obvious for measuring mileage, especially on uneven, rocky, or mountainous terrain. Throw in significantly more elevation than on roads and you have another variable that will be tough to measure exactly. So, take any race stats with a pinch of salt!

Finally, preparing for a trail marathon is more complex than for a city running race. You will need to be more self-sufficient, carrying mandatory kit such as spare clothing to account for weather changes. You’ll also need to pay attention to nutrition and hydration, as you might be out for a longer period of time between race aid stations than you would be during a road event. Overall, marathon finishing times are slower for the trails, because of the other variables that come into play, so you should prepare accordingly.

What does a trail marathon training plan look like?

Putting together a training plan for the trails is similar to that for a road race, in terms of gradually increasing your weekly mileage, including a recovery week every 2-3 weeks of hard training, accounting for recovery time and rest etc. The broad principles apply equally to half marathons or 50k races, too. But, if you’re wondering how many miles per week you should average, what training tools or plans you should use, how much strength training you should do… here are some key tips for building your plan.

Types of runs

Whether you’re an experienced trail runner or a distance runner more used to the road, you’ll always need to include the same types of runs in your weekly schedule. They will allow you to vary your training pace so you’re not always focusing on running volume, but also on pushing yourself to improve your speed and effort level you’re comfortable with.

Easy / Recovery Runs

Include at least one easy 30-60 minute run at a conversational pace in your training week. The goal here is to keep your body moving while allowing your cardiovascular system to recover from high training stress. An easy run is ideal on the Monday after a long training run the Sunday before, and you can throw in another one on a Friday to get your limbs working after speed training during the week.

Make sure you “keep the easy, easy” and don’t push yourself during this run. The objective is not to tick off a time goal for your favorite 5k loop around home. To help you go easy, make it a social run with a friend.

Interval Training

Yes, you’re training to run a long distance, but this doesn’t mean you should neglect runs at a faster pace. Working on your speed will improve your endurance performance, as shown by a study at the University of Western Ontario where only 6 weeks of sprint training yielded considerable benefits for the subjects.

High-intensity interval training can take many forms. As you’re training for a trail marathon, start off with less specific intervals earlier during your training plan, and increase the length of the running efforts as you get nearer the race. A suggestion would be: 3 x 3 min efforts at 80-90% capacity with 3 min recovery in between, in your first 2-3 build weeks. By the time you’re nearing the race, you should be running tempos of 2 x 25 min efforts with 5 min recovery during one of your interval sessions.

Increase your time at speed gradually. For best results, use a heart-rate monitor and work with the heart-rate zones to know how hard you should push yourself. Include interval training sessions one or two days per week.

Hill Training

A trail race will be hillier than a road run and one of the best ways to train for hills is to… run on hills! If you live in a flat area, no need to panic: you can replicate hills by running up and down stairs, bridges, or on a treadmill with an incline at the gym.

Ideally, for a hilly race, you would reserve one day a week working on your hill running technique. This can include uphill speed sessions where you pick a relatively short hill (e.g. one you can run to the top of in 10 minutes) and you alternate running up at it at the fastest pace possible with jogging downhill for recovery. Or look to do a pyramid workout: 1, 3, 5, 3, 1-minute bursts of uphill running, recovering on the downhill through a light jog to bring up your energy levels again.

Long Runs

The staple of any training plan, the long runs should be performed once a week and increase in distance progressively. For a trail race, we suggest going for time on feet rather than distance, as conditions will vary and it’s more difficult to predict how long you’ll take to cover the same number of miles as on roads.

Start your long runs at 2-3 hours long and build from there. Try to replicate as much as possible the profile of your trail race. For example, if you’re preparing for a hilly race where you’ll cover 3,000 m / 9,800 ft over the marathon distance, that equals about 71 m of ascent for each km (or 377 ft for each mile). So, when you choose the run route for the weekend, aim to replicate the race profile by adding in enough hills to make up this ratio.

Do you need to cover the marathon distance during your long runs? Some runners choose to do this for psychological as much as physical reasons, but it’s not necessary. A road marathon training plan has runners do a 20-mile run for their longest session, which can also be enough for a trail race. If you’re training for a half-marathon, you can easily have one or two 13-mile runs in training. For a 50k race, we recommend doing one 6-hour session on trails replicating race conditions as much as possible.

How many miles a week should you have in your training plan?

Time on feet is more important than weekly mileage when you train for a trail race. This is because trail running often involves more technical terrain and additional elevation which will significantly slow your pace.

This is why we recommend starting with 2-3 hour long runs once a week, going up to 6 hours, as part of a trail marathon race plan. All other sessions in the example training plan below are also based on time rather than distance.

As for number of weekly sessions, aim to have 2 rest days during the week. One of these can be active rest, i.e. a walk or cross-training such as a bike ride.

What elements other than running should you include?

A common mistake for runners increasing their distance or moving from road to trail running is that they over-train. This can lead to injury risk, fatigue, and even a loss of enchantment with running altogether. Running on trails gives your body a lot more variety of movement than on the road, which is great, but still takes its toll.

You can work on your endurance and cardiovascular system by incorporating a bike ride once a week, giving your legs a different type of workout. Consider also a swim if you can, to relax your shoulders and back while still building cardio endurance. Hiking with a heavy backpack is also excellent training for trail events as you’re getting time on feet and developing your familiarity with the challenging terrain while moving at a slower pace.

Finally, don’t neglect strength training and flexibility. Every trail running training plan should include at least one weekly session of strength & conditioning. Consider following a yoga tutorial or just adding some stretches to every day so you can stay in great shape and avoid injuries.

RELATED: Muscles used in running

Personalize your own trail marathon training plan

Taking into account the sessions advised above and allowing at least 15 weeks to build up to your first trail marathon, here’s how you can draw your training plan:

  • Include 3 build weeks where you gradually increase the duration of your interval training sessions (e.g. 3 x 3 min, then 3 x 4 min, 3 x 5 min intervals, keeping the recovery period the same at 3 min) and the length of your long runs.
  • Allow one recovery week after each 3-week build cycle, where you focus on resting and avoid strength training. The long run on your recovery week should only be 2-3 hours long, even later in the plan. Try to keep the last day of recovery week free so you start the next build block fresh.
  • On race week, adopt a taper plan: do a few easy runs with some strides to stretch the legs out on Monday/Tuesday, a very easy run on Thursday, and just a 10-min leg-stretcher on the day before the race (assuming the race is on Saturday).

Here is an example of such a 4-week cycle with build weeks and one recovery week:

MONDAY TUESDAY WEDNESDAY THURSDAY FRIDAY SATURDAY SUNDAY
WEEK 1 – BUILD 30 min Easy Interval Run 30 min Easy (Optional)
+
Strength & Conditioning
Active Rest / Cross-Train Hill Training Rest 2h Long Run
WEEK 2 – BUILD 30 min Easy Interval Run 30 min Easy (Optional)
+
Strength & Conditioning
Active Rest / Cross-Train Hill Training Rest 2h30 Long Run
WEEK 3 – BUILD 30 min Easy Interval Run 30 min Easy (Optional)
+
Strength & Conditioning
Active Rest / Cross-Train Hill Training Rest 3h Long Run
WEEK 4 – RECOVERY Rest 40 min Easy Rest Tempo Run Hill Training: Easy Hiking 2h Long Run Rest

Final thoughts: Preparing for race day

Training for a trail marathon isn’t just about a good running plan. You’ll also need to develop nutrition and hydration strategies that adapt to the terrain and weather conditions you’ll encounter on the day. We’ll cover those in future articles.

Ahead of your race, especially if you’re not familiar with the area, try to plan in a recce. This is a day or two where you run parts of the race course, familiarize yourself with where the aid stations will be, what are the toughest and most technical sections etc. If you cannot do this in person, a lot of runners post videos of their race experience online, so have a look through YouTube and see how much you can learn about your destination.

Finally, it’s crucial that you test your race kit before the race. Make sure your running shoes are broken into, that you know how to use your running pack, and that you have all the mandatory kit items that your race director requires. We recommend doing at least one long run carrying all your kit and practicing with nutrition and hydration during it, too.

Conclusion: Hitting the trails on your first marathon

Following a gradual training plan, recce-ing the race route as much as possible, and practicing with your kit and your nutrition and hydration before race day are the key elements that will help you succeed at your first trail race. Whether you’re doing a half-marathon or even a 50k race, this quick guide should put you in a good position to personalize your training plan. Remember to increase efforts and distances gradually, stretch and strength train, and enjoy the trails!

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