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How To Train for a Trail Marathon

Amanda Wendorff

While completing a marathon is a major accomplishment on any surface, some runners want the additional challenge of doing their marathon on off-road trails. Training for your first trail marathon can be very rewarding, as it will push you to adapt to the unpredictable challenges of nature's varied terrain, including steep elevations and diverse environments. Trail races test not just your physical stamina but also demand a strong mental fortitude and the ability to adjust to changing conditions.

This article contains some practical tips and strategies for training for and racing a trail marathon. Our goal is to ensure that you not only cross the finish line of your first marathon but also relish the challenging journey through the great outdoors.

Key Takeaways

In this article, we'll cover the following concepts and provide training tips and racing tips for trail running:

  • The primary differences between traditional road races and trail races.
  • The unique skills and strengths you will need to handle different terrains and elevations
  • How to adjust your plan to train for a trail marathon
  • How to choose the right gear, such as trail shoes and hydration packs, for trail running
  • The basics of a nutrition plan that fits the unique needs of trail racing
MOTTIV app user Rob Watt competes in a gorgeous trail race with incredible views near Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada.

Road Races vs. Trail Runs

If you're contemplating adding some trail runs or trail races to your schedule, it's important to understand the key differences between races completed on roads and those completed off-road. This knowledge will allow you to customize an effective training plan for your first trail event.

Different Surfaces and Terrain

Perhaps the most obvious difference between a road marathon and one on a trail is the terrain; runners in a trail race may encounter a variety of surfaces, such as dirt paths, rocky stretches, and muddy trails. This variance in terrain tests your physical agility and endurance, engaging you in a more dynamic running experience.

Each step on a trail requires careful navigation and quick adjustment, which creates biomechanical strains on your muscles and tendons that road running does not. The unpredictability of trails (from smooth dirt roads to rugged mountain tracks) means your training plan should include practice with every possible surface you might encounter.

More Challenging Elevation

Compared to most road races, marathon trail runs tend to be more hilly and have more overall elevation change. While road marathons are often designed to be fast courses on flat roads, trail marathons are often designed with the goal of being challenging. Expect lots of ups and downs on varied surfaces, with plenty of obstacles to navigate. For most trail runners, mile paces become less relevant than effort, as trails that twist, turn, and undulate make it much more difficult to hold a steady pace.

A good trail marathon training plan should include plenty of hills so that you can not only practice the mechanics of running uphill and downhill but also learn to pace yourself smartly and manage your energy well, allowing you to run faster overall.

Fewer Runners, Less Support

The atmosphere of a trail race can differ vastly from the crowded, high-energy environment of a road race. For the most part, trail marathons and half marathons tend to have fewer runners. Trail races, with their more intimate setting, offer a unique, often solitary running experience that can be both meditative and challenging.

The reduced number of participants and the limited support along the course means you'll need to be more self-sufficient and mentally tough. Prepare to face long stretches alone, manage your hydration and nutrition, and navigate the course without the constant presence of spectators and aid stations. This aspect of trail running appeals to those seeking a more personal and reflective running experience but also necessitates careful preparation in terms of equipment, nutrition, and self-reliance skills.

MOTTIV app user Laura Yamasaki competes in an off-road race on the Big Island of Hawaii!

Skills Unique to Trail Running

The transition from road running to trail running is an exciting challenge but does require different skills and focuses. Generally, the same training principles that apply to marathons on the road translate to trail races - do most of your training at an easy, aerobic running pace, with some fast running mixed in. However, if you're training for a trail race, there are some specific skills you'll need to really hone in order to be ready to run a marathon on the trails.

Technical Skills

The technical nature of trail running requires skills that go beyond the basic endurance and speed needed for road racing. Trail runners must be adept at navigating uneven terrain, which includes dodging roots, rocks, and other obstacles while maintaining balance and forward momentum. This demands not only physical agility but also a strong mental focus so that you can anticipate and react to the trails' challenges.

To develop better technical skills, there's really no shortcut - the answer is lots of mileage on different surfaces. Incorporate trail running into at least a few training sessions a week. Seek out a variety of terrain and elevation - from muddy and hilly trails to gently undulating double tracks. Running on trails as much as you can will give you the opportunity to:

  • Practice trail-specific running form, such as adjusting your stride, pace, and balance to account for changes in the ground beneath you
  • Gain strength, especially in your stabilizing muscles that don't get much use when running on the road
  • Become more adept at staying mentally focused all the way until the end of the run

Drills in the weight room that improve agility, balance, and reaction time are also good training for a long trail race, as they help you to become more agile and confident on the trails.

Hill Running

If you're planning to run a marathon on trails, there's no way around it - you need to practice running hills. Effective hill running is a cornerstone of trail running success and involves a combination of strength, technique, and pacing.

In preparation for your trail race, you should be running hills frequently throughout your training. At least once a week, incorporate some hill repeats, meaning run hard up a hill for a short time, recover while running downhill, and then do it again.

It's also a good idea to plan your long runs so that they involve significant elevation gain. Don't be afraid of undulating terrain—the more you can practice going up and down, the stronger you'll be on race day.

In the gym, include specific exercises to strengthen the legs, core, and upper body.

Additionally, don't forget the importance of downhill running, which can significantly affect your overall race time and energy conservation. Run downhill often so that you can practice techniques like leaning into the hill, using a shorter stride, and engaging the core. For example, if you are doing a set of 8 hill repeats, include at least two fast downhill efforts.

Understanding when to run and when to hike hills is another vital skill for a good trail runner, as strategic walking on steep inclines can save energy and reduce the risk of injury. Many trail runners will alternate between running and walking at various times in a race. To make sure you're making that transition efficiently, get out there and practice mixing up running and walking as needed,


Trail running's uneven terrain demands a high level of biomechanical efficiency and stabilization. The constant shifts in direction, elevation, and surface type require runners to have excellent proprioception—the body's ability to sense its position in space—and the ability to quickly adjust to maintain balance and momentum.

Therefore, training for trail running should include exercises that enhance core strength, balance, and flexibility, such as plyometrics, yoga, and stability ball workouts. These exercises will improve your ability to maintain form and efficiency on challenging trails, reducing the risk of falls and injuries. Stabilization is not only about physical strength but also about the mental ability to remain focused and adaptive throughout the race, making it a critical skill for trail runners.

MOTTIV app user Rebecca Foat runs in a marathon in Treherne, Manitoba, Canada.

How To Adapt Your Training Plan for a Trail Marathon

Now that you know the unique skills needed for trail running, it's time to adapt your marathon training plan for trail running. While the foundational elements of distance running training remain the same, the specifics of trail running will dictate some changes.

Run More Of Your Weekly Mileage on Soft Surfaces

For most runners, the most significant adjustment for trail marathon preparation is moving multiple runs per week off-road - ideally to trails, but at the very least, to soft surfaces. These runs not only acclimate your body to the physical demands of trail running but also enhance your technical skills and mental preparedness for variable terrain.

Incorporating soft surface runs into your weekly training schedule, including both long runs and shorter, more technical sessions, is crucial. This approach allows you to experience a range of trail conditions, from smooth dirt paths to technical single-track trails, building the versatility and resilience needed for trail racing. If you're lucky enough to live somewhere with lots of options for trail running, try out new routes often.

The bonus of devoting more of your training time to trail running is the overall benefit to your body. Soft surface running has less impact on your body, promoting recovery and reducing the risk of injury. For this reason, at MOTTIV, we suggest that all runners - from those doing 10k training to road runners aiming to maximize their marathon performance -  do some trail running training. Specifically, we suggest runners complete their long, easy runs on soft surfaces. Finding the right balance of trail and road training is a great way to build speed and stamina for every race distance.

Focus On Effort, Not Pace

While many runners preparing for road races spend several miles per week running at precise paces, often their goal race pace, those who train for a marathon on trails can rely more on feel. In fact, one of the most liberating aspects of trail running is the shift in focus from pace to effort. Given the variability of trail surfaces and elevations, maintaining a consistent pace is often impractical. Instead, training and racing by feel allows you to truly listen to your body and adjust your intensity based on the trail's challenges.

Training runs should include segments where you focus on maintaining a steady effort rather than a specific pace, which can be practiced on varied terrain to simulate race conditions. Learning to run by effort improves your ability to pace yourself on race day, leading to a more enjoyable and successful trail running experience.

Training based on perceived effort requires tuning into your breathing, muscle fatigue, and overall energy levels and using them as guides to manage your pace. Trail running provides an opportunity to develop increased body awareness, which is good for any runner. If you can learn to run by feeling while training on the trails, you may find yourself having better pacing when you run roads again.

Spend More Time Focused on Strength

Strength training becomes increasingly important in trail running due to the sport's physical demands, including navigating uneven terrain and tackling steep inclines. A comprehensive strength training program should target the muscles most used in trail running, including the calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core.

Exercises such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, and plyometric drills can build the power and endurance needed for effective hill running. Core strengthening exercises, including planks, side planks, and rotational movements, enhance stability and balance on technical trails. Incorporating strength training into your weekly routine not only prepares your body for the rigors of trail running but also helps prevent injuries by improving muscle balance, joint stability, running economy, and overall durability.

Plan For Your First Trail Race

Preparing for a trail marathon involves more than just adjusting the focus of your training plan. You should also spend some time figuring out your equipment and nutrition, as both have increased importance on the trails.

Dial In Your Equipment

Selecting the right equipment is crucial for off-road running, where the terrain and conditions can vary dramatically. Trail shoes, which are running shoes designed with rugged soles for better grip and protection against rocks and roots, are essential for safe and comfortable running on trails. When choosing trail shoes, consider the specific features of the trails you'll be running on, such as the level of technicality and the typical weather conditions, to find a shoe that matches your needs.

A hydration pack is another critical piece of equipment, allowing you to carry water and nutrition on longer runs where aid stations may be sparse. Look for a hydration pack that fits snugly and comfortably, with enough capacity for your hydration needs and space for essential items like nutrition, a first aid kit, and a phone. It's a good idea to use your pack in training as well. Having a good hydration pack allows you to run longer between refueling stops, meaning you can explore more new trails while also ensuring that you go into your race knowing that it fits you well.

Test Your Nutrition

Nutrition plays a pivotal role in trail running, where the duration and intensity of runs can quickly deplete energy reserves. With fewer aid stations on trail courses, carrying and managing your nutrition becomes a personal responsibility.

During training, experiment with different types of nutrition, including gels, chews, bars, and even real food, to find what works best for your body. Make sure you know if the race you're training for will be providing food or other types of nutrition, and if so, what they will have.

Pay attention to how different foods and fluids affect your energy levels, digestion, and overall comfort during long runs. Practicing your nutrition strategy in training will help you simulate race conditions, ensuring you know how much to consume and when. Proper nutrition testing helps avoid gastrointestinal issues on race day—something you really don't want to deal with—and ensures you have the energy to finish strong.


Training for your first trail marathon extends beyond physical preparation, offering a chance to explore the beauty of nature, challenge your limits, and discover a new dimension of running. By adapting your training to the unique demands of trail running, focusing on technical skills, strength, and endurance, and carefully planning your equipment and nutrition, you're setting yourself up for a successful and memorable race. Embrace the adventure, respect the trail, and enjoy every moment of your trail marathon.

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Amanda Wendorff

| Author

Amanda Wendorff is a professional triathlete, focusing on the 70.3 and 140.6 Ironman distances. In the last several years she’s competed in multiple gravel bike races. Top Achievements: Top 3 Ironman Ireland and Ironman 70.3 Coquimbo, Multiple time top-5 finisher, 3rd Overall at Moran 166 Gravel Race in Michigan, Age group podium at Gravel Worlds, Big Sugar, and Ned Gravel in first year of gravel racing.

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