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How to Run a Trail Marathon

How to Run a Trail Marathon

How to Run A Trail Marathon

I recently ran the Steyning Stinger trail marathon in West Sussex. Whilst running I filmed a documentary entitled How to Run A Trail Marathon. It’s a very basic guide for beginners. You can watch the film here, or you can read the script below, which I stuck to for the most part!

Starting out

Don’t do too much too quickly or you’ll get injured. As a new runner, you are likely to feel niggles and strains, perhaps in your shins, ankles or in your ITB (Iiliotibial Band) which runs down the side of the leg from the hip to just below the knee. Good stretching, rolling on a foam roller or sports massage should help. Initially, go out just once or twice a week for the first month or so. Gradually build up so you are doing 4 runs a week of varying types. Start by running for a minute and then walking for five. Then, run for two minutes and walk for five. Slowly increase the amount you run compared to the amount you walk. Soon you will find you have run for 20 minutes and covered 2 miles. If you feel a niggle, rest. Pre-written marathon plans are always good to follow as they will build you up slowly. You’ll find plenty of these scattered around the net.

Building the miles

As you become fitter and more confident, start to build the miles on your long slow runs (LSR). It’s common to do your LSR at the weekend and it’s often called the Long Sunday Run. In the beginning a long run might be 5 miles. Each week add one or two miles. Towards the end of your training you should be running around 30-40 miles per week over 4 or 5 sessions. You want to do at least one or two 20 mile runs in the 6 weeks before the marathon. Perhaps one of these should be a competitive 20 mile race.


If you’re learning how to run a trail marathon, you’re going to have to start running up hills. So get used to them sooner rather than later. Running up hills will build strength and stamina and will also improve your speed on the flat. So do a hill session once a week. Choose a street or off road hill with a mild incline of around 500 to 800 metres and run up it 8 times with effort, using the down to recover.


If you want to get faster or you have a specific finish time in mind, interval training will improve your speed. Do one interval session a week where you run hard for one minute and then rest for a minute. Or you could run between lampposts. These sessions are sometimes called Fartleks, which is ’Speed Play’ in Swedish. There are lots of variations of interval training. I like the Yasso 800. If you want to finish you marathon in 4 hours, go to your local track and run 800 metres in 4 minutes. Once you can do that 10 times in a row with a 400 metre recovery lap in between each set, you will, in theory, be ready to run a marathon in 4 hours, according to Bart Yasso. If you want to do the marathon in 5 hours, run each of the ten 800 metre sets in 5 minutes.


Running is all well and good but you need to build core strength too and sometimes changing sport is great motivation. Furthermore it can be important, if you’re injured, to keep up your cardio fitness. Go swimming or cycling, do Crossfit or circuit-training, that is, things like squats, lunges, planking, sit-ups and push-ups. Lots of people also do Yoga or Pilates for core strength.


Join parkrun. Parkrun is a free 5k timed run, which takes place every Saturday morning. There is one in almost every part of the country. Just register at, print off your barcode and take it with you on the day. It is a fun social event, it is very motivational and it will add a competitive element to your weekly training regime

Organised Races

Start with parkrun and, once you’ve built your confidence, start doing other organised events. Run a 10k a few months before the marathon. Run a half marathon a few weeks before and perhaps run a 20 mile race, if you can find one, three weeks before your A race. Runners World is always a good place to start looking for races.

Join a Running Club

Running on your own is fine, but you will improve vastly with the training sessions, experience, motivation and social aspect that comes with club running. Running clubs are not elitist. There are all sorts of people who join running clubs. Old, young, fast, slow, serious and fun runners. People running to lose weight or improve overall health and fitness. See this post for 10 great reasons to join a running club. If you really want to find out how to run a trail marathon, you will find plenty of people to help at your local club.


Some people stretch, some don’t. If you are going to stretch, the generally accepted rule is to do dynamic stretches before running and static stretches once you’ve finished. That’s because static stretching can do more harm than good to cold muscles. Imagine trying to stretch an elastic band that’s been in the freezer. Dynamic stretches are active movements of muscle which bring about a stretch, but are not held in position. Static stretches are of course the opposite. Standing still stretching out a muscle and holding it. If you can purchase a foam roller that will help get rid of knots in tissue and encourage circulation of fresh blood through the muscles.


Your body needs fuel to run. That fuel can come from two places, stored fat or carbohydrates. Most commonly runners fuel themselves by eating foods which are high in carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, potatoes, porridge and bread. These foods provide a slow release of glycogen (low GI) in to the body to fuel the muscles. During a race runners will often take gels or sports drinks which are primarily just sugar to provide an instant hit of glycogen (high GI) to give them a boost. The body can generally store around 2 hours worth of carbohydrate before it runs out and you need to top up. When you run out of stored carbohydrate your body will start to oxidise fat for fuel. The problem is that this is generally a much slower process and causes you to dramatically slow, or hit the wall or bonk during a race. That’s when you take your gels or sports drink. However, you can teach your body to burn fat faster and more efficiently and even to use fat as its primary source of fuel. By running your long training runs slowly and on an empty stomach over time you will become less reliant on high GI sugary foods and you will be less likely to hit the wall in the marathon. You do know carbs are essentially just sugar don’t you? You do know you’re just going to get fat and feel bloated, don’t you? Good, just checking.


I hate gels, but if you want to try them by all means go ahead. Just don’t buy cheap Lucozade gels. Get Gu, SIS or High 5 gels and perhaps go for the ISO gels which you can take without the need for water. You will need to experiment a lot to find what works for you in terms of brand and how often you take one.


If you can, try carrying some real food with you. Your stomach will thank you. I use baby food sachets by Ella’s Kitchen, but you can do any number of things. Some people carry mini sandwiches. White bread is easier to digest than brown when running. Peanut butter is great. Nutella is good. Ultra runners often take pizza, dates, nuts. Just try to avoid artificial sugars, sweets or too much chocolate. Although, I do like a swig of Coca-Cola occasionally! Whilst I advocate the fat burning school of thought, it is still the case that your body needs some carbohydrate to help with the fat burning process. I am suggesting we eat far fewer carbs day to day and certainly that we do not need to carb load. But eating some carbs during a race is not something I am against per se.


Water. You must drink water. When you run you will sweat. Replacing that lost fluid is vital. Drink little and often during a run. Don’t gulp down big mouthfuls of water or your stomach won’t be able to cope. In addition, it’s arguable that you need to replace the electrolytes like salt, potassium and magnesium which are lost through sweat. I used to take a product called Succeed S!Caps but your food or sports drink of choice should contain adequate electrolyte replacements. If you are carrying water with you you could put hydration powder in it, which will do a good job of replacing those electrolytes. Nunn or Osmo are the well known makers of powders or dissolvable tablets. There is an argument and some evidence to show that taking electrolyte supplements, such as astragalus, is not necessary and in fact that, as you sweat, your blood sodium level actually rises rather than fall, as you sweat and your blood becomes more concentrated.

Gastric issues

When learning how to run a trail marathon, it may take some time to lock down exactly what works for you on long runs. All of us have suffered from gastric problems during long runs and it can ruin the race. Whether you feel sick or need the toilet it’s not a nice experience. The best way to avoid this is to try, try and try again with different nutrition plans, until you find one which seems to work for you. Those Lucozade gels and the Nunn hydration tablets didn’t sit at all well with me, but that’s just me.

Trail shoes

You’re running a trail marathon, so you are likely to need trail shoes. Trail shoes generally have deep lugs on the sole, which offer more grip through the mud and uneven terrain you will encounter during your marathon. There are different types of trail shoe, like there are road shoes. You can get well-cushioned comfy trail shoes like Hokas, through to shoes which give you the feel of almost running barefoot and everything in between. Expect to pay anything from £50 to £150 for a pair. If your trail marathon takes place in dry weather and over fairly even ground, you could certainly get away with wearing road shoes and you will often find runners take two or three pairs of shoes with them on the day and decide at the last minute which they are going to go for. Although you should never take a brand new pair that you’ve never worn.

Race vest

Not vital, but can be very useful. If there are plenty of aid stations en route and the weather is good then you could opt to go without. However, if aid stations are miles apart and the weather is changeable, cold, windy or wet you might be very thankful you wore a race vest. These are basically fitted backpacks. They allow you to carry food, water and other supplies like waterproof clothing, maps, phone, foil blankets, compass etc. If you carry your own food and water you don’t need to waste time stopping at any aid stations. Just don’t overfill your race vest. It’s tempting to put extra food in which you probably won’t need. This is where practise runs in training are important, to hone exactly what you want to take with you. Great race vests are made by Salomon and Ultimate Direction.

GPS Watch

Purists run for the love of it. They don’t care about times or pacing. Or they have learned to listen to their body and they know what pace they are doing by feel. For the rest of us, it’s really useful to use a GPS enabled running watch. It will tell you how far you have run, what pace you are running at and how long it’s taken you. The more expensive the watch, the more features it will have. For example some watches will only tell you your current pace. Others will tell you your average pace over the whole run. Some watches will have navigation and mapping features. Some will measure other running dynamics like cadence and heart rate. Expect to pay £80 for a basic decent watch and up to £400 for a top end model. Garmin are the generally acknowledged leaders in the field but Suunto, TomTom and Polar may have something to say about that.

The right clothing can make or break your marathon and it’s advisable to try and get it right well before your A race. Let’s start at the bottom.


Running socks are different to normal socks and different even to sports socks. They are made to support your foot and to help prevent blisters. So you have a specific left and right fitted sock. There are no seams and the material keeps your foot dry and dries quickly when wet. You can get ankle length ones or knee length compression sock which supposedly help promote blood flow to and from the calf muscles. You can also get toe socks. Each toe has its own cosy covering preventing toes rubbing together. Injinji Toe socks are very popular with the marathon and ultra running community. Avoid waterproof socks like SealSkinz because they will get wet and once they are wet your feet will stay wet.


It’s personal preference here. Some prefer lycra, figure hugging shorts, others like a little freedom. Same with underwear, although this can be more of an issue when it comes to chafing. You can buy special running underwear and it really can help if you suffer from chafing down below. Check out X-Bionics or Skins range. If it’s going to be really cold, you might want to get leggings. I’ve managed with stuff from Sports Direct to be honest but I’ve never run a full marathon in leggings and if I were to I would be buying something more specifically designed for the job.


Again, if it’s cold you’ll want a base layer. One with flatlock seams to reduce abrasion and made from material designed to pull sweat away from the skin. This is known as ‘wicking’. Your main running top should also do this but won’t be as tight fitting as base layer. If it’s going to be really cold and possibly wet, you might want to consider a couple of other items. A fleece and waterproofs. A light weight fleece can keep you warm and allow you to keep running and if it really does chuck it down, then waterproofs will be a life saver on a long run. There’s nothing more demoralising than being cold and soaked to the skin with 10 miles still to go up hills and through the mud. There are plenty of brands which make very lightweight easy to carry clothes designed precisely for this. I wear Montane.

Other clothing you might opt for include a cap, buff, Gillet, gloves, compression sleeves

The Race

You are running a trail marathon. Very few participants actually run all the way. There are no prizes for running all the way. Enjoy your race. Enjoy the day. Don’t put a load of pressure on yourself and don’t beat yourself up if things don’t work out as planned. There is always next time.

That said you should have a plan and you should try and stick to it. That plan should include how fast you are going to run, whether you are going to walk up the hills, when you are going to eat your nutrition, how often you are going to take a gulp of water? Are you going to stop at aid stations or are you going to be completely self sufficient? Stick to the plan.

Don’t go out too fast or you will pay for it towards the end of the race. Don’t try anything new on race day. You should have had all your food, drinks, clothing and equipment sorted for a few weeks and you should have run with it all on at least one occasion.

Finally, when considering how to run a trail marathon, remember the little things, just in case. Vaseline, Deep Heat, safety pins, pain killers, indigestion tablets/chews, plasters,

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