Updated: Aug 2, 2020
I'd probably go as far to say, toeing the line of a running race for the first time would be up there as one of the most nerve racking experience's of my life, right along side sitting in the dentist's chair and asking a girl to the school formal!
Looking back on this and any other experience that had me shaking in my boots, I question why I felt that way and what all the fuss was about.
Now I could go on and on with my own tips and advice of racing for the first time and what to expect, but thought what better way to get insights and advice to you than some local legends and champions in the sport of road and trail running. The tips below come from people new to running through to individuals with years of experience who have (and still are) competing at the highest level in their sport, both national and international.
Whether you are new to running or a seasoned racer there is sure to be a tip or two to take away from the content below. From pacing to nutrition and planning, to simply just focusing on your 'why', we've got you covered.
Read on to help you get to the start line of your first race relaxed, prepared and ready to go! Be sure to comment on this post, share with someone you know new to running or reach out to each person (their name is linked) to gain further insights from their own experiences to help you achieve your greatest satisfaction from your new found passion.
From all of us, welcome to the world of running!
Seasoned Ultra distance trail runner
For me my number one lesson over time has been that pacing is the number one skill when it comes to racing... of course having done the training is a given but come race day if you don’t pace yourself well you will destroy your race no matter how well you trained.
Unless you are racing 5km or shorter then you need to be going out super comfortable - races only start in the last third.... the first two thirds are simply the section that gets you to the start line and you need to go into the last third feeling like you haven’t even started yet... if you are even remotely struggling coming into the last third then your race is over. No amount of speed in the first 2/3 will make up for crashing in the last 1/3.
Competitive Ultra Distance Trail Runner
Clare is an experienced Ultra Distance Trail Runner with years of experience enduring the high's and low's of running, both in training and racing.
For your first race, your only goal should be to finish. As much as you may want to go into a race wanting to do your first ultra in an incredible time that puts your 5K Parkrun PB to shame, keep it simple. Your first race/ultra should be about making it to the finish line in one piece, anything more than that is a bonus of the training that you have put in and conditions on race day. Expectations can cause unnecessary stress during training and putting pressure on you during the race can easily lead to things falling apart.
Keep it simple, use your first race as a learning experience and have fun.
Enjoy the friendly chats on course, don’t put pressure on yourself to crash and burn. Keep your running fun and social!
When training for an ultra race, I like to put time into hiking with a high chance that there will be walking on race day due to trail conditions and hill climbing. At some point in an ultra you will walk, so train to walk. Walking while the body and mind are tired is great race conditioning. You will find that you will easily pass people on race day that turned up thinking they could run the entire race. Majority of people won’t train walking or hiking, yet it is something that most people will end up doing on the day, so use the opportunities to learn how to walk with purpose.
Champion Ultra distance Trail Runner - Multiple Wins And Podium Finishes - Ambassador
My tip would be to remember why you started this journey, why running? Why this race? Always starting and remembering your why in this sport is so important because it always brings you back to simplistic thinking when it can seem overwhelming.
Seasoned Obstacle Course Racer and New To Trail Running
For preparation I recommend a good sleep the night before a race. You may be excited for your first race but try to relax and get at least 8 hours rest. I also recommend a light breakfast so you won’t to feel bloated at the start.
As for race day, check your toe nails! Trim them the night before as running downhill can end up being very painful. Run your own race, don’t worry if other racers are flying past you at the start. If you try to keep up and run someone else's race and not yours you will be in a pain cave real quick. Dynamic stretch before hand, and if possible a light jog to get things moving.
Mid/Long Distance Trail Racer
My first 1/2 marathon trail race was the Mountain Goat Surefoot Trail event. Quite simply my whole ethos for that race was smile and enjoy the day. There are so many “believe in yourself “ type quotes from many influential people. But if you smile with every muscle it’s incredibly difficult to not have a great day.
I really just think that is what I wished someone had said . I know the training is hard. I knew it would hurt . But I smiled all the way around and thanked everyone for giving up their time to help me run the race .
Accomplished trail racing competitor with multiple wins and podium finishes
I wish I knew that a trail race that says it is 20km could mean anything between 18 and 22. Don’t rely on your gps!
If it’s your first ultra distance, run with your pack beforehand. Test your gear otherwise you could chafe badly. Use a good anti-chafe product.
Experienced Trail Racer over multiple distances
In any long running event, well into the race you’re going to start hurting and questioning why you’re doing this. Don’t try to find a solution to make the pain go away, you won’t find it. Rather, find a little thing that’s bothering you, fix it.
Find another little thing, fix that too. By fixing a few little things, it will make it feel like you're taking back control, and whilst the pain may still be there you’re now mentally in control.
Experienced Trail Racer - Current Guzzler 100km Female Champion
Number 1 tip: Plan, Smile often and don’t be a douche. Easy to get caught up in your own little world but remember the bigger picture, remember your ‘why’ .
One thing I wish I knew before my first race was: That MGTR existed, I could have got some early advice before fronting up for my first ever trail marathon, it was Shotover Marathon, big elevation and I had only trained on the roads with a few trail sessions
Beginner Runner and HPE Teacher
My first running event was the International Women's Day Fun Run, a 6km run around the Brisbane River. I had no structured running training leading up to this run, or had even run this distance, so I really didn't know what to expect.
However, in my mind I believed I could do it! My tip for someone running their first race no matter what the distance, is believe you can achieve your goal and your half way there, even before stepping onto the start line.
I teach my kids at school a very simple principle, exercise and running is not to be looked at as punishment. It is to be viewed as enjoyment and beneficial to your mind and body.
Ultra Marathon Runner - current BVRT 100 mile course record holder
My #1 tip for someone racing for the first time is to get the training right so you turn up injury free and in peak condition. I recommend reading up on Lydiard training and MAF but in a sentence you should slow down the easy runs and go harder on 1-2 hard runs a week. I started my first race far too fast in the excitement of it all (a problem I admit I still struggle with...). The advice I wish I’d had before my first race would be “plan the race and race the plan - save the heroics to final 1/4”
Multiple Podium finisher Trail Runner - Qualified Nutritionist and Naturopath
My first ever "race" was a 10km run in Burnie, TAS which I completed 10 years in a row and I barely trained properly - not that I knew that at the time. What I thought was training was merely just keeping my legs rolling over 2-4 times per week as I did a steady 5km each time. I knew nothing about interval training or HIIT! This is definitely one thing that I wish I was aware of - not just the overall improvement of fitness and speed that can come from this type of training but also the reduction/ diminishment of injury that follows!! I also only trained for a few weeks leading up each time, with the only other exercise in my regular routine being walking the dog most days. For me, I have always been very mindful of my diet and lifestyle so food was less relevant for my running.
My biggest tip would be limiting or excluding processed foods and replace with wholefoods. Wholefoods maintain balanced blood sugar levels (low GI diet) as people with blood sugar dysregulation are going to bottom out pretty quickly.
So many people eat highly processed carbs thinking their body needs all these extra carbs!
Next in line would be cut the alcohol! For those that drink regularly (they definitely have dysregulated blood sugar), alcohol sucks the life out of our body - literally!
When our liver is processing alcohol, it stops everything else including muscle repair from that big training run you just completed. Alcohol also increases our need for many nutrients, particularly B-vitamins. If you drink often during your training and seem to get many injuries, consider your alcohol intake.
Finally, sleep! Sleep is so important for recovery! If you're not sleeping properly, you simply are NOT recovering properly - sleep is when our body rests, builds and repairs our cells and tissues. Think injury yet again.
New To Trail Running and All Round Good Bloke
The one thing I wished I knew was how upset my stomach would get running an Ultra Marathon and experienced this at the Coastal High 50km on the Gold Coast.
I had no idea that I would not be able to keep food down or even feel like eating and this really affected my race due to depleted energy. Best to train and test nutrition extensively before racing.
Experienced Ultra Marathon Competitor both Australia and Abroad
I’ve found, through years of doing both the “right” and “wrong” thing by training, that there are two main things that hold true for me with trail and long distance running. 1) Always listen to your body. If you’re tired, sore or feeling a bit of pain - take a rest day. Sometimes, an easy training week will actually enable your body to adapt, recover and get stronger - rather than always pushing to fatigue. 2) Be consistent. I’ve often suffered from post-race blues after a big event. When you’ve spent months training, sometimes it’s tempting to have a big long break after an event. But if you can stay in the routine of doing something, even if just an easy 30-minute run or strength session every day, so you’re in a routine, your training and performance will continually improve. And there’s nothing more satisfying that seeing results.
Seasoned Ultra Marathon Competitor and 100 mile Trail Run Finisher
You are going to learn a lot about yourself on that first race – some of it ain’t pretty. To me running an ultra is like having a party in my mind and inviting all my angels and demons to attend. A roller-coaster of highs and lows.
Fortunately, the highs far outweigh the lows and you do come through the other side a completely different person.
Take time to breathe, take time to smile, take time to talk to people and pick each other up. Best not to think about it as a race, but rather as a journey and take your time to enjoy that ride.
Australian and New Zealand legend of International Ultra Obstacle Course Racing
If you're going to be out on the track for a while, spend some time applying an anti chafing cream or gel before you run. Skin to skin rubbing combined with sweat over a period of time can be extremely irritating and heighten your risk of an early exit.
Invest in a good pair of shoes and socks to look after your feet. Get a few training runs under your belt in the shoes to suss out any hotspots. Apply the lube all over your feet and between your toes. All of this should help reduce the chance of getting blisters.
It's the small things that make the difference.
Highly Experienced Road and Ultra Trail Racing Competitor
My number one tip would be to pay very close attention to pacing. As a newby it's so easy to go out at a million miles an hour with a rush of blood to the head & adrenaline flowing through your veins, only to then crash & burn 10km's into a 50km race. It's critical to hold yourself back, even if it means letting lots of people pass you, because you can be sure you'll have the chance to pass them later on in the race. There's an old saying about pacing an ultra "if you think you're going too slow, you need to slow down"! The other tip I wish I got, apart from the pacing aspect, is that you don't need to run all the hills. If you're used to road running, you assume that all hills are runnable & you'll potentially go into a trail ultra with that mindset. You need to learn to assess the hills & to power hike when required to conserve energy. Another old saying, "if you don't know the hill & you can't see the top, you should be walking or power hiking". A couple of simple, but important tips.
Podium Finisher and experienced Ironman, Triathlon, Road and Trail Runner. Current Mountain Goat Trail Runner Club President
On training for his first Ironman
I was always keen to do all the training sessions asked of me and if I missed one I would try to squeeze it in, this is bad as it can have a knock on effect with future training.
If I miss a session now I don’t stress out and just prepare well for the next session and what the expectations of that session are going to be such as technique, speed or endurance as examples. I fully understand now that if I do the majority of the training I can compete well in a race.
It’s important to train on relatively similar terrain what the race will be like, so if there are hills train on hills both uphill and downhill. It has taken me many years to fully appreciate the need to understand how you should plan and practice nutrition strategies, you won't know what works for you until you try it.
Finally don’t believe marketing hype. You will only feel comfortable and run well in clothes and shoes if you have run in them before. If someone says Nike are the best, they are for that person but may not be for you so the solution is to try a number of options and then choose.
Chris's tip on race day strategy
My number one tip for racing is unless you are going to podium then run your race and don’t be sucked in by the participants. Ironman and Ultra events are long and for the majority of people they are about challenging yourself.
Stick to your plan, always have a back up in case things are not going to the strategy and have a plan if you are exceeding your strategy. In a race its about meeting and then exceeding your expectations, whether that is to finish, or beat a PB or race against a friend.
Champion trail racing competitor with multiple wins and podium finishes
I guess my tip would be, running is very much a mental sport and anyone can run, but the one thing that will hold most people back is not your legs but what you tell yourself and those negative thoughts that you will have during a race.
Whether it’s 5km's or 100km's we all have them at some point. So I guess this is relatable to the competitive runner through to someone running their first race and feeling overwhelmed with what may lay ahead. My advice is to “Tell yourself that if YOUR hurting then so is EVERYONE else” Repeat this mantra at any point you feel like giving up or that you can’t do this and you’ll finish every race. Running ain’t easy but anyone can do it!!!!
Are you inspired, motivated and ready to take on your first race? There are some real gold nuggets in this list! The one thing that I found out very early on with my running journey is that there is always someone willing to help, guide and support you. We are a very inclusive and supportive community so don't be afraid to reach out for help!
Thank you to all who contributed to this article. If you are reading this and ready to take on your first race, what tip resonates well with you, we'd love to hear how you go!