Trail Running, Experience Vs. Newbies

Can Trail Runners with less experience ever be at an advantage?

The title of this article might seem a bit strange at first? Impossible, we may think! Surely the opposite is true? Aren’t trail runners with more experience advantaged at all times over those who are newer to the ‘sport’ of trail running?

We generally presume this to be the case. The more time we’ve spent running on the trails, or participating in trail races, whether they are short, medium or ultras, the more we learn about ourselves. Both as persons and as an athletes.

Becoming Experienced Trail Runners

We also aquire knowledge about various aspects of trail running, such as the best trail running shoes for us to use and on what type of terrain. About different weather conditions, and how, as trail runners, we need to attain a good balance between hydration and nutrition.

We become masters regarding the procedures of trail races. Learning what to expect from race rules and regulations and how to interpret a race course and profile. We work out what to have for breakfast, and at what time!

We will probably have put in some sort of specific training and preparation regarding the event, and we will probably have have tapered. It’s also possible that we have dedicated sufficient time researching trail races, setting goals, and planning our own racing schedule, mid to long term.

 "Let's run and just feel good!"
“Let’s run and just feel good!”

Newbie Vs Experienced Trail Runners

Although experience is probably going to be one of the most valuable resources that we can possess with regards to trail running, along with that same experience can come the risk of becoming trapped on a path of trail tunnel vision. Perhaps set in our own ways and somewhat reluctant to challenge all that hard-acquired knowledge accumulated over the years. Without even realizing it we may be jeopardizing our potential for trail evolution.

How can this be?

Goal setting and the Trail Running comfort zone

The trail runner newbie may be inclined to set him or herself some audacious goals!

More so than trail runners who possess a deeper level of trail running skills. Caution, and yes – experience – may prevent the proficient trail runner from taking that leap towards more arduous goals preferring to remain in the trail runners comfort zone, which one which we understand and can ‘easily’ manage.

For example not wishing to move towards:

  • longer distances
  • multiday races
  • events on difficult terrain
  • events in challenging weather conditions
  • events at altitude

Discomfort and Suffering in Trail Running

A lot can be learnt from running between 35-45k and around the trail marathon distance, along with a clear insight into the significance of physical discomfort and the unique effect it can produce on our performance. We may therfeore build barriers which prevent us from wanting to go beyond, and experience more, or amplified discomfort.
The less experienced trail runner, perhaps feeling ‘good’ after a 10k on the trails, may be likely to perceive that same feeling will be present forever, meaning that he or she may not forsee any obstacle that could invoke the onset of a suffer fest.

Running with no (perceived) pressure from peers

The ‘unknown’ trail runner, being the ‘newbie’ on the trail running scene is likely to be able to run free from peer pressure. There are usually no expectations on performance, or results. Just competing is often the ‘victory’ to shout home about.

Whereas the seasoned trail runner, being better known in the local trail community, will always, to some degree be running under a spotlight. Friends and family may have expectations, as may club members, not to mention the athlete’s own expectations of themselves in accordance to past performance. That alone is likely to add some degree of pressure onto the run.

Many seasoned trail runners may however be doing some serious training, incorporating intense hours of speed work and uphill training
Many seasoned trail runners may however be doing some serious training, incorporating intense hours of speed work and uphill training

Hard Training

The trail running newbie, may approach training with no real plan. Hey! Let’s run and just feel good! Many seasoned trail runners may however be doing some serious training, incorporating intense hours of speed work and uphill training, and will be aware just how exhausting these sessions can be. Subsequently the thought of having to endure that feeling for over 8-12 hours may not be appealing and therefore be at risk of becoming conditioned into keeping milage low and race times shorter.

Other Factors

On the trails, the experienced runner is conscious that on race day a whole bunch of factors can influence not just the outcome of a trail race, but the journey too. Our newbie trail runner, perhaps never having experienced GI issues, cramps, soreness or going off course, and all the other stuff that can and will inevitably happen during our trail running times, is less likely to be on that start line with these kind of preoccupations or negative worries. (Of course he or she may have worries of a different kind!)

The newbies

The Ultra Newbie

I witnessed this firsthand when recently a member of my sports club finished a 125km Ultra Trail. Although extremely fit, and with experience in the realm of OCR racing, and short trail races, he had previously only completed one 50k, and that was a road ultra. As for training he hadn’t gone any further than 40k on the trails. But – fresh faced and positive he confidently took on the 125k ultra and completed the course in good time and form.

The Complete Newbie

Another member of my sports club, came to trail running just a few months ago, and has to date completed a couple of 20k’s. The first, at night, in quite challenging wintry weather conditions, the second a technical trail with plenty of challenging climbs. At the race start of both of these events, he was a little nervous yet more excited regarding what lay ahead. It was interesting to observe that air of trail running innocence, which really played a strong and positive role in the whole experience… whilst I was struggling with one of those classic ‘bad trail days’ with seem to pertain only to those who’ve run down many a path through countless seasons…

Taking stock

In the following days this forced me to stop, pause and reflect.

In these two guys, I could see echoes of my own enthusiasm that had carried me through those first steps in the trail running community over ten years ago. A precious part, which had somehow sadly become belittled… due to experience.

So that got me thinking…

You can teach an old dog new tricks

If we see ourselves as sitting a bit too comfortably on that trail running couch, perhaps it’s time to give ourselves a little shake, and make a conscious effort to try something even just slightly different on the trails (although personally I’m not exactly sure what yet) something where we have a little less experience, in order to run free and regain that wonderfully pure essence of “trail faith”.


Maria E. BelliniMaria Elisabetta Bellini is Italyontrail.com’s founder, born in the U.K, she came to running whilst living in Italy, where she still lives and trains. Never ceasing to marvel at what’s at the summit of a hill, or around the bend along the trail, she loves using trail running as a means to explore nature, contemplation and Italy.

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