Trail Runners: Experienced Vs. Newbies

The advantages of being a newbie trail runner

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 people and as an athletes.

Evolving into Experienced Trail Runners

We also acquire important knowledge about various aspects of trail running, such as a correct training plan to follow, the best trail running shoes for us to use and on what type of terrain they are best suited to. We learn how different weather conditions can affect the outcome of a race, and how, as trail runners, we need to attain a good balance between hydration and nutrition. We start to become familiar with the rules of the sport.

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 events we participate in, and we should have tapered adequately. It’s also possible that we dedicate large chunks of time researching trail racessetting goals, and planning our own racing schedule, short, mid and long term. 

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 baggage of experience can come the risk of hauling around excess baggage. There lies the risk of becoming set in our ways. We can become somewhat reluctant to challenge all that hard-acquired knowledge accumulated over the years. Without even realizing it we may be jeopardizing our potential for evolving as trail runners.

How can this be?

Goal setting and the Trail Running comfort zone

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

Perhaps even more so than the trail runner who possesses 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. We may prefer to remain in a trail running comfort zone, one which we understand and can ‘easily’ manage.

Avoiding, for example:

  • longer distances
  • multiday races
  • challenging terrain
  • events in difficult weather conditions
  • 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 therefore build barriers which prevent us from wanting to go beyond the known, 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 foresee 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 him or herself in accordance to past performance. That alone is likely to add some degree of pressure onto the run.

Hard Training

The trail running newbie, may approach training with no real planHey! Let’s run and just feel good! Many seasoned trail runners may however be doing some serious training, incorporating intense hours of mileage, speed work and uphill training. And well aware of just how exhausting these sessions can be,  the thought of having to endure that feeling for over 8-12 hours may not be appealing and therefore be inclined to keep milage low and race distances shorter.

Other Factors

The experienced runner is conscious that on race day a whole bunch of factors can influence not just the end result of a trail race, but what goes on after the start right up till the finish line. Our newbie trail runnerperhaps never having experienced GI issues, cramps, soreness or going off course, and all the other stuff that can and will, inevitably happen sooner or later 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 stepped up, and completed a 125km Ultra Trail. Extremely fit, with experience in the realm of OCR racing and only short trail races, distance wise he had only previously completed a 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, a night trail, in quite challenging wintry weather conditions, the second a technical trail on Mount Vesuvius (the volcano), with plenty of climbs. At the race start of both of these events, he was a little nervous yet more excited about 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 trail newbies, 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 stage, 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”.

by Maria E. Bellini
This article first appeared on www.italyontrail.com, a personal project that was live for 3 years – 2016-19. 

Maria E. Bellini

Maria Elisabetta Bellini, born in the U.K, lives in Italy.