Trail Running: Etiquette, Tips, Advice for Beginners
As a cross-country runner in high school, I was exposed to a lot of different types of terrain early in my running experience. We ran on the local roads and sidewalks, on crushed limestone tracks, on short grass in parks, and on all manner of dirt and mud in the woods.
So it was natural to me that when I got back into running as an adult and started my own running club I didn’t just “lace up my shoes and head out the front door”. Running around my neighborhood might save a little time but I find the rich experience that trail running provides far outweighs any inconvenience of driving someplace to run.
While searching for local trails, I came across a number of articles talking about ‘revivals of trail running’, or ‘trail running taking off’ and such. I hadn’t realized that the majority of runners seldom use trails for training and that many have never run on a dirt trail through a forest! The main reasons seemed to be either not knowing where local trails were or being unsure about things like safety and technique. This article will sum up some of what I know about trail running and hopefully give you the confidence you to go out and see what you’ve been missing!
So how do I find a trail?
There are a lot of options here, and you’ve likely heard some of them before- Check with your local park district, Google for forest preserves in your area, ask other local runners or at local specialty running stores, and find out where local cross-country races are held.
But there are two other options that I’ve found to be immensely helpful.
1. Google Satellite View. Go into Google maps like normal and enter your hometown. Then choose the ‘Satellite’ option, usually in the upper right hand corner. Now you can zoom in far enough to be able to find every footpath in your area, let alone running trails. Some of the nicer trails might be obscured by trees if the image is not from wintertime but you should be able to get a very good idea of what is around.
2. Search different terms. Instead of searching for ‘running trails’ search for ‘mountain bike trails’ or ‘hiking trails’. You might find some nearby places you never knew about. Searching for mountain biking clubs, off-leash dog trails, geo-caching parks, nature conservatory, wildlife refuge, prairie paths, and such can yield diverse results. Just make sure to check out the rules for the location to ensure runners are welcome.
These trails are narrow! What is the proper Etiquette?
Unlike roads, trails are often very tight and if it is a heavily used trail, you might not have much time to avoid a crash with another runner, a biker, or people on horseback. Here is how to prevent any mishaps.
Right of way-
Right of way is extremely important. As a runner(or walker) you are lowest on the chain. You should yield to just about everyone else because you likely have the most mobility, options on how to get out of the way, and time to react. A lot of sites that offer etiquette for mountain bikers say they must give right-of-way to people on foot, so many of them will stop for you, but realistically if a biker is coming up behind you at 20mph and would have to stop to walk his bike around you on a narrow trail, it makes far more sense for you to just move to the edge a bit and let them get past. However, if a club or location has specific rules in place, please defer to those.
1. Handling people on horseback. When you hear or see horses coming, stop running and move to the side of the trail, or just off it if possible. Always move to the side that slopes downhill if there is a slope. The reason for this is that if the horse shies off the trail, you don’t not want it going downhill where it is more likely to hurt itself or throw the rider. You would want it to go uphill where it likely won’t go very far. Some riders also want you to wave slowly a bit and say ‘Hello there!’ clearly to make sure the horse sees you and knows that you are just another person and nothing to be scared by. Never try and pet a horse going past.
2. Handling people on bikes. Mountain bikers are usually very good about calling out before they are on top of you. Sometimes tight curves on the trails mean they can come up on you suddenly though. Either way, just move to the edge of the trail or just off-trail if it is very narrow. Some riders might call out something like “Three back”. This means there are three more riders in their group coming right behind the first rider. So stay clear until they all have past.
Don’t mess up the trail-
Obviously this includes common sense etiquette like don’t litter. Seriously. Do not litter, please. I have yet to go to a forest preserve without seeing empty wrappers, bottles, or one time a large hambone (weird, huh?) just thrown on the ground, often with a trash can nearby, and this is very sad.
More specifically though it has to do with how you should treat single-track vs double-track trails.
The photo below is of a double-track sized trail.
As you can see, there is plenty of room for two people or bicycles. It is ok to run side-by-side here as long as you stay alert. You probably can’t mess this type of trail up by accident. However, if it is particularly muddy, try to travel on the firmest part of the trail without going off-trail. Running through a muddy middle can create a deep groove over time and you should avoid causing this.
Single-track trails, like the one below, are a different story.
Notice how even though there is plenty of room on the side, the bikers obviously only go straight down the middle? This is because a large part of the challenge and fun of mountain biking comes from the narrow, winding trails. Therefore one of the most important things to remember is to never widen a single-track trail. When you see a trail like this, or any dirt trail where two people could not comfortably walk next to each other without touching, treat it like a single-track trail.
When in a group, always run single-file on these narrow trails. One exception- If the trail is very muddy and you have to run off-center to avoid creating a groove and you are with a group, make sure that each person runs on a slightly different line of travel to avoid wearing a secondary trail next to the main one. These temporary side trails can end up being used more then the main one, then widen to join the main one which ends up making the whole trail double-track instead of single-track.
If the trail is so muddy that you would have to be running off-center a lot, it would be best to go somewhere else rather then risk ruining the trail.
Awesome! But how do I stay safe while running on a trail?
Running on a trail is way different then road running. If you are new to it, your sore muscles afterwards will loudly inform you just how different it is. Here are some tips for staying safe and injury-free.
1. Don’t wear headphones. This might be obvious by now, but it bears saying outright; When on trails, you must be able to hear what and who is around you. You can’t get out of the way of a bike you don’t hear coming. They are watching the trail, not checking to see if you have on headphones. If you absolutely cannot bear to run one step without music, then only wear one earbud and keep the volume very low. A bad bike crash has the potential to seriously harm or even kill someone. Avoid that by letting birdsong be your music and leave the headphones at home.
2. Run single-file as much as possible. Unless the trail is both as wide as a paved bike path and straight enough that you can see back and ahead for a good distance, you should just run single-file. It makes chatting a bit harder but it is way safer and prevents one person from feeling like they are being pushed off the edge the whole time they are running. Also- Leave a large space between runners when a group is running uphill/downhill. You need to have time to notice and react if someone slips or falls.
3. Walk down the hills. Unless you are training for a trail-race and are pretty experienced, there is no real reason to try and run down any hill that seems even a little bit too steep, rocky, loose, or dangerous. You will not hurt your workout by walking for a few seconds but you will prevent a lot of injuries. Steep, uneven, downhills like you find on trails can be particularly hard on the knees if you have bad form but you won’t realize if until after your run and then it is too late. So just prevent the harm in the first place and walk down the hills until you are very comfortable running on trails. Once you have leveled up your downhill skills, it can be exhilarating to fly to the bottom, but build your way there slowly. Practice=Confidence, Confidence=Skill, Skill=Safety.
4. Soft, light steps. Short stride. Good running form in general advocates light, fast, steps, and a foot landing that hits basically centered under your torso. Many people run with poor form either out of ignorance or habit. On paved surfaces, runners can get away with poor form (or at least the injuries it causes take longer to build up). Running poorly on a trail can far too easily cause falls or sprained ankles right away. When just learning trail running, or are trying out on an unknown trail for the first time, you will want to run slower then your road pace, maybe even slower then your ‘easy day’ pace. Take short steps; If you are running with a good upright posture and looking slightly ahead, you should not really ever see your feet. If you see your feet regularly, you are likely thrusting your foot too far forward with each stride. Seeing your feet too often also tempts you to look down at them, which prevents you from noticing upcoming hazards in time.
To correct, practice off-trail and try to move with shorter, quicker strides. Try bending your knees slightly more then normal like you are aiming to land softly and quietly. You can get a bit silly even and pretend you are a kid trying to run so quiet they could sneak up on people even while going fast
Make extra sure you are taking short, light steps when going up the hills. It is tempting to want to ‘power’ up them, and if you are experienced you will have worked out a way to do this safely. But if you are new to trails the last thing you want is to have all your weight on a foot that trying to power you upwards and then have that foot slip out from under you. This is not the correct way to learn how to do the splits!
5. Consider using a trail shoe. A shoe made to grip uneven terrain will obviously help prevent injuries, and can make your run easier as well. If you are not able to use a trail shoe, use whichever running shoes you own that have a decently deep, grippy tread. Avoid shoes that are very flat/smooth. Those will make even walking downhill very tough. Careful when choosing a shoe though. You will want to avoid the ones that almost look like cleats to start. Those can make it harder to run until you have very good balance, agility, and strong, flexible ankles. Call your local stores and ask how many styles of trail running shoes they have in stock before driving out. Ideally you will want a store that has 4-6+ styles. A store with only 1 or 2 styles might not be very knowledgeable about trail running.
6. Look a bit ahead, same as road running. It is tempting to want to stare right down at the trail as you try and avoid all those roots, branches, and rocks. But looking right at something actually makes it more likely that you will trip over it. Roots like these-
are not as deadly as they look. Your feet know how to avoid them and will do their job just fine as long as you keep your brain from getting too involved. So just look ahead, note when roots or rocks are coming up, and let your feet step over them naturally.
Ok, I’m tired of reading. Is that all?
Almost! In the same way reading, doing math, or writing a paper can make you tired, trail running can be much more mentally fatiguing then road running. Combine the mental fatigue with tired muscles and you could be in for trouble. Here’s how to handle it-
1. Stop running if you feel even slightly mentally tired or ‘zoned out’. If you notice you start tripping after a few miles, or the only thought in your head is ‘Duuurrrr’, then just take a break! When your mental resources start to wear out you are way more inclined to become injured.
2. Bring something to eat after the run. Even if you don’t really feel tired, you could be mentally worn out after a trail run. You do not want to drive like this. So bring an extra snack that will be digested quickly like soft fruit, a sports drink, milk, protein shake or even cookies. Hey, you just ran those tough trails, you can totally eat a cookie!
***A last safety note- If trail running alone it is always a best practice to inform someone where you will be and when you intend to be back home. Have a phone on you; also very important but signals can be unreliable. Some people will leave a note on their car dashboard so that if it’s past dark and a official notices your car, they can be alerted that you intended to return sooner. Carrying a small light that can flash red/neon green to signal your location is handy to have, as well as a small whistle; these are often even built into the zipper pulls of jackets and water packs!
See you on the trails!
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