Following my first proper trail run on the West Highland Way on Saturday, I thought I’d get together a Top 10 for how to have a safe trail run.
The frequent changes in incline, uneven footing, natural obstacles, always changing terrain, quickly changing weather conditions and seclusion of trail running makes it a fun, exhilarating and challenging activity.
Those same characteristics that make trail running fun also add in some hazardous elements that can make trail running a bit risky. No worries. With proper preparation and focus, your trail running can be both safe and fun.
Here are my top 10 ways to have a safe trail run:
Be a Weather Watcher
The weather can change quickly on the trail, especially when you’re running up mountains! Before you head out on your run, check the weather forecast and plan appropriately. Watch the weather during your run. If it looks like something is blowing in that you aren’t properly prepared for it’s time to bag it and head back to home base. Don’t risk it just because you want to finish a particular distance or time goal.
Trail running usually involves running over loose rock, gravel, sharp stones, roots and uneven surfaces. To protect yourself from injury you should wear trail running shoes that give your feet the traction and additional protection they need in those conditions. Run with a trail running pack and throw in a water resistant jacket just in case a storm blows through.
Dress for the weather. When I ran on that rather wet windy day in October 2011 along the West Highland Way, I planned it just right. No waterproofs, but knee length trousers, a compression top, another t-shirt, hat and buff. I also had my water pack which is small, but big enough to hold the essentials and 2 litres of water.
My buff was a godsend! It might not look very attractive, but it works wonders! I was able to leave it around my neck when I felt ok, and lift it up over my mouth when the wind and rain was in my face or my face was feeling cold. I had my gloves in my bag and could have used them, but didn’t. The weather wasn’t actually too bad in some sections where it was sheltered – just drizzly rain or no rain at all. But in others where it was exposed, it was pretty tough.
Stuff happens during trail running. Be prepared. Take a small first aid kit in your trail running pack as well as some emergency gear, such as a compass, map, signal whistle, duct tape for gear repairs and an emergency blanket.
If it’s a long run, make sure you have warm dry clothes waiting for you at the end and the food and liquid you would usually take to recover. Make sure it’s all handy so you don’t need to fumble about tired, trying to get them. Start your recovery as soon as you stop running.
Don’t ever hit a secluded trail without letting someone know where you’re going. Take your mobile in your trail running pack so you can call for help if something unforeseen should happen.
One of the most common hazards of trail running is the uneven footing and trail obstacles. Look about 8 to 10 feet ahead of yourself when running on the trail. You will be able to plan your route and foot strikes ahead of time and avoid potential trips and falls. Try to keep concentration on where your feet are going to be landing.
When you run on the road you can get away with zoning out a bit. You can listen to music or lose yourself with some introspective thinking. That isn’t a good idea when trail running. The trails have drop offs, blind corners, loose footing and trail hazards that can come up on you very quickly. If you aren’t paying attention you may run off the trail rather than over it. Stay focused on the trail and your stride at all times. You’ll avoid a potential trip to the emergency room.
Tread Lightly Twinkle Toes
Part of proper running form on any type of terrain includes taking quick, compact and light strides. This component of running mechanics is especially crucial when train running. Stay light on your feet and try for a stride rate of 90 full strides or 180 steps per minute or more. If it gets hard, walk up the hills instead of running, take in some of the scenery and don’t kill yourself by trying to run every metre of the route! Enjoy it.
Know Thy Course
Before you head out on a running trail you aren’t familiar with it’s a good idea to study a trail map or get the advice of a fellow trail runner that has navigated the trail. Better yet, print out an OS map of your route and take it with you. As you run, try to learn the elevation and incline changes. Learn the distances between landmarks.
Familiarise yourself with the terrain of the trail so you know what to expect and can plan accordingly. This is especially worthwhile when you do an out and back route. If you notice a steep decline on the way out, it will be a steep incline on the way back, maybe when you’re tired and ready to finish.
These two websites are good for maps and descriptions of the WHW route:
Both websites have links to all of the sections of the WHW and you can access the OS maps (especially on the first link). Each section is split down and has a good clear description. If you’re on route and the signs disappear, it probably means you have gone off route. Ask someone for directions (if they’re available) or check your pre printed map!
Carry Fuel and Water
Always carry a bit of spare fuel with you, even if you’re planning a short trail outing. Energy bars and gels are not only easy to carry but will supply you with some quick energy if needed. That spare fuel will come in especially handy if you end up running longer than you intended. Always carry a bit more hydration than you think you may need. The trails are not a place to run into the dehydration monster.
Train for the Trail
Many off road trails are real ankle biters. The abrupt changes in terrain and incline as well as the frequently encountered roots, rocks and loose gravel can cause ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis, shin splints and a whole slew of other lower extremity injuries.
You can’t change the trail, but you can change how your feet and legs react to those hazards. Include lower leg strengthening exercises in your weekly program and you will be able to tame that trail running beast.