Trail Running and Safety
Not every runner remains satisfied with the usual run on the treadmill or on the road. Many have discovered the beauty of a change in scenery and the challenges of variation in physical terrain, elevation and other conditions.
This not only stimulates the mind but also forces the body to work harder, burn more calories and improves agility, balance, and coordination.
In South Africa we are blessed with amazing scenery and the perfect opportunity to attract the sports tourist enjoying activities such as mountain biking and trail running. In remote areas risk factors however increase significantly. In this section we will share some advice on how to enjoy trail running safely.
What is a Trail Run?
There are many variations to trail running. Some are merely a run away from the tared and gravel roads while others are “technical” trails - narrow and/or winding, have lots of rocks and/or roots and can have multiple hills. Other are “extreme” trail runs over several days and sometimes through the night.
Some running clubs define trail running as having less than 10% of the route's total distance as tarred or hard pack road or requiring that a trail (hiking or single track) should be more than 10% of the route.
Trail running may take significantly longer to cover the same distance than with normal road running with routes often not marked and requiring navigation. The route may include sections of steep incline and decline, including minor rock scrambling, using all fours to move up or down a section. Trail Runners are ideally required to be self- sufficient, not expecting water tables and marshal support.
Trails vary greatly in types of terrain -from wide, flat, dirt trails, to single track lined with rocks and roots. Depending on the type of trail, you may encounter from few to many natural obstacles along the way.
Preparation for the trail run
Trail running can be both rewarding and extremely challenging. The runner should always prepare well - starting with the route he/she wishes to run!
- Do not head down a trail without knowing where you’re going or having some sort of directions on you.
- Before you set off in the woods or atop a mountain or head into an unfamiliar terrain, do some research, and plan your route with attention to detail.
- Taking a wrong turn or getting lost in the forest or desert could become a serious mistake.
- Think time, not distance: Tough terrain and hills can double the time you need to cover.
- Use the internet and browse websites that might have details on routes, including distance, elevation profiles and which tree markers to follow.
- Google Maps and satellite images have made it much easier to prepare routes.
- Most GPS watches and running phone apps allow you to upload the coordinates and routes of other runners who have shared them on their platform. You can follow the play-by-play of another runner’s route from your watch or phone.
- Embrace the local knowledge - there is nothing better than enquiring from the locals!
- If on your own rather stick to easy trails you know thereby avoiding any surprises.
An example of the route travelled by the support vehicle and the actual satellite image of a part of the route along the coast-line
- A few important considerations when planning the route:
- What is the access to natural but drinkable water sources on the trail?
- What would the access be to road or air evacuation in an emergency?
- Are there cell phone reception and/or two way radio reception?
- Are shelter and overnight facilities available and would you require a support team for a longer run over several days?
- How much food / nutrition do we need to take with us?
- Would there be any rivers to cross?
- Do we require any permits or permissions to cross some areas and do we need entrance fees?
Keeping an Eye on the Weather
Experienced trail runners know the importance of keeping an eye on the weather forecast
- At higher elevations, temperatures can change and storms can roll in quickly, so plan accordingly.
- A comfortable run may become a safety risk when the storm rolls in.
- Running in inclement weather may be part of the experience - but be aware of what you might possibly face, and prepare accordingly.
- The weather will have an impact on running gear - Wearing layers is often a good idea, especially if it is windy or if there’s a chance of rain.
- Also consider the weather in selecting footwear - the running shoes should provide enough traction for uneven and/or slick surfaces. Wear dri-fit socks that cover your ankle to prevent blisters and dirt/mud from entering your shoes.
- When trail running along the coast it is advised to also focus on the times of high tide, low tide or spring tide - this not only affects the conditions underfoot but also whether it is safe to do river crossings safely.
The Runner and Running Gear
The well prepared runner and the one with proper gear will be a safer runner. A few aspects to consider:
- It is advised to run within your ability - Get used to running on easy paths, then move on to more challenging trails.
- Wear proper trail running shoes - they have more traction and protect your feet from rocks, sticks and roots.
- Trail running shoes offer a rugged sole that's better equipped to grip uneven or slick surfaces.
- To help adjust shoes to your feet, make sure you’re lacing them properly.
- They should be waterproof if you'll be trekking on muddy trails to prevent falling.
- Wearing tall socks or gaiters will help keep debris from entering your socks and protect your feet from branches, poisonous plants, and even insect bites (like ticks).
- Dress for the weather conditions. Sweat-wicking clothing will keep you cool when it’s hot.
- Wear bright coloured clothing so you are highly visible to other runners, cyclists, or even hunters.
- A thermal vest is always a safe option to consider.
- The weather forecast may guide you to selecting either a rain 'waterproof' jacket or a 'wind resistant' jacket.
- Other recommended items, depending on the area, run and remoteness, are hiking sticks, fleece or even waterproof gloves, beanie and waterproof pants.
- Consider running with proper sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses.
- Running with partners or a dog is always better than running alone.
Equipment and Packing for the Trail Run
A trail run is unique in the unpredictability of conditions that a runner may encounter along the route. A 2-3 hour run could turn into something much longer and may become perilous for the unprepared runner.
It is important for the runner to pay attention to his choice of equipment.
- Consider how much water you need—based on the length of the run, outdoor temperature and other factors—and plan accordingly with handhelds, fuel belts and/or a hydration pack.
- Pack more water and nutrition than you feel you may actually need, in the event that you become lost or spend more time on the trail than you planed for.
- A little extra water in a hydration bladder and some purification tablets just in case could be priceless in an emergency.
- Take food/ snacks along - Energy bars and gels are good because they're easy to carry and digest.
- Carbohydrates will help you run and concentrate.
- Stay hydrated with small, frequent sips from a water bottle or hydration pack.
- Pack your cell phone [waterproofed in a zip lock bag] when out on the run. Either carry your phone with you or ensure others in the group have one available that is fully charged.
- Pack a waterproof jacket with a hood and space blanket.
- You need to have first aid and personal medication as needed (asthma, painkillers).
- First aid items could include elastic ankle bandage, anti-inflammatory pills, antihistamine, mini bandage, plaster, pain tablets, cramp block or rehydrates and Savlon cream or similar.
- A whistle is invaluable as safety mechanism and takes little space.
- When in unfamiliar environment a compass may guide you when you take a wrong turn.
- Other items to consider taking along include:
- Fleece top and buffs
- Long tights
- Small pocket/multi tool knife
- Small running pack
- A dry bag for river crossings, cable ties etc.
- A card with your personal details, blood group, hospital or medical policy details and emergency cell number on it, secured within a ziplock bag.
- Consider a two-way satellite communication device in remote areas where there might not be cellular phone reception.
- Always have some cash for entrance through a game reserve, river crossing on a boat or pontoon etc.
Safety when trail running
There will always be safety in numbers, hence we advise runners to run with a partner. This becomes even more important when planning to explore a new route. Try not to go by yourself, rather call a friend or find someone from your running group to accompany you.
When running alone, it’s important to take extra precautions that aren’t as necessary when you’re with another runner.
We recommend the following safety tips not only for the lone runner but also for groups of runners.
- Tell someone where you’re going, where you plan to run, where are expected to be at certain times and roughly when you plan to return.
- Agree to call or text them when you return, and make sure they agree that if they can’t get in touch with you, they then should seek out help.
- Avoid wearing headphones. You want to be able to hear any potential dangers or warnings and other people with whom you might be sharing the trail.
- Remain alert and aware of your surroundings. You may be sharing the trail with hikers and other runners - it is part of trail etiquette to step to the side allowing those faster than you to pass.
- If you're worried about being attacked keeping pepper spray on hand will make you feel safer.
- Trust your instincts - If something/someone doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Run in a more populated area or at the track if alone.
- Ladies with ponytails are advised to keep it in a bun or inside a buff as it is easy for an attacker to pull a victim to the ground by the hair.
- If attacked when alone look for the quickest way to escape, making as much noise as possible.
- Know where you’re going. Looking confused and lost can make you a target.
Wildlife and Respect for Communities
The trail runner should respect the environment, the community in the area and wildlife along the route.
- Know what dangers to encounter along the route. Depending on where you run, you’ll face different dangers on the trails.
- Prepare ahead of time by learning how to handle a wildlife (or human) encounter.
- Wear bright colours during hunting season.
- Stay alert and make noise: Wildlife typically attacks only when it feels threatened, and the quickest way to threaten an animal is to sneak up on it.
- Don’t be afraid to talk or make a little noise as you move down the trail, and stay alert enough to listen for noises yourself.
- Take care in areas that are known for snakes and other dangerous animals. Should you get bitten by a snake, try and identify the snake, and stay calm. Call for help.
- There must be a zero tolerance to litter - don’t leave any litter such as water containers, snack packaging etc.
- Be respectful and courteous to locals you may come across - they may be able to provide you with important information on the route and possible obstacles.
Running at Night
Running at night is significantly more challenging - especially when doing so on a trail run!
- Trail running at night is not something for the inexperienced runner - especially not doing it on his own.
- Even with a headlamp it’s incredibly easy to get lost at night.
- Run with a good quality headlamp, foot grips, and a brimmed hat.
- Keep in mind that temperatures drop very quickly at night
- Consider wearing an extra lightweight shirt or layer for good measure. Better safe than sorry.
- Adding far more distance to your night time run than you were supposed to will put much more additional strain on your body.
- Avoid running at night if weather forecasts are unfavourable.
- Stick to a trail you know well, or that is clearly marked, even in the dark.
Running Technique for the Trail Run
To be safe on the trail run requires an adjustment in running style from usual open road running:
- Choose an appropriate trail for your fitness level and current trail running experience.
- Start with an easier and shorter run than normal. Hills and uneven terrain make trail runs more challenging on your joints and muscles.
- Don’t expect to run your usual pace when doing trail running. Don’t focus on your pace but rather on your breathing.
- Don’t shy away from walking if you need to. Trail running is different from running on flat sidewalks, and it takes experience before finding your stride.
- Taking shorter, faster steps while you run will allow you to have better control, and maintain better balance while covering the uneven terrain.
- The basics of a safe trail running technique: Lift your feet, be light in your step and take 3 steps when it could only take 2.
- Stay alert and pay attention to the trail at all times - especially when tired - Don’t get sloppy towards the end of a run.
- Look ahead about 3 to 5 feet instead of straight down. You’ll have a better sense of any obstacles in your path and enough time to react to them.
- When you run uphill and find yourself tiring, change your stride.
- Instead of walking use short, quick steps for greater efficiency.
- Step directly on rocks and tree roots instead of leaping over them. This can help you avoid anything that is beyond these obstacles that you can’t see.
- While you run, conserve energy by keeping your elbows tucked at your sides.
- Don’t pump your arms too much unless you’re sprinting up a hill.
- Keep your chin up, your chest and hips forward, and your shoulders back to fight fatigue and keep energy high.
- When you’re running down a steep section, avoid moving in a straight line. It’s a high-impact movement that puts a lot of strain on your body.
- Try a side-to-side slalom motion instead, by banking off the sides of the trail for improved muscle distribution.
- Be ready for a fall. At some point when trail running, you will fall. When you fall, first look at the ground, and try to avoid any sharp or dangerous objects.
- Prepare for impact by bringing your arms close to your chest with your palms facing out—putting arms straight out will likely result in injury. Once you hit the ground, roll, and return to standing.
[The author was fortunate to be the support driver for trail runners doing an extreme run at the Wild Coast of South Africa. They did a 4 consecutive days trail run along the beautiful coastline covering a distance of 100km and crossing several rivers. The photos are from this memorable trail run. One of the runners had his dog running with them all of the way.]