How to Overcome Your Trail Running Fears

Let's be honest: You can always come up with a reason not to lace up the shoes and go for run, it's too cold; I have no time; I tweaked my knee. And it seems that, for many people, finding an excuse not to take up trail running is even easier. But don't give in to the obstacles. By sticking to man-made surfaces, you're denying yourself the chance to try, as accomplished trail runner Timothy Olson says, running in three dimensions. "Trails offer peace, quiet, and amazing adventure. They make running unbelievably fun," says Olson, who took first in the 2012 USA 100K Trail Championships. "And they make you feel extremely alive." If you're still unsure about sampling some dirt, don't worry: With the help of top coaches and elite trail runners, we debunk the most common excuses for avoiding the trail, and provide some beginner-friendly tips along the way.

More: 6 Tips to Start Trail Running

Excuse One: I'll Get Hurt

Although you could easily argue that cars are a far greater hazard than tree roots, trail running can seem intimidating simply because of the great unknown. Here are six ways to avoid bodily harm. Follow these and the 10 laws to injury prevention, and every trail run will be a smooth one.

Take quick, small steps. A brisk cadence, around 90 steps a minute, means your feet will land under your center of gravity, providing a stable landing. "You don't want to overstride on the trail," says Joe Azze, owner of Mountain Peak Fitness in Sloatsburg, New York. "That's how you get off balance and lose control." In addition, make a conscious effort to pick up your feet, something you don't really have to do on the road, so that you will step over any small debris on the trail that could trip you up.

More: 6 Tips to Tackle Any Terrain

Realize that road miles don't translate to trail miles. The rocky, rooty, up-and-down terrain of trails is a far cry from the smooth pavement of a road. As such, your first outings should be measured in time, not miles. If you typically cover five miles in 45 minutes on the road, go for no more than 45 minutes on the trail, preferably via an out-and-back route, so you don't unexpectedly tack on time.

Don't run to the point of fatigue. When you don't heed the go-by-time rule and stay out longer than your body can handle, you're more prone to falling or twisting an ankle. (This is the same reason most accidents on a ski hill happen at the end of the day.) As you get tired, your upper body collapses, your legs lose their snap, and you don't pick up your feet. The result? Rocks and roots are more menacing.

Walk. Although the discipline is technically trail running, power walking and hiking, at times, are encouraged. "A great way to get familiar with a trail is to power walk it," says Lisa Smith-Batchen, an accomplished ultra-runner who owns Dreamchasers Outdoor Adventures in Driggs, Idaho. She notes that even top pros often walk steep hills during ultramarathons to preserve energy and move efficiently. If even a flat section feels too technical or if a downhill is too steep, slow down and proceed with caution.

When, not if, you fall, don't fight it. "Everybody is going to fall at least once, so just be mentally prepared for it," says Azze, who notes that the best way to fall is to tuck and roll. Unless you're going to hit the dirt face first, try not to put out your hands. "You can break your wrist or elbow," he says. That said, if you're carrying a handheld water bottle, it can provide a good cushion between you and the ground. One key to preventing falls: core strength. The stronger your core, the more stable you are. "A strong core helps you stay upright if you trip or roll an ankle," explains Azze.

More: 3 Best Core Exercises for Runners

Respect the wildlife.
Spend enough time on the trails, and you're going to have an animal sighting. Most likely, it'll just be a deer, but it could be something more daunting, like a bear, moose, cougar, or snake. The unanimous opinion of the experts interviewed for this story (who have seen all of the above) is encouraging: Most animals are quick to get away from you. "They normally run when they hear you coming," says Olson. "Just stay calm and give them a wide berth, and you can avoid an encounter."

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