Before You Go Research the trail you're planning to run on. Carry water, a cell phone, and a map. Be prepared for current—and changing—weather conditions, says Nancy Hobbs, president of the American Trail Runners Association.
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Leave a Trail Always let someone know where you're going and your estimated return time. If possible, check in at a ranger station or put a note on your car specifying your whereabouts.
Right of Way Trail courtesy signs indicate that hikers yield to horses, and mountain bikers yield to hikers and horses. As a trail runner, consider yourself a hiker. Runners heading uphill generally have the right of way over runners heading downhill.
Stand Out During hunting season, wear an orange cap or vest. Trail runners and deer can have striking similarities through thick brush.
Downed Log Climbing over it is the safest approach. But if your personality craves a little risk, hurdle it (as long as you can see clear trail on the other side), or step up and jump down.
Pit Stop Walk to an inconspicuous spot at least 200 feet (about 70 adult steps) off-trail and away from water sources.
The 10 laws of injury prevention
Descents Stay upright with just enough lean to maintain forward motion without losing control. "Stepping on rocks can be jarring on descents, so opt for dirt," Fish says. The exception: When the trail is steep, rocks can serve as steps, helping you maintain balance and control.
Group Outing Know what to expect. Social run: Everyone stays together. Social run at personal pace: Everyone runs their own pace and meets up at intersections. On-yourown run: Everyone meets up at the end.
Wildlife Back away and give the natives time to move on. Snakes can strike when provoked. If one doesn't move (and isn't coiled), walk around it with a wide birth.
Passing "On your left" is commonly said on roads. It's also acceptable on trails, but hikers are less used to the phrase and the notion of runners coming up from behind. "The most important thing is to be courteous," says Hobbs, who suggests adding "Hi," or "Good morning," and then "Thank you."
Steep Climb All trail runners, even professional racers, walk steep grades. "If you can walk faster than you can run, always walk," Fish says. "It conserves energy without costing time."
Your Buddy If you are running with a dog, know the rules. Some trails require dogs to be on leash; others require dogs to be under voice control. And always clean up after your partner.
Rocky Road On trails littered with obstacles, seek out clear sections, says Rob Shoaf, founder of Epic Running trail-running camp. Dirt is nearly always a safer bet—even a flat rock can be unstable. "We tend to step where we look, so avoid staring at the rocks; aim for dirt," he says.
Winter 2010 running shoe guide
Form On the trail, proper running form can be the difference between enjoying the scenery and face-planting in the dirt. Start with the basics: relaxed shoulders, arms bent at 90 degrees, feet landing right under your hips. As the trail becomes technical, make these adjustments:
Shorten your Stride "Taking smaller steps will help you maintain your center of gravity," says Elinor Fish, managing editor of Trail Runner magazine.
Slightly Raise Your Arms "Like wings, for balance," Fish says. Relax your shoulders and hands to avoid tension.
Know What's Ahead Alternate between looking up and looking three to seven strides in front of you. "On flat terrain, my eyes are looking up, but on more technical ground, I'm looking closer to me more often," Fish says.
Water Crossings A narrow stream? Hurdle it. A wide creek? Look for natural crossings, like a log ("scoot across on your butt," Fish says), or a series of rocks. A raging river? Scout for the shallowest, smoothest section (white water indicates rocks below the surface).