If you’re anything like me, you love trail running. Although I end up doing a lot of road running during races, I really do love getting back to nature, hitting the dirt of a forest trail. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s something about the forest that speaks to me. So, of course I’m out there every chance I get.
You can’t run every workout on a trail, of course. Sometimes you’re not near one, and sometimes you need a fast strip of pavement or a track to really get the workout your coach has assigned. Nonetheless, getting into the woods can be a great way to mix up your run workouts, especially during the summer when the trees green. There’s something almost magical about those deep forest runs then.
Trail running can be good for both body and mind. On the mental front, studies show getting in touch with nature is good for us. It helps us relax and unwind, especially when the stresses of day-to-day life in busy urban spaces become too much for us. Running also gives us an opportunity to relax and unwind. And trails are often easier on your joints than running on hard surfaces such as concrete and pavement.
Just because trails have some great benefits doesn’t always mean they’re perfectly safe for you, however. Here are a few ways you can make sure your trail workouts are safer than ever this summer.
Check the Weather
In Southern Ontario, we get humidity. The heat can become oppressive. Already-high temperatures are made to feel even warmer thanks to the moisture in the air. This can cause some wicked thunderstorms. As the heat builds, it increases the rate of evaporation, adding more moisture to the air. Clouds begin to form, and by the late afternoon, you could be facing some serious thundershowers.
At times, thunderstorms can become quite violent here, and they’re often accompanied by torrential downpours. The sky seems to “open up.” Although short-lived, these storms can do massive damage with their downpours (causing flash-flooding and mudslides), high winds (taking out trees and downing power lines), and thunder and lightning. They occasionally spawn tornadoes and hail, and they sometimes travel in bands or cells.
Not everywhere has the same weather patterns, but the point is you should probably check the weather. If you’re going to be trail-running around a mountain, you might want to check the forecast or at least be prepared, since the weather at higher elevations can be quite changeable. Even if the day seems like a perfect summer day, the weather can change.
In a forested area in particular, you want to be wary of high winds and lightning. These weather conditions can topple trees. Torrential downpours can cause flooding and slick trail surface, which can make trails more dangerous.
Prepare for the Heat
The forests can sometimes feel even warmer, despite the fact they’re shady. If you can’t bring water with you, be sure to leave some for yourself in the car or in a convenient location where you can get a drink. Leave some ice cubes in it to help the water stay colder longer.
Protect Yourself from Bugs
In Southern Ontario and into parts of Quebec, we’ve had to start worrying about ticks. Until recently, the ticks that carried the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease didn’t live in a widespread area in Canada. Thanks to climate change, that’s changing.
Contrary to popular belief, you aren’t safe from ticks in the forest. Although you can pick them up running through a field of tall grass, you’re just as likely to encounter them in the forest, where they’ll drop down from trees on you.
You can protect yourself from ticks, mosquitos, and other biting insects by using a bug spray containing DEET. Weigh your options carefully. Ticks in particular are most active in the late spring and early summer, although it’s possible to encounter them pretty much until the first frost settles in.
Watch Your Step
A big wind storm knocks some branches off a tree. The gnarled roots of an ancient cedar crop up out of the earth. A rock rises up before you. This is half the fun of trail running dodging roots and rocks but do watch your step while you’re running on forest trails. While many trails are well-maintained, even more of them have little to no maintenance whatsoever. They’re often “use at your own risk.”
Look out for Critters
Keep in mind that, as you’re flying through the woods, you’re a guest in the home of quite a few different creatures. Squirrels may scurry from treetop to treetop, while birds may call to each other above your head. Occasionally, a startled chipmunk might dart out in front of you or a rabbit will dash into the underbrush.
Other creatures also live in the woods, such as snakes. Keep an eye out for snakes as you’re running down the trails. Only a few snakes in Southern Ontario are dangerous, but other areas are home to many poisonous snakes, such as the rattlers I’ve encountered in Arizona and California. Any snake can bite, although most prefer to slither away. Be ready to slam on the brakes or jump if you see one of them.
In northern Ontario, you may want to be on the lookout for bears! I encountered two baby black bears while I was running in Muskoka last year. I stumbled upon them, thinking to myself, ‘Hm, that’s an odd, scruffy dog.’ Then I noticed there were two of them. Then they made a noise and I realized these were no dogs—they were baby bears, and Mama Bear probably wasn’t far off! I hightailed it out of there. Another runner I know used to carry a knife with her when she ran in northern areas, on account of having encountered all kinds of predators—foxes, coyotes, and wolves. I it just made her feel safer she never used it.
While most animals will likely just run off into the woods before you see them, being on the lookout is good. You’re more likely to encounter animals at dusk and dawn, so be prepared if you plan to run at these times.
Run with Someone
There are many advantages to tagging up with someone for a run. Company can often be pleasant, even if you do spend most of the workout grunting and sweating next to each other.
A second set of eyes and a level head can also help if something does happen, such as getting lost or an injury.
Know Where You’re Going
Map out your run or make the trail with sticks so you can find your way home. If your watch or phone have GPS, even better. You’ll be able to keep track of where you are, and how to get back. Just don’t drain the battery too much.
If you’re new to the area, be sure to talk to the locals. They’ll be able to tell you some insider tips about the trail—such as the conditions of it, what to look out for, and even how long it might take you. Knowledge is power and knowing where you’re going is half the battle during a trail run.