Last Updated on March 11, 2018 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
Getting lost. Snakes. Twisting ankles. Bears. Trail Running fears: let’s talk about them.
As a full time trail running evangelist (self declared) it is my calling to bring runners off of the pavement, and on to the trails. I am bound and determined to help all runners discover how amazing trail running can be, either full time, or as a supplement to their road training. But despite my best intentions, time and time again I’m met with resistance from non trail runners, usually paired with the following statement: “I’d love to join you on the trail, but I’m afraid of ___________”.
In this post, we’re going to discuss six of the most common fears I hear from people all of the time. They may be valid fears, or they may be highly irrational, but these fears certainly do exist, especially among new trail runners We’ll acknowledge them, discuss ways you can possibly get past them, and then hopefully get you out there on the dirt. And have no fear: there are no actual pictures of snakes in this blog post. Let’s go!
In no particular order, let me present you with:
6 Common Trail Running Fears (and How to Get Past Them)
Some trail running fears may be far fetched, but this isn’t one of them. There are certain fears that are simply ingrained in us as human beings, likely some sort of survival response from the time we were cave(wo)men running from saber tooth tigers. Falling is definitely one of those fears. It’s scary. You lose control. You might get hurt. You might get eaten by a saber tooth tiger.
So let’s get right to the point and not sugar coat this one: if you trail run long enough, you’re going to fall.
Infact, moments after faking these “falling” photos above, I fell for real. HARD. Cut open my palm, tore my tights, and tore off some of the skin on my knee. It wasn’t pretty. It temporarily knocked the wind out of me, and took me more than few seconds to gather myself and get back up.
At this point you are thinking “what is wrong with this woman? She’s telling us how to get OVER our fears, but instead is only making them worse!” But before you declare “forget this, I’m staying on the roads” hear me out. Everyone falls, but just like learning how to ride a bike…you get back up, you keep on going. And after you fall a bunch, you stop falling as much. Your body learns how to react to instabilities underfoot much quicker (increased proprioception), and your balance increases, helping you stay upright more often than not. Eventually the falls are few and far between (typically, only after mocking the trail and “pretending” to fall, like I did above).
Another important trick, of course, is learning how to fall the right way. A “tuck and roll” method (first picture) tends to leave you far less beat up than landing directly on your knees or wrists (second picture)
2. Getting Lost
The idea of being lost in the deep dark woods can evoke thoughts of hopelessly wandering in circles, shivering as you forage for berries to stay alive, “Into the Wild“ style. In a suburban neighborhood, there is seemingly always a passing car or a friendly neighbor you can stop and ask for directions or help, if needed. But in the woods? You may go HOURS without seeing anyone.
This, again, is a legitimate concern on our list of trail running fears. Fortunately, it has a simple solution: start small.
There is no need to take your first trail excursion out into the deep, uncharted backcountry. Instead, find a well traveled and well marked park trail, preferably a looped trail that will always bring you right back to where you started. Better yet, tag along with a friend who frequents that particular trail, and let them show you the way.
One you become more comfortable on trails, you begin to recognize trail markers easily, and learn how to safely follow them.
3. Snakes (and other wildlife)
Do snakes make your skin crawl? Do you jump simply at the sight of one? If you answered yes, you definitely aren’t alone. Ophidiophobia, or the fear of snakes, seems to affect many people, and since snakes live in the woods, that phobia naturally carries over as a common concern on the list of trail running fears.
Here in Coastal South Carolina, we have A LOT of snakes. So many, that within my first year of running on the trails down here I went from being startled by snakes to barely batting an eye. Depending on the time of year, the weather, how busy the trail is that day, or just pure luck, we may see zero snakes during a run or we may see ten.
So we’ve established the fact that snakes do exist on trails. So do skunks, bears, squirrels, etc. The forest is their home after all. The thing to keep in mind is that the snakes and other wildlife typically want nothing to do with you. I promise. They aren’t chasing, stalking, or coming to check you out. They simply want to be left alone, and are likely as startled by your presence as you are startled of them. In fact, most of the time snakes and other animals can sense you coming and disappear off of the trail long before you see them.
So what do you do if you see a snake on trail? Give it space. Chances are it will slither away on it’s own, but if it doesn’t, sneak around the trail BEHIND it (so it doesn’t feel threatened or trapped) keeping plenty of space between you and the snake. Then continue on your merry way!
4. Twisting my ankle
Ankle injuries are the excuse seemingly EVERY road runner here in Myrtle Beach uses when we try and invite them out to the trail. HERE’S THE THING: trail running actually makes your ankles STRONGER. On the paved roads are run in a forward motion, with very repetitive movements and very little variation in direction. Rarely do you need to move laterally, therefore the ankles become weak to foot inversion or eversion. This is often why we see so many road runners succumb to ankle injuries from stepping off a curb the wrong way, or unexpectedly hitting a pothole. From experience, I can tell you that ankle injuries hurt.
On the trail, especially more technical trails, you are constantly shifting your foot strike, as you avoid roots, rocks, holes, debris, snakes (I’m kidding…maybe), you name it. The terrain underfoot is uneven, forcing your foot to not only change placement forwards and backwards (plantar flexion/dorsiflexion), but laterally as well (inversion/eversion)…as well as likely a combination of all directions. The more you challenge your balance through trail running, cycling through various unpredictable foot strike patterns, the stronger the tendons and ligaments in your ankles become. End result? An unexpected turn in a pothole or off of a curb is far less likely to cause injury.
SO: choose your trails wisely in the beginning. Opt for a nice, smooth, well traveled dirt trail, like the one pictured above, as opposed to an incredibly rooty, rocky, technical trail. Save the crazy trails for later, when you’re feeling more confident in your trail running abilities and the strength of your ankles.
5. Being slow
Believe it or not, this is actually a very common fear expressed by many of my running acquaintances. Runner’s often display “Type A” personalities, and strive to run faster or do better each and every run. Therefore the idea of a slower GPS reading on their strava account might be on the list of trail running fears.
If you are a long time road runner, but new to trail running, I suggest leaving your GPS watch at home. Because inevitably, you are going to know you are pushing hard, look down at your pace, and be shocked to discover you are running at a much slower place than this exact same effort on pavement yields.
Do not fret.
Trail times are typically much slower than road times, for almost all of us. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that soft dirt provides less energy return. With every foot strike, your force is absorbed into the softer substrate, resulting in more effort needed to push back off the ground and propel yourself forward. Not to mention the fact that more technical, windy trails require more careful foot placement, which in and of itself will slow you down. And hills? Did I mention there are almost always climbs?
So take your time. Enjoy the beautiful scenery mother nature has to share with you on the trails. Enjoy the new and challenging terrain. Have fun with friends. Don’t stress about pace. I promise it will be worth it.
6. I may never want to run on the pavement again.
Well…trail running ruined my life too. On the list of all possible trail running fears? This is the best one.
Happy trails, my friends.
Let’s hear from you:
If you are a regular trail runner, what were some of your fears when you first started? If you are new, what are some trail running fears you may be currently experiencing?
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.
Mark V (@Blkjkrabbit66)
When I ran trails in Southern CA you could add the words “…off the side of a mountain” to the end of excuse #1. My biggest gripe is the constant scouting of the proper place for the next footfall. Rooty, rocky trails are the worst, flat, relatively smooth are much more my speed.
OH MY GOSH, yes, I can totally understand the fear. Here on the East Coast we rarely have super steep cliffs like that, but I’ve seen pictures that make my jaw drop!
Can I go?
Before I really start trail running, my only fear was simply not to be able to run uphills due to my overweight. Trail running was like an unattainable activity for me because of the hills, I thought I would be stuck to running short distances on the road. A bit less than 2 years after this feeling, I can humbly say that I am a trail runner, the slow type, but eating around 150 km and +3000 m elevation a month.
And you are right, running on the pavement is almost impossible now ;]
This comment made my morning. I love hearing how running transformed people’s lives! Way to go!!!
I think my biggest fear is tripping over a tree root or rock and falling very hard! I feel like if I start off with small runs, maybe a mile or 2, I would eventually enjoy trail running.
I am at that point in my life (aka I’m slow now) where I think I could really embrace trail running. Sadly, we don’t have a lot of trails around here in suburbia! I enjoyed the pictures, LOL!
I’ve been running trails for years and I think the only real fear I had going in was being assaulted/abducted/murdered etc. Animals don’t bother me, although we don’t have bears here and snakes are rare (thank heavens). Those would wig me out.
Falling is my top fear, mostly because I’m so clumbsy and apt to trip over a stick or root! I love trail running though.
I love running on trails and have experienced most of what you have said. Snakes are my biggest fear LOL.
However, racing is a different story. I am too competitive and I am afraid that I won’t run slow and will get injured.
Plus I love to run and take photos on a run so I don’t want to pay to race on this surface when I won’t race it.
Maybe I’ll change my mind because I love racing.
I love these! I don’t think wildlife scares me that much but I definitely understand the “slow” feeling. However, my body does feel much more taxed (in a good way) after a nice trail run. I’m a HUGE believer in balance and ankle strength so that’s why I like to mix in a little bit of trails every once in a while!
Deborah @ Confessions of mother runner
I so like the idea of trail running but yes I am afraid of falling again. Twice I did a trail race and 2x I have fallen. Once I banged up my ankle pretty badly. So…not sure I will try it again
My first trail run was a 10K, and I as so exhausted when I finished due to the uneven footing and random hills (in every direction). Of course, I was extremely humbled by “slow” finish time, which was a good 25 minutes longer than a typical road race finish. But, being out in nature was euphoric!
I probably have all of these fears! But I’m a little ways off from trail running right now anyway, so I’ve got time to read it again and build up courage 🙂
We have trails around my house so I can split up trails and road running. I do have to watch my step and we have snakes here too! I would like to switch and do more trail runs. A friend of mine is doing several this spring and summer and hope I get to join her! I know I would love it!
Seriously, the fear of this can be so real! I quite enjoyed watching the making of these photos on your Instagram stories!!!
My fear was definitely the ankle buster. I have broken my right ankle twice (not running related) severely enough to be casted for several weeks for the break and torn ligaments. I did plyometric exercises at a Boot Camp to build ankle strength and my confidence. Even then I found the best way to strengthen my ankles was the trails. I fell many times at first. I’ve torn up my palms and dislocated my wrist but in a short time developed great balance and ability to choose good footing. I’ve run many single track trails with the scary drop offs but with proper trail shoes and the miles of experience there is no fear. I pass thru these areas with intent, focus and a respect for the elements. It has truly been worth every mile. I only wish I had started trail running many years sooner.
I probably am not as afraid of wildlife as I should be. I actually like trail running for the very reason that I don’t have expectations on pace. Maybe that would change if I did it more, though. LOL on #6. Trails are too scarce around here for that.
These are all great tips! I love trail running. I run much slower to avoid falling and twisting my ankle. And we have tons of snakes her in Florida and I have yet to see one during one of my actual trail runs….I think they mostly hide.
I enjoy both roads and trails. We don’t have many technical trails around here, so it’s tough to get out there very often. I do worry about getting lost sometimes, have twisted my ankle often, and I truly don’t care for snakes. I worry about the bears and wild boar we have in our forests, too. Not enough to keep me from going out there, but enough to be in the back of my head.
Snake Or Stick? is a fabulous game. We play it here on the regular. Fortunately, it’s been mostly stick.
Dying at “trail kisses”, haha. I’ve been trail running a few times before but haven’t gotten out there in quite a while. I do really love the feeling on being off the beaten path in nature, but I definitely still get nervous about falling and getting lost.
Kathryn @ Dancing to Running
As somebody who has had a weak ankle for the majority of their life, twisting it and doing even more damage to it is one of my biggest fears when it comes to trail running. Anytime I encounter uneven and/rocky terrain, I always slow my pace down. While that can certainly help in preventing injury, there’s never a 100% guarantee of anything.
This is such a timely article! I am fairly new to running (age 50+) and am LOVING running the trails in Southern Oregon! I recently completed a 10K road run and was shocked at how much time I shaved off! (3.5 min/mile to be exact! I do worry about cougars here and am thinking about getting some Bear Spray. But I am not about to keep any 4 footed creatures from my new found love!
Debbie @ Deb Runs
Great tips! I really love trail running, but don’t hit the trails as often as I’d like due to where I live. My husband and I love running on some of the spur trails off the Appalachian Trail when we’re visiting southwest Virginia. Speaking of SWVA and trails, I’m running the Hungry Mother 25K in early April.
Great topic! I am SO glad you posted this. I always thought I was the only one who fell. Until two of my friends did the same recently.
I can attest to the “If you run, you’ll fall. Eventually!”
I had ran trails for nearly a year. I was on a super easy desert trail. I glanced at my Garmin, thought “Oh, YAY! 30 seconds to a “GU”” Then I woke up, face down in the dirt. I ripped open my right knee. Off my feet for 6 weeks. I was SUPER cautious after that. Until the next time, and the time after that. Same knee….. Yes, I still trail run. Even though I promised my husband I never would again. It’s just something in my spirit that trails call to me. It’s my “church” my “religion” my “drug of choice”. I’m so glad there are others out there that are made of the same cloth!
Thank you for this wonderful insightful article. I tripped broke 2 bones in my hand, loose front teeth. Took me a few weeks to start back and now I’m trail running regularly. I fell the other day but it wasnt bad except for thorns ow. I know falling happens only now I’m more prepared and more aware. Oh yea snakes are my biggest fear