Last Updated on October 20, 2020 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
I like to run in places where others do not frequent. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with busy streets or crowded parks, but those aren’t the places for me. I prefer trails and paths where stumbling upon another human is a rarity, not a frequent occurrence. Where my companions are the sound of the wind blowing through the trees and the birds calling to each other. Nevertheless, when I do stumble upon another person, I always overthink how I should pass them. Yeah, I know, it’s ridiculous. But my mind races, wondering what I should say – or do- so they hear me and my intentions to pass them. And over the years I’ve come up with some incredibly awkward ways to pass people while running on trail.
How to Pass Non-Runners while Running on the Trail
I don’t know why passing people on the trail is always such an awkward scenario for me. Maybe it’s because I live in a retirement community, and have nearly startled little old women to death multiple times by inadvertently sneaking up on them. Maybe it’s because I always seem to stumble upon the people wearing headphones, who can’t hear me asking to pass even if I’m screaming at max volume. Regardless of the reason, whenever I come up behind another trail user, I always run through a slew of options in my head of how exactly to alert them to my presence. Here’s what I’ve got:
“On Your Left!”
The gold standard of endurance passing etiquette. Used by runners, cyclists, and probably rollerbladers, I’m not exactly sure. The idea is that when you yell “On your left”, loudly and with purpose, the person in front of you immediately moves to the right so you can pass…you guessed it…on their left.
Fellow endurance athletes hear “on your left” and instinctually move over without hesitation.
Non endurance athletes hear “on your left” and panic. Typically, they jump TO the left, or better yet, turn and stare like a deer caught in headlights. There’s an awkward few seconds where you both go left, then you both go right, then you nearly run into each other, until finally, one of you moves to the opposite side and you are able to pass.
Yes, the “on your left” method, while ideal, definitely does not always work. So, may I propose the following alternatives:
Stomp & Breathe Heavily
Sounds creepy, right? But I’ve totally done it before. Rather than the soft footfall and relaxed breathing you’ve maintained for the entire run thus far, start gasping for air and awkwardly stomping. Run as if your legs weigh 50 pounds each and you’ve forgotten how to land properly.
The idea is that if you start to sound like a herd of elephants clambering down the trail, the person in front of you will hear you, turn around to see you, and move over long before you need to pass.
Sometimes this non-graceful runner approach actually works. The person in front of you on the trail hears you coming, feels sorry for you, and moves over. I mean, who wouldn’t move over to let the struggling runner pass. They’re glad they aren’t you, that’s for sure.
Other times, you simply don’t clamber loud enough. That, or the person in front of you is too afraid to see what sort of awkward running mess is coming down the trail towards them, and politely refuses to turn around. It doesn’t matter, either way you’ve thrown off your natural gait, and wasted a ton of energy. Then you still end up shouting “on your left”, which likely throws off the people ahead of you who don’t know what you are shouting about (see above).
While alone in my car I am convinced I am the next winner of American Idol, with a singing voice fit for the top forty charts. I just haven’t been discovered yet.
But in reality, my singing voice resembles that of a sick cat. Regardless, belting out a tune as I run down the trail is a sure fire way to alert someone ahead of you of your presence.
People ahead of you on trail hear you coming , likely a literal mile away. They move over, and let you pass…probably with either a smile or a very confused or concerned look on their face.
You scare the ever loving daylights out of other people on the trail, and ultimately reveal the truth: you were not destined for Grammy level stardom, or even local karaoke fame.
Pretend You’re On Your Phone
“BARBARA! Oh hiiiiii, so good to hear from you! Who me? Oh I’m on the trail, RUNNING! Yeah, it’s a gorgeous day…oh excuse me, passing on your left…no not you Babs, I was just passing someone on the trail. Yeah, haha, you know me. So how did Stan’s root canal go last week?”
Your loud and obnoxious phone call makes your presence known.
Taking out a phone and faking a phone call is a massive waste of energy. You could just try “on your left”. Plus, the loud fake phone call is a total buzzkill to those who are out in nature to seek peace and tranquility.
Just Go Around
Trail wide enough? No one coming in the opposite direction? To hell with any advance warning, just take that wide berth and pass already!
You got around, and ultimately passed, the person ahead of you on the trail, didn’t you?
This is possibly the best way to give the person you are passing a heart attack from fright. Nothing gets the adrenaline going like suddenly realizing someone is right next to you when you thought you were alone in the woods.
Approaching and passing someone without alerting them is also potentially a good way to get pepper sprayed. I wouldn’t recommend this approach.
Full, Polite, Normal Sentences.
Yesterday, while out for a run on our abandoned golf course trails, I came across a young girl walking a very active dog. I didn’t want to scare her, nor the dog. I was also pretty certain she had probably never heard the term “on your left” before. So after running through all the scenarios on my head, I decided on this novel idea:
Just talk to her.
“Excuse me, I don’t want to startle you” I yelled in a loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to sound like a madwoman, from a normal distance. “I’m going to pass on your left side!” I said when she turned and saw me coming. And guess what happened? She restrained her dog, moved off to the side of the trail, and smiled as I passed. I smiled back, and added a “thank you” and went on my merry way.
This method works on pretty much everyone who can hear you.
Those people with their headphones blaring so loud that they couldn’t hear a dump truck driving through a nitroglycerin plant? (Cough, cough, Aunt Bethany…) You’re on your own there.
So as you can see, there are many ways to alert others to your presence, and pass people while running on the trail. Some usually work, some…might need work. When in doubt, be polite, and don’t forget to flash your best runner smile and apologize when you scare someone. You get used to it.
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.