How to Overcome Your Trail Running Fears

Excuse Two: I'll Get Lost

Certainly there's a better chance of getting lost on the trails than on the road, but there are plenty of precautionary measures you can take to make sure you get back to the trailhead when you expect to.

For your first outing on a new trail, go with a knowledgeable friend or group. If that's impossible, pick up a trail map at a running store. "Learn to read the topography, then carry it when you run," says Azze. Figure out if the trail is along a ridgeline or next to a stream; that will help you stay oriented."

More: How to Find a Running Partner

Use a GPS. Before you head out, plot out the course on your computer, then follow the route when you head out. But don't rely solely on a GPS, as a tree canopy can weaken a signal and batteries can wear out. Or, do an out-and-back route, which offers a smaller chance for getting mixed up than a loop does.

Look for landmarks near the trailhead. Is there a huge pine that sticks out? A stream nearby? If you get disoriented, use those features to get reoriented.

Regularly turn around and take in the view. "Remember what the terrain looks like, so you know you're going the right way on the return," says Azze.

Mark the trail. "When I'm running with friends, we'll make arrows with sticks or write our initials in the dirt so we all go the same way," says Olson. If you're solo and prone to not remembering if you should take a right or left, leave your own natural bread crumbs.

Tell somebody which trail you'll be on and when you expect to be back. An extra step: Text or call them when you head out and when you return.

More: 5 Tips for Safe Trail Running

Excuse Three: Trails Are Too Technical

"Many trails are much flatter and more runnable than people think," says Olson. Still, certain skills can help you run off-road more confidently. "And once you get used to more challenging terrain, it adds a really fun dimension to running." Try these form tips (and these workout tips from an expert runner) to stay as upright as possible.

Climbing uphill
Slow your pace as you head into the climb. "If you get to the climb and you're already winded, your form suffers," says Azze.

Keep your strides short and your foot strikes light to climb with as little effort as possible.

Concentrate on maintaining a strong core and standing tall. "I really think about good posture," says Olson. "That way, I don't compromise my breathing."

Your gaze should be forward, looking five or so feet up the incline.

Keep your arm pump compact and quick, just like in road running.

More: Hill Running Made Easy

If the descent is right after a tough climb, stop for a minute and recover before you head down, so that you feel in control.

On moderate downhills, lean slightly into the hill. "Leaning back puts on your brakes and wears out your quads," says Joelle Vaught, an ultrarunner from Boise, Idaho, who took third at the 2011 North Face Endurance Challenge. If the descent is too steep to lean into, stay as relaxed as you can and make a zigzag pattern with your feet instead of heading straight down.

Let momentum be your friend, but stay in control. "Look at least five feet ahead, where you want to go, not directly down at your steps," says Smith-Batchen.

Make sure your core is working. "The stability it can give you is key," says Azze.

Don't be afraid to look silly. Let your arms flail a bit to help with balance.

More: How to Build Your Running Balance

If you can, follow an experienced trail runner down the hill, placing your feet where his or hers go.

Negotiating rocky, root-filled terrain
Keep your gaze ahead of you, not at what's underneath you.

Stay light on your feet. "Pretend like you're running through an agility ladder at the gym," says Azze. "That's how small and quick your steps should be."

Opt to land on dirt over rocks, and flatter rocks over more oddly shaped ones.

If necessary, walk through the stretch first to get a feel for it. Then go over it again, with a slightly faster pace. "Practice it like you would any other skill," says Azze. "You'll build your technical skills, as well as your confidence."

Crossing streams
If possible, leap over a stream.

If it's too wide, stop and find the safest route, like a series of rocks or a log. Test the stability of your stepping stones before committing to them.

If the stream is raging, find a long stick to use for balance, and face upstream against the current as you slowly make your way across.

When it's summertime, don't sweat it if your feet get wet; it'll likely feel good. In cooler temps, however, beware of wet feet, which can become a problem if you're not close to the car or wearing waterproof shoes.

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