A Trail Runner’s Confession: Five Things Trail Runners Need To Do to Be Safer and More Polite Trail Partners

I’ve been running on trails a lot lately, preparing for the Stillwater Half Marathon, which is mostly on the Gateway Trail. Along the way, I’ve been reflecting on whether I could become a better trail citizen.

We runners and walkers are an awfully self-righteous breed. We love to criticize the manners of cyclists on area trails, with some justification. But maybe, just maybe, we should look in the mirror before we start hating on others.

What could pedestrians on trails do to be safer and more civil? Let me count the ways.

  • Ditch At Least One Earbud. I know that I should ditch my earbuds completely, but I honestly feel like I can’t run without music to distract and motivate me. But there is no question that wearing two earbuds isn’t safe for runners or those they share the trail with. With two earbuds drowning out most of the sounds of the world, you can’t hear things like the sound of approaching bikes, “on your left,” or “help!” Using one earbud is a reasonable compromise, but two earbuds is completely unacceptable. Unplug, people.
  • Acknowledge Passers. When faster moving bikers or skaters approach from the rear, the responsible ones announce their approach with the ring of a bell or a verbal “on your left.” Runners who are being passed should give such responsible trail mates a non-verbal acknowledgement, such as a thumbs-up sign to a) assure them that you heard them, know they’re coming and will not be moving into their path at the last second; b) reinforce their responsible behavior so they continue it; and c) encourage them to announce themselves sufficiently early, since bikers won’t see the high sign if they announce themselves the moment they are passing a runner, as many bikers do.
  • Move To Far Right. Runners frequently gripe when bikes buzz within inches of their shoulder, even though the bikers still have abundant empty trail space on their left to use. But I also see plenty of runners doing the same thing, insisting on running in the middle of the trail, as opposed to the far right edge of the trail. I’ve accidentally done this myself when delirious at the end of a long run, but to do it regularly and intentionally is rude and dangerous.
  • Single File. Similarly, runners love to vilify bikers who insist on riding side-by-side. This needlessly takes up about two-thirds of the trail, and therefore significantly reduces the margin of error for collisions. But runners are every bit as guilty of this. So, sorry lovers and chatters, when you have company on the trail, you need to run single file.
  • No Trail-spitting. Spit happens. I get that. Exercisers sometimes need to expectorate. But runners who continually spit on pavement that others have to use are no more civilized than the horses with whom we sometimes share trails. All of nature is an acceptable spittoon, people, so please spit off-pavement.

It’s a glorious time of year in Minnesota. So, runners, let’s play nice, stay safe and practice what we preach.


About Joe Loveland

Joe Loveland operates Loveland Communications (lovelandcommunications.com), a sole proprietorship that provides marketing, public relations, and public affairs counsel and services. He previously held communications-related positions with U.S. Senator Tom Daschle, the Minnesota Citizens League, Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III, Allina Hospitals and Clinics, the Minnesota Department of Health, and Weber Shandwick public relations. He blogs at wrywingpolitics.com, and also has blogged at thesamerowdycrowd.com.

8 thoughts on “A Trail Runner’s Confession: Five Things Trail Runners Need To Do to Be Safer and More Polite Trail Partners

  1. Stuart Knappmiller

    Good comments. It amazes me how often we meet folks who take the majority of a bike/walk lane. Good thing we’re willing to model single file, eh?As an older runner, I look at the runners who are off the pavement as the only sane runners out there. Our son ran for Columbia rather than Dartmouth. He had enough pavement running in those 4 years to last a lifetime, in his mind. Other thoughts?

  2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    You left out the most important one: if there’s a separate footpath, you should almost always be using it.

    If there’s a reason you can’t (okay, maybe it’s just way too crowded with walkers), then you behave like the guest in bike space that you are (as people on bikes should on sidewalks). Alert, attentive, ready to move over. And just as importantly, knowledgeable and capable of sharing safely.

    This past weekend two people were jogging along chatting on the Minnehaha bike path. As I approached, I rang my bell and one of them leaped to her left, into my path. Having given plenty of warning and being prepared to slow, it wasn’t a big deal, but if that’s going to be your reaction, you are not safe running in faster traffic. Use the footpath.

    Also people on bikes, do not pass on the right. “On your right” is not a thing.

  3. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop

    I am a daily commuter on West River Parkway.

    Between Plymouth and Portland, I am constantly seeing joggers, walkers and 2-3 abreast. Attempting to pass and they are using earbuds and cannot hear me. When I pass on the left, I get guff. I get angry faces or some who refuse to move and get irritated. I’ve even been yelled at to slow down. Why not use the dedicated walking trail closer to the river? There is only a short seciton where the cycling and ped path are concurrent. Get on the walkway. Some of us cycle for our daily commute — this isn’t recreation, its trying to get to work and daycare.

  4. Stu

    I agree.

    My mantra is this:

    Lets be respectful when we have to share, no matter the mode of travel. But lets not share if we don’t have to (under normal circumstances)!

    I am largely at peace with runners on/near the bike trails. Most are just off of the trail and if you pick your spot, passing is not a problem even if ear buds are firmly in place.

    The one thing I wish though, is that bike trail runners would run on the left, facing traffic as is required when peds are on the road. That way they can see me and I can see them and conflicts are naturally reduced.

    Now, that may not be possible in all places. But on the one way lake trails and Nokomis it certainly is (assuming most people are running around the entire like which seems to be the case most of the time).

    I grew up on a county road with zero shoulder. Walking on the left is the only reason I am still alive.

  5. David MarkleDavid Markle

    As a vacation footnote to all the above good observations, avoid running on trails or back country roadways in the western mountains. Otherwise you may trigger an instinctive pursuit response from a mountain lion or grizzly bear.

  6. Allie

    Runners/walkers (aka pedestrians) are not to run/walk on the bike path at all. But at all. Literally stay in your lane!

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