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Outwit Running Safety Hazards

Outdoor runners need to be aware of concerns beyond tired muscles
Written by 
Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 
Updated on: 
October 15, 2013

Sure, you know better than to run down the middle of a busy street or to try to beat a traffic light, but there are other running safety hazards to be aware of on the road. From staying visible to cars to protecting yourself from hearing loss, follow these simple tips to stay safe while running outdoors.

Remember: Left Is Right
While sidewalks (when available) are the safest refuge from speeding cars, if you do need to run on a street, stay on the far left-hand side. That way you’ll see cars coming whether or not they see you. The one exception: If you’re going around a tree-lined curve where visibility is difficult, you may want to safely cross to the other side of the road briefly until you’re back in view. But of course, use your best judgment.

Reflect at Night
It’s hard to miss a set of headlights, but you can’t assume drivers will see you at night (or dawn, or dusk) unless you’re wearing reflective apparel. In fact, low light is a factor in as many as two-thirds of pedestrian fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And while many sportswear tags boast “360-degree reflectivity,” a small reflective logo on your back won’t necessarily make a speeding driver take notice. After all, even on dry roads, it can take a car driving 50 mph upwards of 300 feet to stop—which means the driver has to see you sooner than that to react accordingly.

If you buy just one piece of reflective apparel, make it a mesh vest that you can slip over virtually any running outfit, saving you from having to buy an entire wardrobe of safety yellow and orange. To take it to the next level, add wrist and ankle bands. Illuminating your limbs helps your shape to read as “human” to oncoming traffic.

Use Headphones with Caution
Listening to music while you run can help propel you and make your workout more fun, but headphones do have their risks. Cranking up the volume can put you at risk for hearing loss in as little as an hour and a half, according to researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Try noise-isolating headphone models that muffle environmental noise, which allow you to enjoy your tunes without the extra decibels.

Tuning out your surroundings may also cause you to miss that cyclist or rollerblader calling out to you, or that car horn honking. Favor over-ear headphone styles, as opposed to ear buds; they sit in front of your ear instead of inside it and make it easier to hear what’s going on around you. And never wear headphones when you’re on or crossing streets.

Step Carefully
Many people run in parks or on trails—great places to take in beautiful scenery and connect with nature. Just be aware that your risk of twisting or spraining an ankle goes up when you run on unstable or have to navigate roots, rocks, gravel, mud and grass. Be extra cautious when running on these surfaces.

Avoid a Dog Attack
Though as many as 70 percent of dogs bark at strangers, only about 1 percent of people in the United States are bitten by a dog each year. That doesn’t mean encountering an animal on a run isn’t nerve wracking.

Staying alert—especially in unfamiliar areas—is rule number one. If you see a dog down the street that makes you nervous, cross to the other side, which will help him feel less territorial. If the dog comes toward you, don’t shriek or scream, since high-pitched noises can activate his prey instinct. And don’t try to run, since even your fastest sprint is likely slower than the dog’s. Instead, keep you voice low and calm, your shoulders square and face the dog without making eye contact as you slowly back away until he loses interest, or you can turn a corner out of view.

Mind the Weather
From frigid winter air to summer lightning storms and spiking temps, Mother Nature has something to watch out for all year long. Here’s how to handle temperature swings:

  • Keep your cool when it’s hot. For most runners, the heat of summer is the riskiest weather hazard you’ll encounter. Drink plenty of water before and after your run, and consider having a few sips every 10 to 15 minutes during your workout as well. (Skip sports drinks unless you’re doing a long run lasting 60 minutes or more.) Also, wear a hat to shield your face from the sun, and run in lightweight, light-colored clothes, which will keep you cooler than black, dark or heavy gear on steamy days. Be sure to wear moisture-wicking material if it’s humid outside; cotton does not facilitate evaporation as well as performance fabrics. Dehydration is the first sign of heat illness, followed by heat cramps (usually in your legs or stomach). Stop immediately and get to a cool spot if you feel nauseous, or notice that your skin feels cold and clammy despite the heat. If you stop sweating altogether, it’s a sign of heat stroke and you should call 9-1-1. (On hot days you may want to run with your cell phone.)
     
  • Layer up in cold temps. Proper dress is the key to staying comfortable on chilly days—and it’s also crucial for avoiding cold injuries like frostbite and hypothermia. (In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine doesn’t raise the alarm until temperatures dip below -18 degrees Fahrenheit.) When you head outdoors to run in the cold, start with a moisture-wicking layer base layer (not a cotton t-shirt) since you will continue to sweat even when it’s cold and sogginess can lead to chills. Add layers as needed, but remember that your body temperature will increase with exertion and wearing too much can leave you feeling colder. You should dress as though the temperature is 20 degrees higher than the number on the thermometer, and look for pieces with zippers and vents you can open and close to adjust on-the-go.
     
  • Don’t get zapped. Yet another reason to work out first thing in the a.m., lightning storms are less likely to happen in the morning, reducing your chances of having to reschedule your run. While being struck by lightning is certainly rare—the odds are about one in 750,000—when it does happen, it can be fatal. The National Weather Service recommends avoiding outdoor running when you hear thunder, even if you don’t see a flash of lightning. If you get caught running outdoors in a storm, steer clear of anything tall, like trees or electrical poles. Your best bet is to crouch as low to the ground as possible under the lowest trees you can find and avoid streams, which conduct electricity.
Reference(s) 
American College of Sports Medicine
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Institutes of Health
About the author 
Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie is a Syracuse, NY–based health and fitness writer, an American Council on Exercise–certified personal trainer and the author of Tone Every Inch (Rodale).