7 Tips for Winter Running
Updated: Jan 3, 2020
Many people, especially in areas where it snows throughout the winter months, believe that winter is a time when you have to set your running aside and focus on other sports. Yes, there are other winter activities to enjoy such as downhill and XC skiing, snowshoeing and ski touring, and if you prefer to hang your running shoes for the winter to enjoy these other sports to the fullest, by all means, please do. But if you desire to be a year-around runner but simply think you ”can’t” run in the snowy season, I have some good news for you. You can! This time of year, it’s important to take extra precautions and show up to your runs prepared, but it is completely possible to run and train all times of year and in nearly all conditions. Below are some tips to keep you running through the winter safely and successfully.
1) Wear the Right Clothes
I like the saying “There is no such thing as bad weather, there is only the wrong clothes”. For winter running, this couldn’t be more accurate. Of course, there are going to be times you truly should not go running outside for your safety, like during powerful winter storms. Please do not go out running in a blizzard that is dumping two feet of snow and blowing 60mph winds with a wind chill value of -35 degrees. Plan an indoor work out that day, and try again the next day. However, except for in extreme weather, its entirely possible to run outside in the cold and snow and be relatively comfortable. Here’s a list of clothes that I wear and recommend on any given day of winter running:
Warm synthetic or wool running leggings - cotton might be okay for really short runs, but cotton absorbs moisture and therefore is not the best option.
Warm-sleeve synthetic or wool thermal top - again, try to avoid cotton except for runs under one hour when the weather is ideal.
Insulated jacket - synthetic insulation is better than down in the winter for the same reasons you want to avoid cotton. Down is not functional when wet.
Warm socks - make sure they are a moisture wicking material, and a winter thickness.
Snow or trail gaiters - if you’re running on plowed roads or groomed trails, trail gaiters are sufficient, but if you’re running through powder, snow gaiters are better. Both will help to keep warmth in and moisture out of your shoes.
Buff - Wear a buff around your neck for wiping snot and/or for pulling up over your mouth and nose in especially cold temperatures. When it’s really cold, it will hurt to breath, so having a buff to insulate from the cold air will do wonders.
Rain or wind shell - Weather depending. If you’re going out when it is actively snowing, raining, or exra windy, you can tie this layer around your waist when you don’t need it and put it over your insulated layer when you do.
2) Use Traction Devices
For those who live in areas without snow or just occasional snow on the ground this isn’t a necessity, but it's nice to have a pair of yaktracks or microspikes on hand for the occasional ice, snow storm, freezing rain, etc.. For those, like myself, who live in the snow for the duration of winter, having traction under your shoes can be a major game changer. Of course it is possible to go without; your balance can be improved by focusing on a few specific form techniques (see this post from a few years back). However, I’m aware that most of us would rather be safe than sorry, and that’s probably for the better.
There are a few ways to go about putting traction under foot: If you’re an occasional runner and won’t be putting a lot of miles on a pair of shoes throughout the winter, you can use yaktraks or someting similar. This also gives you the flexibility to wear them when conditions call for it, or skip them when you think you’ll be fine without. Keep in mind, traction devices with coils or very short spikes do almost nothing for running through deep snow; microspikes, snowshoes, or nothing are your better options for deeper snow.
If you are going to be putting miles on your shoes throughout the winter, the second option is to screw your shoes.I plan to write an article about how to screw your shoes, so keep an eye out for that. In the meantime, there are plenty of DIY videos on good ol’ google. What I like to do is start wearing a new pair of shoes in the fall (sometimes it works out well to get the new pair just before my last race of the fall), then screw them for the winter. By the end of winter they have been used for their life and I’m ready for a new pair.
On the topic of shoes, it’s also helpful to have a high traction trail shoe, such as the Topo Athletic Ultraventure. These are my shoe of choice year-round, but they are especially great in the winter because of the grippy vibram outsoles with aggressive lugs.
3) Don’t forget to eat and drink
Bring snacks with you on your runs, especially if they are longer than 90 minutes. As many people know, eating helps to warm you from the inside out because it gets your digestive system working, which uses energy, which creates heat.
It’s also important to not forget to drink water, especially on longer runs. Because of the colder temps, it’s easy to feel less thirsty and therefore to skip the water altogether. Just remember that you still need it, and you are likely sweating more than you realize. If you are running in under freezing temps and using a hydration bladder with a hose, your hose will freeze! You need to either remember to drink every few minutes even if its only a sip so that the water stays moving in your hose, or there are two even better options: 1) skip the hose altogether and take bottles, still being cautious to not let the mouth piece freeze over too much between drinks, or 2) put your hose underneath a layer of clothing. You can either put your whole pack underneath your outermost layer, or you can weave your hose under your coat and just pull it out when you take a drink. I’ve tested the latter method many times and found that it works well, so long as I’m drinking fairly regularly.
4) Always go out extra prepared
Winter running comes with additional safety concerns that other times of year don’t bring. It is ALWAYS better to go extra prepared, than not prepared enough. As such, I recommend to check the weather forecast before every outing then dress and pack accordingly. Not only will weather dictate what you wear or what you need to bring, it can also cause for slower or faster running depending. Don't get caught up in the mistake of going out, unprepared, for a run that takes you 90 minutes to complete in the summer assuming it will take the same time now, getting into some weather, and being out in the elements and without food for double the amount of time. Some athletes choose to ALWAYS carry a backpack with extra warmth, food and supplies no matter the length of the run. Personally, my rule of thumb is to bring a pack with extras if I’m going out for longer than 90 minutes (that’s a generous 90 minutes- in winter conditions and always accounting for slower miles).
If you take any advice from this article, it’s to be SURE to dress warm enough, and always bring the “just in case” items. Items I recommend carrying in a pack are: an extra jacket, emergency blanket or bivy, headlamp, extra batteries or second headlamp if there’s any possibility you’ll be out in the dark, extra food, extra socks, and a pocket knife. Many trail runners enjoy leaving their phones at home (myself included), but I always advise to bring it along in the winter, especially if you're going out where cars and people don't often come. Extra socks are important for long winter runs. If your feet get wet, a fresh and dry pair of socks could make all the difference. And I emphasize again: it’s better to go out over-prepared than under-prepared.
5) Utilize groomed trails and plowed roads
Contrary to popular belief, and of course depending on where you live, there are usually good options for winter running routes. I like to look for plowed dirt or gravel roads. Many times dirt or gravel roads are less busy and more rural, plus they give you a softer underfoot just like trail vs road. Of course, running on plowed paved roads is just fine if you are used to road running, but if you switch from trail to paved, plowed road, expect a transition period.
In more rural and mountainous areas you may have access to snowmobile trails, groomed multi-use trails, or snowshoe packed trails. Conditions depending, these can all be fantastic and fun options, giving you the ability to feel like you are trail or mountain running in the dead of winter.
Depending on where you live, there are usually plenty of routes for various types of training. For example, in my area, and because of training through the winter for the last 5 years here, I have a long mental list of winter routes that are good for whatever I’m trying to accomplish that day- various distances, steep short hills for hill sprints, longer gradual hills for repeats, recovery/easy routes, hilly long routes, etc.. It may take a few years to discover all the good routes near you, but once you do it opens up endless possibilities for winter training!
6) Focus on effort rather than pace
It is not a secret that running through snow is slower than running on dry trails or road. Snow running is not the best time to run your miles based on pace. It is also not the time to expect that you will run the same route in the same amount of time as last summer. Instead, try to run based on heart rate or RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion). If you know your HR zones, it’s best to go mostly off of heart rate while still trying to consider RPE; how you are feeling on that specific run and in that specific moment. I could write a whole article about this, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to keep this fairly simple and short. If you do not use a heart rate monitor or know your HR zones, learning about perceived effort and getting to know the scale according to YOU, is amazingly helpful, and how I recommend regulating speed/effort for winter/snow running. You will be using more power output and calling upon more muscle fibers to propel yourself through the snow, and therefore you will inevitably run a slower pace at a similar effort as on snow-less trails or roads.
Now that I’ve mentioned RPE, I feel the need to give a brief lesson on what this means: The RPE scale is a universal 1-10 scale of perceived exertion, with 1 being almost no effort (a slow walk), and 10 being max effort (an all out 30 second sprint). For runners and especially beginners up to recreationally competitive runners, an RPE of 3-4 is a magic spot in which you should be doing most of your running at. This should be just under (or for some, well under) your Aerobic Threshold, and the effort should feel like you could keep it up for a number of hours, or like you could carry on a conversation only taking breaths between sentences. Since it also equates to just under your “nose-breathing” effort, I also suggest that you you should be able to close your mouth and breath only through your nose at any given period while trying to keep an RPE of 3-4.
Back to snow running. As you can imagine, if you’re trying to keep an RPE of 3-4 for your easy run, you will be running noticeably slower on snow compared to the same trail or road in the summer. This is true for any effort on the RPE scale, and for any heart rate. In summary, don’t try to run the same pace snow as you would otherwise be running on a snow-less trail or road. Expect to be slower while maintaining the same effort.
7) Consider making winter your “off season”
I realize that this article is all about how TO run in the winter, but I feel it’s important to mention the “off season”. Before you take those words too literally, let me start by saying an “off season” doesn’t mean you sit on the couch and do nothing for one season out of every year. However, it is necessary to give your body a break for anywhere 2-8 weeks, if you are dedicated to training all other times of year. That being said, it absolutely does not need to be in the winter- depending on your event schedule, you can situate your off season to be wherever it fits best on the calendar. There are several ways to go about this depending on your body, training, and level of fitness, but generally I recommend setting aside a set training schedule and just going by feel during this period. You may need a week or two of complete rest following a big race or event, then you may choose to slowly ease back into activity, only running or enjoying another sport when you feel the energy and desire to do so. Some athletes prefer to switch over to another sport completely, such as nordic skiing, downhill skiing, or skimo. I also highly recommend keeping up with strength at least 1 day/week during this time. Intensity should be almost all easy and you should focus on relaxing your body and mind, and taking some of your usual training time to practice recovery techniques. When you come back to training a few weeks or months later, you will feel refreshed, renewed, and excited to begin training again.
If you feel your body is ready for an off season, consider if winter is the best time to take it. We tend to slow down and do a little bit less in the winter regardless, whether it be because of shorter days, colder or more gloomy weather, the holiday season, etc. so it just might be the ideal time to set aside the scheduled and dedicated training, relax your mind, have a bit more fun, and plan to come back later in the winter feeling ready to go again.
As winter approaches and for many of us around the country, the snow begins to fall, it’s a great time to be thinking about how you want to stay active through the snowy months. If running is your sport of choice or you want to keep up with it part-time in order to transition back more easily in the spring, I hope these tips have given you the confidence to do so. As you know by now, it is entirely possible to enjoy running year-round, even in snow or less desirable conditions. As someone who likes to venture outside my comfort zone, dismiss excuses, and run year-round, I have to lastly mention that running through the winter, particularly in more adverse conditions, is a fantastic way to build mental strength and grit, learn how to make less excuses and get out the door when you know you need to, no matter what. I encourage you to set aside your fears and discomforts regarding winter or snow running and give it a shot- you will not be disappointed. Happy running!