Winter running, especially in very cold and snowy conditions, is one of my favorite things to do. It’s also an underappreciated activity, even among long-time runners. I get this. Some bodies don’t handle the cold well, and some people just don’t like the cold. However, I think a lot of reticence about winter running has to do with the different sorts of preparations involved. Unfortunately, running magazines and popular running websites aren’t much help with this; they tend to focus more on expensive gear than on basic considerations and do-it-yourself approaches.
I’ve been distance running non-competitively for more than twenty-five years, and I’ve spent fifteen of those years in the snowy winter conditions of Alaska and Ontario. Hearing about my experiences, runner friends periodically ask me questions about various aspects of winter running. In what follows, I offer tips based on what I’ve learned through trial and error. Hopefully some of them will be useful to you!
Familiarize yourself with the telltale signs of hypothermia and frostbite. Before heading out for a run, study the weather forecast (with special attention to wind chill) and prepare for the worst conditions you could possibly encounter. And if you’re really worried, bring a couple of hand warmers with you.
Wear appropriate clothing
The tricky balance with winter running is keeping your body insulated but not so insulated that you sweat excessively and overheat. (I’ve actually witnessed overdressed people struggle with heat exhaustion on cold winter days.) The way to achieve this balance is by wearing layers of clothing that you can easily take on and off; zippers are also very helpful. With practice, you will develop a fine-tuned sense of how much clothing you need to wear in specific temperature ranges, and you will learn how to adjust your clothing to keep yourself comfortable.
For example, I’ve learned that between -12 C (10 F) and -16 C (3 F), I need to wear a warm hat on top of a headband with ear covers, heavy gloves on top of liner gloves, a short-sleeved nylon shirt, a long-sleeved long underwear top, a heavy long-sleeved outer top, insulated underwear briefs, insulated tights, and one pair of heavy warm socks. This outfit gives me many options for adjusting my clothing as I heat up, including removing the hat, headband, and gloves, as well as unzipping the shirts and pushing up the sleeves. For lower temperatures, I add more clothing, including heavy mittens, a balaclava, another pair of socks, and more top and bottom layers.
A tip for carrying gear: I’ve found that wearing a bicycle jersey with drop-in rear pockets as my base layer is very handy. Anything I put in the pockets stays pretty warm, and I can tuck my hat and gloves in if I don’t want to wear them.
A tip for anyone with a penis: without wind protection, your penis and testicles can get painfully cold while running in very cold temperatures. It’s worth getting a pair of wind block underwear. Alternatively, you can use a technique I learned from cross-country ski racer friends in Alaska: put duct tape over the front crotch of your long underwear or tights.
Insulate your music device
MP3 players rarely last longer than 30 minutes if exposed to temperatures below freezing. I’ve learned over time that the best way to keep a music device working, even at -35 C (-31 F), is to keep it close to the core of my body, underneath at least two layers of clothing. I’ve had success wearing my MP3 player next to my chest and, more recently, tucked into the back waistband of my tights along my lower back. My partner usually tucks her MP3 player into her bra.
When running in cold weather, preventing your water from freezing can be difficult. The tubes on hydration packs and vests will freeze right away at -6 C (21 F) or lower temperatures. I have yet to try the hydration packs specifically made for skiing to see if they might be better. The best option I have encountered is a running belt with small bottles, though they will eventually freeze as well. You can lengthen the time it takes for them to freeze if you fill them with hot water right before you head out the door.
Train for the cold
Human bodies, as my friend Luc Mehl regularly reminds me, are amazing. With practice, people have been able to acclimatize themselves to remarkably cold conditions. This is something that I first learned, as a teenager in Alaska, through stories about the legendary mountain climber Vern Tejas, the first person to ascend Denali alone in the winter. Reportedly, Tejas’ training regimen included taking regular ice baths – a practice that I’ve come to appreciate as well.
Running on ice and snow is very different than running in non-winter conditions. With practice, however, it gets easier and more intuitive. Some of the key tricks are slowing down, shortening your stride, lowering your center of gravity, leaning forward, and landing on your midfoot (rather than your heel). While running, I keep my gaze about ten feet ahead of me, regularly assessing conditions. On especially icy surfaces, I try to stay on abraded areas. And when in doubt about how slippery a particular patch might be, I default toward a slow shuffle.
Also, running in unplowed snow is really fun and not as hard as it might look! Snow that comes to your knees or higher will get pretty tiring eventually, but snow that is shin-high or lower is generally quite manageable. The only thing to be cautious about is the footing underneath the snow, particularly when there is an uneven frozen layer.
Get more traction from your shoes
You can increase your traction and stability on slippery surfaces by using some kind of gripping system on your shoes. The Alaska technique, which works amazingly well, is to put screws into the soles of your shoes. However, that technique requires a dedicated pair of shoes with thick soles. Another option is to use a harness-based gripping system, such as Yaktrax or STABILicers. The drawback of these kinds of harness systems is that, depending on how much you’re running, they will eventually wear out. Rubber harnesses get overstretched and can tear, and metal cleats and coils rust and break, particularly if exposed to road salt. The most expensive option, which is becoming more common, is buying a pair of running shoes with little spikes or cleats already installed.
Because I run in zero-drop minimalist shoes, I use a harness system rather than screws. But I try to use it only when absolutely necessary. I also keep a pair of old “screw shoes” around for exceptional weather situations.
Pick your route imaginatively
One (of many) unfortunate effects of car culture is that people often default to using road systems in planning non-car travel, including running routes. Just look at what comes up on mapmyrun.com for any given city. Running on or alongside roads in the winter, at least in my experience, is monotonous, dangerous, and generally unpleasant. Of course, sometimes it’s the only option. But if at all possible, I recommend exploring other options. At various times in my life, I’ve pieced together running routes on frozen lakes, bike paths, beaches, hiking trails, ski and sledding hills, informal dog-walking paths, closed and unplowed roads, public parks, decommissioned train tracks, and under-used ski, snowshoe, and snowmobile trails. Be creative as you pick your routes. I promise you’ll have more fun!