The frigid cold of winter, a time when many of us decide to go into hibernation-mode. It’s so much harder to stick to an exercise routine in the winter. Just the thought of getting out from under our warm sheets to brave the cold is enough to make anyone doubt their reasons for doing it. Not to mention, if you hate treadmills as much as me it makes going for a run that much more challenging.
Now, if you hate treadmills but hate missing your runs even more, then why not get out in the freezing temperatures and get at it! Who says you can’t run outside all year round? Running outside in the winter can be a very rewarding experience: providing you with ample bragging rights and plenty of interesting stories to share with your fitness-minded friends. Running outside in the winter can add an exciting twist to your normal routine, and provide additional challenges that are sure to spice things up.
Think you’ve mastered that hill-of-death? Try running it in 10 inches of freshly fallen snow.
Think you’re legs are conditioned? Try walking or running when every step you take feels like you are working twice as hard but going only half as far.
Hate when sweat gets in your eye? Don’t worry, it’ll freeze on your eyelashes before it ever gets that far.
As exciting as winter-running can be, many people refrain from trying it because it seems so dangerous. While it does come with its own set of risks, there are ways to mitigate these risks to ensure you have the best experience possible. Below are some of my top winter-running tips from a decade of winter-running experience.
Keep to a familiar route.
In normal spring/summer weather, those surprise tree roots or divots in the ground aren’t too much of an issue. However, when the ground is covered in a layer of snow you may not always catch them before it’s too late. Stick to a route you are familiar with so that you know when you should watch your step.
Tell someone where you are going, and when you plan to be back.
Always make sure someone else knows where you will be. Sometimes it will get icy, and the last thing you want is a decommissioning-slip and no hope for rescue. Having your phone is also a good plan, but this may not always be feasible. Additionally, sticking to a familiar route will help in the event you forget to let someone know where you are. If you don’t make a timely return, then they’ll know exactly where to start looking.
Dress as if you had to walk home.
Most people will tell you to dress so that you are a little chilly when you start your run, and as you get further into your run your body will warm-up. It’s true your body temperature will rise, but what happens if you roll your ankle or otherwise have to stop running before you finish your route? In other words, dress as if you had to walk home—in case you actually have to. Unless you’re training for a marathon by running extreme distances, you won’t have to worry about overheating. Conversely, wearing shorts when it’s 12 degrees just isn’t smart. As the temperature begins to dip below freezing, I also recommend wearing a windproof outer layer. there’s nothing much worse then cold wind when it splits right through your clothes.
Run opposite traffic.
You should do this anyways but especially in winter months. If you are running in a neighborhood, many times (immediately after a snowstorm) the only clear path to run will be on the street. In this situation you want to run opposite traffic—so that you will be closest to the cars coming toward you. In the winter, driver visibility can be greatly affected. In the event a car loses control in front of you, you’ll give yourself the benefit of a few extra seconds of reaction time. If a car loses control behind you (on the opposite side of the road), the extra space will be welcomed. Running with traffic may not give you enough time to make a safe escape.
As an additional safety precaution, I would recommend turning down your music (or avoiding the use of noise-canceling headphones) so that you can be more aware of what’s going on around you.
Cover your mouth and nose.
It’s true that as the temperature drops it gets harder to breathe. Wearing a mask or scarf to cover your mouth and nose will help heat up the air you’re are inhaling, making it less uncomfortable to breathe. My personal favorite is a balaclava—a mask that covers everything except for your eyes. If you’re running in extreme temperatures (i.e. -20℉) then you’ll want to cover as much skin as possible. Generally, this is when I use a pair of ski goggles to cover the parts of my face not covered by the balaclava. Additionally, you can also put a small amount of Vaseline on any exposed skin to protect from wind burn and to help insulate the skin.
Pay attention to the wind.
In the summer months this isn’t a problem, but in the winter you want to pay attention to the direction of the wind. Although running into cold wind sucks, it’s even worse at the end of your run when you’re sweaty. Always start your run against the wind so that you can end running with the wind and it won’t seem nearly as bad. Screw this up and you will be miserable, trust me.
Buy quality gloves.
Most of your blood while running will be prioritized elsewhere (like your center mass), and in the cold this can get very uncomfortable for your hands. Make sure you invest in a good pair of thermal and windproof gloves or mittens. Nothing ruins a winter run quicker than numb fingers before you finish your first mile.
Watch your turns.
In my nearly ten years of winter-running I’ve only fallen twice, and both times was while taking a sharp turn at an intersection. If you are running and need to take a turn, be sure to take them a little wider than usual. This will help ensure you keep your balance and don’t slip. If you happen to lose your step while taking a turn, more than likely you’re going all the way down.
Shuffle your feet through deep snow.
The difficulty of running in snow stems from the fact that you feel like you are working twice as hard to go half the distance. Every step you take you’re using energy to push aside the snow from under your foot—dissipating much of the energy normally used to propel you forward. This means by the time your foot actually gets to the ground only a fraction of the energy is still available to actually move you forward.
If the snow is deep enough to cover your entire foot, then shuffle your feet through the snow instead of pulling your foot completely clear of it for every step. Simply lift your feet only a inch or so off the ground as you move through the deep snow. Minimizing the distance your foot has to travel to reach the ground means you’ll be using your quad muscles to move the snow with your shin, and can save the forward-propelling energy for the purpose it was intended.
Slow down when necessary.
If you come across some ice and feel like you should slow down, slow down. If you have to take your turns wider and it slows you down, that’s okay. You probably aren’t trying to break a personal record in the winter, you’re just trying to get by until spring comes. There’s no reason to risk injury because you don’t want to slow down. Running downhill can be especially treacherous, and often times you might find yourself walking part of the way down to avoid falling. Safety first!
Following these tips will help you brave the elements while keeping your established running routine. I should also mention, some of the prettiest scenery I’ve seen while running trails occurred during the winter months. Stay safe, stay crazy; happy trails!
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