Winter Running 101
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Here's how you can stay warm, safe and motivated in cold, snowy conditions

The weather outside might be frightful, tempting you to run on a treadmill indoors or worse, skip your run altogether. While there’s nothing wrong with an occasional treadmill session—they can make you damn fit—heading outside in the cold gives you the fresh air, occasional sunshine, and joy of being outside that a gym run just cannot. Plus, running in winter conditions makes you strong—both physically and mentally. And it can be really fun.

Here are some tips to keep you running outside in the cold of winter.

1. Team up.

If finding motivation to head outdoors in the winter is what’s holding you back, then find a willing running buddy. You’ll be more likely to head out the door in the cold if you told your buddy you’d meet them at a certain time. And if your running buddy is a dog, consider the fact that running with a dog is a lot warmer than walking with a dog; you’ll both be happy.

2. Dress up.

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: layering is the key to comfort. You may start off a winter run in 20-degree temps in a pre-dawn chill, only to finish in 35-degree sunshine an hour later. Dressing in layers—like a long-sleeve shirt, jacket or midlayer, or even a second long-sleeve shirt, plus tights or pants—gives you the option to shed a layer (on your upper body, anyway). When choosing layers, consider the fact that you may be tying your outer layer around your waist at some point. For that reason, opt for outerwear that ties well and stays put in a knot, unless you run with a pack and can shove a layer in there when not in use.

3. Cover extremities.

Gloves or mittens and a beanie can do wonders for keeping you comfortable on a winter run. Mittens are warmer than gloves, but don’t offer the dexterity of gloves. There are plenty of hybrids in the running market that feature a windproof mitt that pulls over a glove and stores away when not in use, which is the best of both worlds. Thin, lightweight beanies let just enough heat escape from your head while keeping your noggin cozy. If you run in frigid temps, you’ll want a beanie that covers your ears. Beanies, and gloves, can be easily tucked into the waistband of your tights when not in use (if you’re not wearing a pack).

4. Choose socks wisely.

Some runners pull on warm tights or pants, the right layers on their upper body, and short socks…which leaves bare skinned ankles to fend for themselves in the cold. Choose socks that bridge the gap between your shoes and your pants. You’ll also likely want thicker socks than you usually wear to add warmth, especially if you’re not running in waterproof shoes. (See No. 4.)

5. Consider weatherproof shoes (or not).

There’s no shortage of waterproof (Gore-Tex, etc.) running shoes to choose from. But unless you’re running in a downpour, a snowstorm, or through a foot of snow, waterproof shoes can be overkill. They’re heavier than non-waterproof shoes and don’t breathe as well. That said, in the right conditions, they provide protection and extra warmth for your feet.

6. Opt for traction.

Consider wearing luggy trail running shoes even on road runs, if the roads are sloppy. Most trail running shoes offer enough traction for fresh snow on roads or trails. If there’s ice on the ground, either buried beneath the snow or not, add a traction device like YakTrak Run or MicroSpikes (or add screws to the bottom of your shoes) for deep snow/trail adventures to keep you from slipping and hurting yourself.

7. Light up.

With winter comes shorter days, which sometimes means running in the darkness of dawn or after sundown. Make sure to wear something highly reflective to alert cars to your presence, and arm yourself with a headlamp, handheld flashlight or waist-mounted light.

8. Shorten your runs.

If you’re running in soft snow, it’s wise to account for the added effort needed. Your lower legs, in particular, have to make multiple micro-adjustments to keep you steady in the snow. Everything from your calves to shins, to your hips and back can feel more taxed than if you ran on a dry surface. For that reason, be sure to ease into snowy runs. Run shorter than you usually would until your body is used to running in the snow.

9. Shorten your stride.

On slick surfaces, shorten your stride. If you slip while taking a short stride, it’s a lot easier to adjust and catch yourself before hitting the deck than if you were to be taking long strides, with your front leg extended far from your body. Short, quick strides will allow you to adjust to mini slips and uncertain footing.

10. Enjoy yourself.

Sure running in the winter means you’ll be cold and have to prepare with extra clothes and the right shows. But there’s also a certain playful, invigoration factor for getting out and running on snow and ice. Embrace winter and enjoy your time in the great outdoors. 

Lisa Jhung
Boulder, Colorado-based freelance writer Lisa Jhung is the author of "Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running" (Velo Press, 2015). She writes for Runner's World, Men's Journal and Men's Health and was the co-founding editor of Adventure Sports magazine.