A guide to running in snow and winter conditions.
Winter has arrived. The temperature is close to freezing at best and there’s fresh snow. That’s it then, you can’t go out for a run……..or can you?
The reality is – yes you can. You just have to think a little more about what you’re going to do, where you run and for how long. Safety is a very important consideration, whether avoiding slips on the pavement, or climbing a trail onto an ice field. They may seem like extreme ends of the spectrum – but could both easily leave you seriously hurt. Sensible precautions can greatly reduce the risk of a slip or fall and increase your enjoyment. Let’s be honest going for a run in fresh fallen snow is great fun.
If not careful, Road Runners can be the first victims of snowy weather. Perhaps unaccustomed to extreme weather, they decide to head straight out for a run. It just looks great out there, but what should they take into consideration?
The first thing is to dress accordingly. Take a look at the temperature and whether it’s windy. Wind at sub-zero temperatures can cause you to chill even more rapidly than normal. So you may need a windproof that reduces the penetrating effect of the cold air. If there’s little or no wind, then an extra (breathable) layer may well be best, although carrying a windproof jacket and spare hat and gloves has its merits.
If it’s snowing then wearing a hat with a brim can help keep the snow off your face. Wearing a balaclava or buff as a neck-roll means it can be pulled up over your head and chin as and when required, preventing that frosty feeling on your cheeks.
In colder conditions I believe that leaving the door already feeling warm is better than expecting to warm up on the move. If you have to stop for any reason once out, you’ll thank yourself for wrapping up that little bit warmer in the first place. On this point ensure your next-to-skin baselayer is also thermal not just wicking. If you stop – then the thermal properties can slow down the chilling process quite dramatically.
For your legs – winter run tights are a must (shorts are a big no-no), as are a good quality pair of warm longer socks (Smartwool get my vote). Then for footwear, I would opt for trail shoes, as they generally provide a little more grip. If ice is involved, then you have little choice, it’s time to grab those Microspikes. Their 5mm spikes will hold you on ice, cut through old frozen snow and in just about any situation help keep you upright. Don’t skimp on your footwear were ice is involved; you must have something that cuts into the ice.
If you are running for more than an hour, I’d also suggest you carry fluids. With all the extra layers on you’ll sweat more, so even in sub-zero conditions water can be essential, as you’ll begin to dehydrate sooner than you think.
TIP: Try making your drink with hot water to prevent it from turning into slush. It should have cooled by the time you come to drink, but do make sure!
If you’re heading out Trail Running, all of the above holds true, but isn’t so much recommended as it is essential, especially if you’re going to be a lot further from civilisation – any more than 20 minutes’ walk counts (think about having to walk home in less than enough clothing, through freezing winds, while soaked to the skin).
What about more extreme winter running on the local fells and hills of the Peak District? Well, it wouldn’t stop me, but before you run – stop and think… “What if…?”
On the clothing front, the choice is in some ways very straightforward. The higher you intend to go – the more you carry. With every 1,000ft climbed you drop 2 to 3’C in air temperature. So if it is 0’c in the valleys, it can be as low as -4 to -6 on Kinder Edge (2,000 feet). Then there’s the considerable effect of wind chill. A 15mph wind will make the air temperature feel twice as cold.
TIP: Keep an eye on air temperature as you run by carrying a small thermometer clipped to your pack
For clothing, think warmth first – closely followed by wicking and quick drying. Think about your top warm layer having a zipped front, so as you run up hill you can vent. When on the summits or edges and running downhill, you can zip yourself up tight for warmth. Personally, I prefer to wrap up with warm layers and avoid putting on any top with a membrane. This allows better sweat evaporation and I find temperature is better controlled, since you don’t find yourself soaked to the skin (if you’re wet, you’ll cool down way too quickly even without the wind). That said, a softshell top layer with a hood has on many occasions been a blessing. The weather on high ground can change for the worse very rapidly.
If heading to the hills always allow extra time, know your route and carry a map and compass, knowing how to use them. Drifting snow can render tracks unrecognisable or invisible on the ground. A head torch and essentials necessary for survival should be carried.
As a minimum include: windproof hat or balaclava, a buff (two if you have them) to go around your neck, extra warm layers for legs and body, spare woolly socks, insulated top (Montane Fireball), and full waterproof cover. Don’t forget spare nutrition and water, just in case. If you’ve room, an appropriate shelter is also a good idea – I have been known to carry a sleeping bag in very extreme cold conditions.
TIP: Carrying a survival bag also has other advantages. As you finish running the final downhill on the way back to base, it makes for a good sledge!!
The best way of looking at spare kit is very easy. Ask yourself, “If I am forced to stop, am I carrying enough to keep warm and dry?” Then put another top in your bag!
It should also go without saying that for really cold adventures, running Crampons or Microspikes should be carried, that you know will fit nicely onto your trail or fell shoes.
So check your kit, bag contents, route and the weather forecast. Plan for the worst and away you go.
One of the main things for everyone out running in wintry conditions is the actual art of Snow Running. You may have noticed that your normal running style results in your foot slipping as it pushes off. The first thing to do is shorten your stride and reduce the power output of your push. A push-slip is a waste of energy and can quickly lead to fatigue and injury. As you land keep your weight over the foot. This will push the grips into the snow for better traction and if you do slip it is easier to pop in an extra step for a stride or two as you regain your balance.
In deeper snow, you’ll require a higher knee lift, again forcing you to slow and run with a shortened stride. This is much more effective than kicking through the snow, is less tiring and provides better balance and control.
Trail runners should also be careful of exposed rock as black ice can cause many a slip up, regardless of how good the grip is on your shoe.
TIP: As you run, look ahead for signs of deeper snow and ice. Don’t just look down at what your feet are doing, as you’ll have no reaction time when reaching obstacles or slippery areas.
For the trail runners – look out for snow-buried streams!! There is no shame in walking if conditions force you to become tired. Moving slowly will keep you warmer than exhausting yourself until you have to stop completely.
If there is an increasing threat of ice, then reach for those Microspikes. Especially in the UK with our winters being a freeze-thaw-freeze affair. Just about the worst conditions a runner can hope for.
For every runner – expect your normal run to take a little longer and allow for this, especially where daylight is a consideration. It is also well worth letting someone know your route and how long you expect to be. For the trail runner heading to the hills this is especially important and should include short cut and possible route extensions. Don’t forget to inform them when you are back safe and sound.
If you are in doubt of any aspect of snow or winter running then seek out the advice of someone with more experience, and always run with others if you can. Run safe and enjoy!
NOTE: This article has been produced as a guide only, and in every case – runners should only run in poor conditions within the limits of their experience and in areas they are familiar with. If you have nagging doubts about that run, then you may well be better off choosing one less challenging. Always run with people who are well equipped and ready for the challenge, never pushing someone beyond their experience, fitness or limits.
For me and a friend, gaining experience was a case of hiring a Winter Mountain Leader who ran – building snow holes, for survival, on the side of Helvellyn was superb learning.