I love winter running. When the forest turns into a scene from winter Narnia, trees covered in snow, the world all clean white and quiet, it feels like I am running around in a fairy-tale. This time of year, the sun rises and sets with a spectacular light show, and all between sunrise and sunset is golden. It is my favourite time of the year for running.
Running in snow is great endurance training but it does not go very fast with snow up to your knees. Muscles and heart are challenged properly while reducing the impact on the tendons and joints.
Winter running requires a little bit more gear and preparation, but as long as you have the right kit and take precautions, winter running can be just as enjoyable as running in summer. Here are some of my tips for running trough the coldest time of year.
If you prefer running than skiing; try running with snowshoes. Snowshoes allows one to experience mountains and fields in wintertime without skis. There are special snowshoes for running that are both lighter and have a run-friendly shape. Running with snowshoes also provides increased resistance and activates several muscles. That’s why even a short session with snowshoes will provide a very good training yield.
Bonus tip: Take your poles on the tour and train your upper body at the same time.
Shoes for the slippery days
Invest in some good studded shoes. Wearing the right shoes on icy and snowy roads is important to prevent falling and unnecessarily long queues in the emergency room. It also makes it more fun to run. Good studded shoes allow you to run normally and reduce the risk of falling.
If you’re not used to running with studded shoes, I have a little advice; trust the shoes. On the packed ice, you need to dare running hard so that the shoe gets a grip in the ice. The studs need to be squeezed down in the ice for them to work properly.
Talking about shoes; it’s a good idea to buy shoes that are have more room than what you usually wear. Firstly, you should have room for a slightly thicker sock, preferably with an additional liner if it is really cold. Secondly, the toes stay warmer if they have an insulating layer of air around them. If you really want to focus on winter running, it may pay to have two pairs of winter running shoes, a pair with space for extra thick socks and a pair for days when it is warm enough for normal wool socks.
Crampons can be an alternative to studded shoes when only parts of the trails are icy. It is no fun to run with studded shoes on long stretches of bare ground. Usually, this is an issue that makes itself most applicable in the spring when the ice starts to melt. Go for crampons made for running that sit firmly on the shoe.
Go for multiple layers instead of one really warm layer. This multi-layered dressing offers several advantages, but the two most important ones are that having a little air between the layers is insulating and that it allows you to regulate the body temperature by taking layers on and off.
When we run, the body produces heat. If we get too hot, the body will start to sweat and then the clothes will get wet. Wet clothes make you cold. This is why you should take your time to regulate your body temperature so that you never get too hot or too cold. Sometimes all you need to regulate the temperature is to take your gloves and wrag on or off or open up the jacket a little.
Always bring extra clothes in a drybag when going out on a long run in the cold. You need to add/ remove layers constantly and you need to be prepared! Should you be unlucky to hurt yourself so that you have to slow down you will quickly get cold if you do not have extra layers. It is also good to have a dry merino long sleeves top to change into if you get sweaty.
Merino is the thing
Merino is the best for winter running. I always wear merino as base layers when I run in cold temperatures. Wool has a unique ability to transport sweat away from the body and to retain heat even if it is wet. Then it’s not a big problem if you get a little sweaty on your torso or soaked on your feet. There are good wool products made for running out on the market. My favorite is the inov 8 long sleeve merino base layer and the inov 8 merino socks.
Bonus tip: Wool does not need to be washed after each session. Hang the wool garments to dry after each session and then the garment can be worn many times. This way your merino garment will last longer and it will benefit both the environment and your wallet.
Remember that the body’s energy consumption increases in the cold. Always bring extra snacks if you’re going on longer runs in cold weather. If you run out of energy on a winter run, your body temperature will drop quickly. Chocolate, nuts and biscuits are great fuel for the long and cold runs. These are also foods that can be eaten even if it is frozen.
Stay on top of your hydration! It may sound strange, but if you’re going to train outside in the cold, it’s extra important to hydrate well. Even if you don’t sweat as much as on warm summer days, your body’s water consumption will increase in the cold. This is because you use water in the process to heat up the cold air before it reaches the lungs. There is also a greater chance of getting cold on your hands and feet if you are poorly hydrated. When the temperatures are below the freezing point, it may be an idea to use an insulated bottle (what you would use in the summer to keep the water cold) and then fill with hot water and an electrolyte tablet inside. Then the water does not freeze as quickly. And drop the drinking bladder with a hose when it’s cold. The water in the hose freezes to ice if you do not constantly drink from it.
Bonus tip: Hot chocolate is good both for fuelling, hydrating and for warming up your body. You can get small and lightweight thermo cups and bottles and the extra weight it adds to your pack is totally worth it on the really cold runs.
Does your phone tap fast for power when you’re out in the cold? Today’s mobile phones don’t like moisture and cold… Wrap your smartphone in a plastic bag and a warm garment. A wool sock works great.
Let’s face it; the winter can be pretty dark. A good headlamp solves that problem. The best headlamps are not cheap but look at it as an investment. Choose the right headlamp and it will be in use for many years. And a reflective vest or running clothes with lots of reflective pattern is a must in the dark if you’re going to run where there is traffic.
You can read my article on how to choose the right headlamp here.
Heating pads can be life savers for hands and feet. You should always carry a pair in your pack in case you get cold. When your hands get really cold, it can take a long time to get your hands warm again just with an extra layer of mitts, but a heating pad will warm your hands up much quicker.
Bonus tips: It is usually enough to open one heat pad and then switch the pad from one hand to the other while you are running. This way, you won’t get the problem with getting too hot and sweaty on your hands.
Protect your lungs
If it is very cold outside and especially when it is windy, a face mask can help. A face mask will warm up the air a little before it is drawn into the lungs. (No, we are not talking about those medical facial masks that you use to prevent getting Covid, we are talking about the thermo face masks). On less cold days, it’s enough to bring an extra buff or two that you pull up over your nose and mouth.
When is it too cold to run outside?
If you are properly dressed, it is the effect the cold air has on the lungs that is most critical. This is individual from person to person and both humidity and any wind will have an impact on that, but interval training in minus 20 degrees Celsius is not something I would recommend. However, I do not mind running for hours in a slow pace even if the temperature is even colder than that.
But on the coldest days you should always know where you are going and to have options in case you get tired, cold or injured. And it is always better to carry a little too many extra layers in your pack on a long run in cold weather, than to end up being cold. Hypothermia is potential life threatening and should never be taken lightly on.