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There are plenty of good reasons to run outside in the winter. For starters, cold air contains little humidity, which is a major cause of dehydration and heat exhaustion in the summer. It also can be a majorly refreshing change of pace from indoor training. And while lung damage is a common myth about cold-weather running, let’s be clear: It’s impossible for your lungs to freeze, even in the coldest climates.
Plus, by March, when the temperatures slowly start to rise, you may actually notice that your lungs feel great, thanks to the months of adapting to cold, dry air. That said, running in winter can pose specific challenges: thick snow, cold rain, frigid temps, and wipe-out inducing black ice icy roads and snowbanks are anything but easy on your legs, so unless you’re training in warm weather year-round, being mindful about how you adjust your routine to your climate will help ensure you don’t end up scratching those spring race plans.
How to Run in the Cold, Safely
Injuries do go up in the winter: Physical therapist Hannah DePaul works with many runners, and sees more runners in winter months with traumatic injuries due to slips and falls. This can be due to the slippery surface that snow and ice bring, and also the uneven surface from thick snow. The resulting injuries range from ligament injuries such as ankle sprains, to muscle strains and bone fractures.
There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. The most important thing to consider when running in winter weather is what to wear, even if that means taking 20 extra minutes just to get ready for your run. Having appropriate winter running gear makes all the difference to ensure your head, face, hands, and feet stay dry and warm. To avoid running on wet, numb feet, many shoe brands have Gore-Tex options which help keep your feet dry.
When the snow starts to pile up, or when you are worried about icy spots, it is best to add some sort of traction to your shoes. This includes adding a traction cleat device that fits over the bottom of your shoe. These devices can have coils on them, spikes, or a combination of both that will help you gain traction. You can also opt for dedicating a pair of your shoes for winter running and drill small holes for screws into the bottom of your shoes. Do your research on this though, as you need to have the appropriate shoes and screw length for it to work.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems and it might be a matter of trying different options to see what feels best to you. You may enjoy the added weight and clunkiness that the traction device brings. The spikes add minimal weight, and don’t feel much different than running in your normal shoe—you can also consider trail shoes for winter road running.
Take Your Warm-Up Seriously
Whether you’re out the door at 6 a.m. or prefer evening miles after work, it’s important to integrate a pre-run movement into your routine. A dynamic warmup with flexibility and activation drills is one of the most effective ways of preventing injuries and eases your body into workout mode. When done properly, it also makes for a smoother transition to the cold.
“By the time I finished warming up I would be so uncomfortably hot that rather than dreading the cold, I couldn’t wait to get outside to cool off ,” says Canadian Olympian Nicole Sifuentes. Over the course of her professional career, she developed a 10-minute, pre-run routine that she practices religiously, which includes stretches, foam rolling, and specific muscle activations.
But even with a regular warm-up, it’s important to remember that winter running is still going to put extra strain on your body, especially when it comes to stride and pace. Your running mechanics will change when running in winter weather; when running on uneven and slippery surfaces you will find increasing your cadence (step rate) will help you improve your stability and reduce the risk of slips and falls. Your cadence is a measure of the number of steps you take in one minute. By increasing your cadence slightly your stride length will decrease, which will help you land closer to your center of mass and reduce the risk of your foot slipping out from under you. This is especially true when running in traction cleat devices.
“The change in surface and slippery conditions can cause runners to alter their stride to gain more balance and traction,” says Dr. Wes Gregg, sports chiropractor at HYPO2 in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Because of the unstable and unpredictable surface, runners tend to shorten their stride to account for this to prevent falling. This often leads runners to noticing more soreness after running in the snow because they are using their stabilizing muscles more.” Luckily, strengthening those stabilizers (think: hip flexors and your smaller glute muscles) is more manageable than other areas of the body that cannot be easily manipulated (like, say, your high arches). The key is adding a few simple moves—like three sets of 10 lateral mini-band walks and glute bridges—into your warm-up as well as after your run, while your muscles are still warm.
Think of it as an opportunity to strengthen underused muscles, but monitor any pains/niggles, especially if they are consistent to one area of your body and are getting worse.
Listen to Your Body
Running in winter weather will slow your pace, but there isn’t any specific conversion to determine how many miles run on snow/ice equals miles in favorable weather, because that varies by person and even by the conditions. If you are concerned about the number of miles you have to run in the snow, then try switching your focus to running based on time. If a 10 mile run normally takes you 80 minutes in favorable weather, then run 80 minutes in the snow, even if that means you are doing less mileage. Also, if you find the elements are slowing you down significantly, then don’t worry about your pace. Go off your heart rate or rating of perceived exertion (RPE) instead.
If you’re struggling to maintain consistent mileage throughout the season, consider it a message from your body that you might need to simply dial it back. Whether you’re running 80 miles a week this winter or barely any, it’s important to remember what this season is about: being flexible with your routine, allowing your body to rest when it needs it, and focusing on strength training that will prepare your legs for racing in the spring.
“Winter can be a rejuvenating period of rest, and it’s important for runners of all skill levels to take some downtime,” says Joel Sattgast. “The change in seasons can provide an opportunity for active rest and reflection, as well as renewed focus on strength, capacity, mobility, and further performance variables of running.”
Watch Your Step
Hal Koerner, author of Field Guide to Ultrarunning: Training for an Ultramarathon, from 50K to 100 Miles and Beyond, says that getting comfortable on different terrain is crucial to your running toolbox. “I remember The North Face championships in 2012 turned out to be a mud bowl of epic proportions,” he says. “Some runners were completely defeated by it. Watching them slog through the course, you could see they had no motivation, no momentum. For them, the course was miserable and went on forever.” In contrast, he remembers others who ran through it like kids playing in mud puddles, embracing it and having a good time with it. Yes, dealing with elements like mud can be frustrating, but staying positive will get you through the run in better fashion and likely at a faster pace. Here are a few simple cues to keep in mind as you’re handling winter’s variable elements.
How to Run on Ice
Good technique on ice includes being very focused; taking shorter, faster, lighter strides with a wider stance for better balance; having your hands as free as possible; and slowing your pace appropriately for the conditions.
How to Run in Snow
The thing to remember is that snow has many different personalities. It can be soft and powdery, heavy and wet, or hard packed. This abrupt change can present dangerous situations, so be familiar with what you are running on and remain alert to temperatures and terrain changes.
How to Run in Mud
Thick, cold mud can pack into the bottoms of your shoes, adding what feels like a ton of extra weight; a gunked-up bottom means significant loss of traction as well. Try to stomp off as much mud as possible or wipe off what you can on a rock. And keep an eye on your pace and exertion: As you tire, dredging through mud can lead to muscle strains, cramps, and pulls as the tackiness of the mud causes you to stride differently.