I love running in the winter… it’s a great time to get out and see the landscape at its finest. However it’s also really easy to get it wrong and be downright miserable! Here’s my top 10…
The gear photos show old kit/versions because I have been using it all for a 2-7 years!
This is a critical! I used to try and run in the winter, pretending I was in the summer, keeping my shorts on as late in the season as possible. In the end this left me 50% of the time feeling like a hardy runner and 50% of the time cold, miserable and ill.
Now it’s better prepared… long tights, merino socks, merino t-shirt base layer, warm jacket, waterproof jacket, hat, buff and good gloves. Depending on the snow depth ankle gaiters to stop my socks getting wet.
The key is to be able to adjust to conditions. It is a rare run where you can keep the same gear on all the time, so consider where you will stash it when it comes off (running backpack or tie stuff round your waist).
Also, be careful of exposed shins if you try wearing shorts on a sunny snow covered day and find your self breaking through ice over the snow… this gets painful and bloody… fast. Compression Calf Sleeves work well here.
Finally, gloves make a massive difference and I have a big selection…
I always start out with either the thin gloves or fingerless convertible glove as, many times, this is more than enough. If it looks like it could rain, I might chuck a pair of neoprene cleaning gloves in my pocket. Make sure any gloves you buy have a phone finger… it save a lot of hassles for wintry selfies!
If it’s less than -3C I will normally take the Inov8 mittens (they pack down to nothing). If I will be going though some powder or mountaineering, I will always have my goretex over-mitts.
2. Traction & Shoes!
Before I consider how warm or waterproof my footwear is, I consider how it will grip. Wearing a pair of road shoes on a frozen mountainside is either not fun, or just plain dangerous. Maximum waterproofing I use is DWR, never goretex. I find that if I do not let my feet breath, they overheat and sweat like crazy.
Above freezing, pavement, raining
For this I wear my normal road shoes, with merino socks, my feet stay warm. As long as the grip is fine, I run as normal. I just wear cheap DHB merino socks.
This is my least favorite running surface! It’s almost impossible to see any ice and too hard to wear any sensible grips. If I must run on it, I default to my Saucony Pergrine winter shoes… they have the best ice grip, but still not perfect.
Muddy or frozen Trail
I love muddy trails! You can really let go, and have some fun, moving in all directions. On my feet are normally Inov 8 x-talon. These have amazing grip, plus you can run for a short time on roads comfortably as the lugs form a level of cushioning. When the trail is frosty, these work well… just watch out for ice sheets.
If I have a mixed bag sort of day, not sure if I’ll hit snow, I choose the most likely shoe from above, then carry some running specific traction devices. I have tried a few different versions of these and found the Chainsen ones the best by far. These were not cheap, but 3 hard winters later they are still going strong.
I had tried ones with velcro straps and lost them in deep snow as the velcro froze and became useless. It’s important to get the right size for your shoes. Finally check that your shoe is flexible enough, otherwise they can ball up with snow.
Deep fresh powder
This is my favourite time to run!!! Crashing though fresh powder is amazing, once you get the hang of it, you can hurtle along, with trips and falls being part of the fun.
Critical is having a good grip – you can either use the crampons, or go for a pair of specific snow shoes. Many brands make these now, however my favourite is my Inov 8 Oroc. These are awesome fun, with unbelievable grip on any surface. They are thin, however snow is a lovely soft surface to run on. You can also use XC spikes, however I find that these can sometimes be sketchy on downhills. The Oroc are noisy but useable for a couple of km on pavement.
This is my second pair of these shoes in 6 years… The upper eventually gave up on the first pair, however the sole and spikes were still going fine.
Frozen over old snow
I normally combine two methods here. For ascending I pop on a pair of snow shoes then descend in my Orocs. This works well as I find running down steep slopes in snow shoes annoying. On the ascent, “post holing” gets annoying and the snow shoes don’t slow down things too much.
Shorter days means that lights will be necessary on most runs, and should always be carried. Don’t get caught out on a tricky mountainside without a way to see.
I have two main lights that I use, a smaller Petzl Reactik and a larger Petzl Nao. In my emergency kit is always a Petzl e-lite. The absolute number of lumens is less important than the beam pattern and ability to angle the unit up and down easily. The larger unit is normally reserved for longer adventures.
The reactive lighting works well most of the time, but it’s important to know how to switch it off. Steam from your breath or large snow flakes can cause it to blink annoyingly. I also find that lighting is not even necessary when there is enough snow and moonlight.
I always try to get out of town and hit the trails… this is just more fun! I also try to avoid having a route which doesn’t give me some options… winter miles don’t match summer miles and estimating times is tricky. It’s better to under-commit and do an extra km at the end, than over-commit and end up late.
I think it is always important to be honest about your ability… If you never run in deep snow, don’t plan a traverse of the wilds. There is a specific fitness required that takes time to build. Better would be to plan some hill reps to build the muscles.
5. Warm-up, Intensity & Pace
I have been injured a couple times in winter. In each case is was due to me going full gas during a cold track session too soon. Even though I felt I was warmed up, it was clear that I wasn’t. Another effect I have observed is that my feet feel stiff for the first few km… This passes, but is annoying. I would suggest minimum 20 minutes very gradual warm up. Even better is to warm up indoor first with a few burpees or mountain climbers.
Now, I try to avoid doing intense workouts (Z3 and above) when it’s sub zero. I find that I get more benefit from sticking to zone 2, and building my aerobic base. I don’t watch pace, but focus on enjoying myself and keeping good technique.
If I have an intervals session to do, I often flip this over to a treadmill. It’s just not with the hassle of getting injured.
6. Keep Your Gear Dry
If you are out with a phone, some cash, a camera etc… pack them in some zip lock bags. If they have batteries try and keep them close to your body – I have lost count of the discharged batteries because I left my camera in an outside pocket.
If you forget to pack your gear in bags, a nice hack is to find a dispenser for dog poo bags!
It’s unavoidable, but be careful if getting soaking wet with sweat… If you need to stop, you will get cold fast… and it’s hard to dry out. I did a night run a couple of years ago when it was -11 to -18C and paused to take a few photos… quickly my cheap base layer got cold. I rearrange my clothes and by the time I went to stash my wet base layer, it was frozen solid.
It’s better to avoid sudden changes in pace, and if you are going to stop it’s good to slow down 5 minutes earlier, then have a jacket ready. Managing this may sound trivial, but it makes a huge difference to your comfort.
Winter safety is a massive topic, and I am not qualified to cover it fully! If you are heading in to the wild or the mountains do a course in winter mountaineering/trekking in your area.
A side benefit is that if you do a local course, often the local instructors are experts in great routes in your area. I regularly train with local mountain rescue guys, and have discovered lots of hidden gems!
Last winter a runner had to be rescued on my local mountain at 2000m in 2-3m of snow… wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. He had lost one shoe in the snow. The helicopter couldn’t fly that evening so he spent the night in a bivouac with the mountain rescue before being airlifted the next morning. (I think the bill for the rescue would have been easily >10000euros.)
Don’t be that guy, do a wilderness safety course, carry the right gear, tell someone where you are going, take someone with you, take a phone… etc. I am not going to list everything here, it’s your job to do the course and look after your safety.
9. Water & Nutrition
When I run in winter, I will still use water and a ton of calories! This leaves a couple of problems to be resolved….
Taking enough with you is the easiest solution… or have some planned stops. Keep it close your body to avoid it freezing. A camelback might be a better solution in some cases. I have tried melting snow in a small stove for water on longer mountain trips… this works but takes forever!
I take more than I think I will need… or I plan a break somewhere. Winter running takes a ton of energy. Try to avoid anything that hardens when frozen… chewy sweeties are always nice. If you are going to be melting snow, it can be worth taking some noodles.
With the right gear, route and company, winter running is fantastic…. Try to avoid taking yourself too seriously… if the powder is deep, charge down some stupidly steep hills or take off between the trees. Running in a snow covered forest at night is something kind of magical and not to be missed.
The smile you have on your face when you get home will stay with you for days!
Footnote – the above links to Amazon give me a small percentage of the purchase price but change nothing for the buyer. They have no influence on my opinion of the gear. I would also check out wiggle.co.uk for the same gear.