Winter Running Advice, Options, and Experiences

Winter Running Overview

Jack Frost is nearly nipping at your nose, or more appropriately, your toes. It's nearly here in Michigan, old man winter has spoken.

This time of year offers an amazing opportunity to run as the season brings with it crisp cool air, the peacefulness of less foot traffic, and the pristine beauty of white flakes floating from the sky.

It also means freezing rain, hail, many feet of snow and wicked wind chills (often below 0° F).

With the cold comes the runners brilliant battle against it. This post will look at my suggestions and experiences running through winter. Please share some of your tips and experiences in the comments section.

I've found winter running is not just about what's on (or off) your feet but how you take care of your entire body.

Feet Options

There are many options for running in the snow. The last time I reviewed the market there seemed to be many fewer options. With shoe companies getting more on-board with minimalist running, there are more products for use.

You will want to make sure you're comfortable (warm enough) with the product and that your stride is not adversely affected. This can be harder than it sounds, especially if you're not used to foot coverings.
Barefoot/Unshod.
Barefoot running in the snow! There is nothing more exhilarating than feeling the snow squish between your toes, nor more dangerous.

Let's focus on the negatives first: frostbite is a serious concern as temperatures dip into the 40° F and below, especially if the ground is wet or the winds are a howling. To make things worse, many cities spray their roads with salt and other abrasive chemicals which lowers the freezing point of water and creates a more caustic environment for your skin.

The keys to being barefoot in the winter are the same keys being barefoot the rest of the year, adaptation. The key is to adapt slowly.

If you're planning to attempt barefoot running in the winter, it is prudent to run barefoot during the fall as the temperature starts to drop and the ground gets nasty. You should not expect to start running in the snow without any type of build up. If you find yourself in the position, it would be best to skip your barefoot attempt for the year and plan better next year.

The question I still face is, can I truly adapt to such a thing? Do I even want to?

At this point, I can't put up with the numbness that comes with it, nor do I wish to risk frostbite after the temperature drops below 45º F (or higher if it's wet).  The potential cost far outweighs the benefits I hope to gain.

When it comes to my health, I try to err on the side of caution. The purpose of running barefoot is to increase sensory perception and feedback. The moment things start to get numb, I am in a situation where I can easily overextend, over-stride, or overstep what I am capable of. That doesn't even broach the issue of safety.

If I head out for a 6 mile run and find myself 3 miles from home unable to run further, being barefoot and walking may push me over the edge to frostbite.

There are some folks who have had success running barefoot in the snow, particularly Barefoot Rick, who has written some fascinating information regarding his barefoot running experience over the past 5+ years. The pictures of his frostbite are not for the squeamish but serve as a good reminder of what you face. I know that Barefoot Josh has not had the same luck. I'm sure there are many other experiences on both sides of the coin.

If you do give it a try, remember that you can survive twenty minutes no matter how cold, or how much snow on the ground. This duration is enough to raise your heart rate, see if your feet will warm up, while giving you enough time to get back to your home if things go awry.

It is definitely possible to run barefoot in the winter, for some people. Maybe you're one of them?

Socks. Pulling on a pair of running socks (or wool socks) and just going out for a run seems like a reasonable idea. After all, it’s still pretty close to barefoot right?  It turns out, not so much.

The wool socks bunched in the front and felt extremely awkward. I had to take them off half way through 8 miles and run the rest barefoot. They did manage to keep my feet warm.

Running socks fare no better. These provided very little warmth and the actual “sole” of the sock would have worn through after another 2-3 runs.

There are additional types of socks which are more running friendly. They generally have some type of coating on the bottom.

Vibram Five Finger Flows. These babies were my workhorse pair of shoes last winter. I put nearly 600 miles on them through the nastier months of winter, so I remain biased towards them.

These shoes were sufficient to keep my feet warm, without socks, in all situations. The first mile of running is generally chilly, followed by the remainder of the run in comfort.

The 1.2mm Neoprene lining and 2mm EVA footbed provide the thermal insulation and protection, but also are responsible for the slight stiffness feeling in the sole.

Since the shoes cover the entire foot, they do not feel as though they are going to slip off, like the VFF classics, which allows for a more natural gait. As long as you are used to running barefoot, your form should allow to adapt to these without too much effort.

Teva Proton's. This is a shoe which I have not had the opportunity to experience yet, but have heard wonderful things about. The cost on this one is much less than the others (about half) but may be too light weight to meet the harsher winter temperatures and conditions in the North East US. If you are in a more temperate climate, this may be just the thing you need to get yourself through the cooler weather.

RunAmoc. I have not had the joy of trying these out yet either, however I am including them in the list because of the positive feedback I've read regarding them. They appear to be a reasonable winter shoe, especially for those who like the full toe box.

Snow Shoes. This is a terrific way to mix up running in the winter and add some cross country/snowed over trails to your repertoire.

I started this last year with the Atlas Run Snowshoe. Running in these has been awesome. Hitting cross country ski areas, trails, and even the neighborhoods after a heavy snow is exhilarating. I love the look on peoples faces as they are shoveling their drive and see me cruise by looking like a Yeti.

If you want to give this a go, pay careful attention to the bindings. There is a difference between running snow shoes and regular snow shoes, specifically the bindings. The bindings on a running snow shoe will snap the frame up with the raise of your foot, instead of leaving it on the ground for you to shuffle along. This allows you to have a much more comfortable and realistic stride (which will already feel very odd because you're wearing huge metal shoes).

An old pair of sneakers, generally provides enough protection against the elements, although you may want to wear long socks as your ankles can get cold quickly.

Finally, running in snow shoes is hard work. Expect to cover miles at a much slower pace, or if you plan to keep your pace, drop the number of miles as you may end up feeling like you're running intervals in the snow!

Others. There are so many other options out there I can't possibly cover them all. From the spiking old running sneakers "screw shoe", to Yak Trax, to TerraPlana, Merrell, and on, and on, and on...

Body Clothing Options

The key to winter clothing is layering. Common knowledge is to start with a thin layer of synthetic material such as polypropylene, which wicks sweat from your body. Add an outer, breathable layer of nylon or Gore-Tex which will help protect you against wind and precipitation, while still letting out heat and moisture to prevent overheating and chilling.

If you find it's extremely cold out, add a middle layer of insulation. Whatever you do, stay away from fabrics which hold water, like cotton. When these get wet, they will remain heavy and freeze. The last thing you want is your sweat frozen to your body.

On most winter days in Michigan, I use a pair of heavier duty tights with regular running shorts over the top. On top I'll have a tight wicking layer, followed by one or two of the looser, but still wicking, long sleeve shirts. Only on truly windy and nasty days do I find it necessary to wear a Gore-Tex outer shell.

Tights. There are many different types of tights from many different companies. You want to make sure you get something thermal and breathable, intended to retain body heat.

Be sure you do not accidentally purchase thermal pant liner. The two products are often sold side by side. Thermal liners are not meant to be worn without a layer over them. You want something that can stand alone without an extra pants layer on top.

Two pairs of  quality tights should be enough to get you through the winter months.

Shorts. Some folks find no issue with wearing just tights. I prefer the extra protection and warmth that comes from having a pair of running shorts over the tights. There is no need to buy special shorts, just use the existing shorts you use during the summer.

Base Layer. You want to stick with something skin tight and made of wicking fabric which will get the sweat away from contact with your skin. It should be thin, lightweight, and very breathable. You won't want to be wearing this layer by itself usually, however this layer provides the pivotal role of moving the sweat away from your body.

Long Sleeve Shirts. Unlike the base layer, these shirts should be looser fitting, but still wicking fabric. This shirt creates a middle pocket of warmer air in between your base layer and the outside air. This stops the sweat from freezing against your base layer or skin. The sweat should be able to keep the shirt damp without freezing, while allowing some of the moisture to evaporate out of the long sleeve shirt.  If anything does freeze, it will be the outside shirt, which isn't pressed against your skin.

Jackets and Shells. Wind chills can take an otherwise perfect outfit and make it feel like you're running in your birthday suit. Having a windbreaker, or better yet, a lightweight water proof Gore-Tex wind breaker will allow you to brave those nastier winds, or even the freezing rain and heavy snows.

Head/Face/Hand Covering Options

People say you lose 40% of your heat through your head. They are of course wrong, however that doesn't mean you should neglect your extremities. The face, head, and chest are more sensitive to changes in temperature than the rest of the body, making it feel as if covering them up does more to prevent heat loss.

I have experienced headaches from very cold ears. Running and headaches doesn't mix well together, so keep it smart and cover correctly.

Remember that your hands and head aren't performing the same type of work as your legs and feet, so they will have reduced blood flow through them.

Like clothing, try to choose something which will wick away moisture -- frozen gloves do more harm than good. And if you have the chance to get something reflective, all the better to make yourself visible.

Headbands. This is my first go to head covering. This takes care of easily 50% of my winter running needs. The nice thing about the headband is that if the weather gets very cold, it can be used as an extra layer over/under a hat.

Hats. As it gets colder, a full covering is needed. Make sure you find a hat that covers your ears, I'm amazed by how many don't fit that bill. For women, they have hats with built in pony tail hole out the back so you don't have the scrunch your hair all together. Ideally the hat can also be reflective as this is the highest point on your body and one of the most visible for oncoming traffic. The Brooks "Nightlife" line has been ideal.

Balaclava. When you think you need a balaclava, you know it's nasty out. These can be a real lifesaver in the wind, especially paired with a hat or headband over the top for increased warmth retention. The biggest issues here is breathing. Some of the balaclava have holes for breathing, some have simply fabric, and the more expensive ones have perforations which will allow you to breathe easily and expel moisture. My biggest complaint with the cheaper versions without perforations is that it can be difficult take deep breaths and the fabric gets damp.

Beard. A beard can provide a natural facial barrier to the elements. As an added benefit, you can take awesome pictures of your frozen beard when you're done running, making yourself appear to be some sort of crazy mountain man.

Vaseline. Even a balaclava doesn't cover all of your face (well some of them do, but I don't know if I can run around with an air raid mask on). For all those exposed skin areas Vaseline is a cheap and effective barrier to windburn. It retains the moisture in the skin while providing a barrier between the air and the skin.

Gloves. Cheap gloves are usually sufficient. You can buy those gloves at most run-of-the-mill department type stores like Target/Meijer/Walmart for $1 a set. Usually the gloves are cotton, until the wind really starts to zip, or it's raining out, these are more than sufficient.

Once the wind and the precipitation does pick up, you'll want to get a heavier duty pair of gloves or mittens. You can use some of the more typical outdoor gloves, most of which are waterproof, but I've found these can keep my hands too warm and my hands get wet. That's a rather gross and unnecessary feeling, especially if you have the desire to take the gloves off because you're too hot.

Running Form

Move around inside enough to get the blood flowing, without breaking a sweat, before you head out the door. If you have a treadmill, doing a warm up mile inside can raise your heart rate enough to combat the initial shock of the outdoors.

Modifications in turns. Slow down as you come up to turns and whatever you do, don't lean into it.

Be very gentle and observant when changing direction.

Running on ice. People say you shouldn't run on ice. This is probably a smart plan, but not always doable. Running on ice isn't so bad if you remember not to push off while you run. Run mostly upright, with a slight lean, keep your fet hitting underneath you, and don't push off, simply pick your legs off the ground. It's an amazing thing to run along an ice trail past folks slipping and sliding as they try to walk.

Forget Speed. Intervals are out, unless you can find a dry track, or a dry road. Tempo runs need to be seriously reconsidered, and the overall pace raised for the same effort. You also need to be more more careful as a misstep at a faster speed can cause a lot more damage.

You're much better off erring on the side of caution when doing any type of speed work in the winter. If you need the speed, get indoors.

General Form. Winter is a great time to switch from power running (pushing off) to picking up your feet. Check out the ChiRunning post for more details on this.

Weather

Snowing. There's nothing more beautiful than a run while watching heavy flakes fall to the ground. As long as you remain visible to traffic this should be the ideal run.

Freezing Rain. Nasty stuff, and much more chilling than running in the snow. If you have to go out in this, make sure you have a waterproof coat on and ideally loop close to home multiple times. The chills come on more quickly when you're soaked. You also need to pay particular attention to where you're running since cars may find themselves unable to stop at crosswalk, or anywhere really.

Sun. Remember sunglasses as the reflection off of the snow can be wicked. And just because it's cold, doesn't mean you can't get sunburned.

Safety Concerns

Before you head out the door, do a quick weather check.  Is it snowing or raining? What's the windchill? Is it dreary and dark?

Most people do this before they go out during any season, but neglecting this step during the winter season can spell disaster. Take a few extra minutes to make sure you're safe during your winter travels and you will enjoy yourself more.

Beating the darkness/ Being Seen. More so than any other season, it's imperative that you wear reflective gear to make yourself visible to pedestrians and motorists. Both experience decreased visibility and decreased maneuverability meaning when they finally do see you, they can't avoid you.

I'd rather look silly than look dead.

Headphones are an especially bad idea in the winter since a car that would normally avoid you may be simply not capable. Leave anything that full your senses at home, except of course if you're on the trails.

Falling. Accidents happen. Accidents will happen to you. When they happen in poor weather the negatives can be compounded. I take a minimalist approach to running -- the less things to carry the better.

In the winter though safety takes a front seat. If you're able, bringing a cell phone is a huge peace of mind. At bare minimum let someone know where you're going and when you'll be back.

If anything happens, injury-wise or otherwise, want to be able to get in touch with someone -- even if it's the police as a last resort.

Windchill/WindBurn. If the winds are a whipping, you're going to take a licking, unless you'e covered yourself up well. Usually it's enough to poke your head out the door, or look up the windchill on the internet.

Overdressing. This is a bit of a personal preference, since each person will find a different natural comfort zone, but the temperature can feel 10-20 degrees warmer once you've warmed up.

If you head out the door feeling warm, you're going to be hot after your first mile. If you're hot, you're going to be sweating a lot more. The last thing you want during the winter is excess sweat.

Spend some time finding the right type of clothes for the weather, and more importantly, the right feeling in your body as you head out the door.For me the feeling is, "I'm slightly cold, I better start running and warm up".

Just because it's cold out doesn't mean you should neglect hydration. If you're going for a longer run, ensure you bring adequate hydration.

To ensure your drink doesn't freeze before you need it by warming it (or using hot tap water) before you head out the door. It's cruel to be thirsty only to find our your drink is frozen solid!

Conclusion

Winter running is all about trial and error. Make your trial and errors in the least painful ways possible by staying within your boundaries and slowly exploring further as you gain knowledge and experience.

Hopefully this post will give you some jumping off points.

I'd love to hear what you  have to say. What works best for you? How do you navigate the winter doldrums?