Monday morning, I ran before dawn. The world was quiet. It was quite dark when I got to the nearby paved trail, but I turned off my hand-held flashlight and enjoyed the darkness. My sense of hearing and even smell sharpened. A stream appeared, ghostly white against the dark trees. By the time I returned home, the sun was rising and I was ready for some hot breakfast.

Then today, it snowed. About an inch on the deck outside when I first got up. My morning walk was messy with slush and hesitant drivers. When I ran at midday, the snow had stopped falling, but the mud, cold wind, and roadways clogged with slush reminded me that winter running is special. Sometimes uncomfortable, or even dangerous. Sometimes magical.

You need a strategy to run successfully in winter.

Here are some tips I’ve learned during years of running in the cold months.

Colored leaves in ice
Frozen leaves, Minnesota

Dress right—for you.

Layers are key to staying warm in cold and wind. For runs 40 F to 32 F, (4 to 0 C), I wear a t-shirt and a long-sleeved zip up with a collar and tights. A headband completes the look. For runs below freezing, I put a vest on top and make sure the tights are ankle-length, not 3/4. For runs below 0 F (-18 C) I put a jacket on instead of a vest and layer up the pants.

If you’re new to outdoor winter running, experiment. I recommend erring on the side of too warm, especially for long runs.

Over time, you’ll get to know your body’s cold spots. My hands get super cold very quickly, so I need to wear thick mittens if it’s anywhere below freezing. My legs, however, don’t get that cold, so exposed calves are not a big deal.

Carry and wear lights.

‘Tis the season to dress up like a twinkle light covered traffic cone! Long hours of darkness swallow many morning and evening runs, and you must must must be visible to autos, bikes, and even other pedestrians.

I almost learned this the hard way. Running in total darkness one morning on a small town road, I though I could just get out of the way of passing vehicles. A big maintenance truck rumbled by me, then stopped. The driver leaned out his window and with a shake in his voice, said, “I almost hit you.”

Now, my strategy for not getting creamed by a dump truck is to carry a small but powerful flashlight in my hand and to wear a ridiculous yellow reflective vest. Sometimes I wear a red flasher (a bike accessory) clipped to the waistband of my tights. I also have a headlamp, but I prefer the flashlight in my hand. Makes me feel like a Jedi knight, slicing through the dark with my light.

Wear shoes that will work in snow and ice.

You can buy Yak Trax or other devices that are essentially snow tires for your feet. However, I opt for grippy trail running shoes. They’re great for getting traction on snow and even ice. (My favorites: New Balance Minimus Trail). Watching the ground is Defense #2 against slipping. Stop to walk when things look slick.

Slippery surfaces, roadways narrowed by plowed snow, and extended hours of darkness do make looking up important, as well, which leads to the next tip…

Slow down.

Winter isn’t the time to train outdoors for PR performances. (If you’re lucky, you can find an indoor track for that.) Winter builds strength, not speed. And at times, like during my Monday morning run in the dark woods, it can be adventurous or other-worldly. I feel accomplished every time I get out and stay out for 30 minutes or more.

Snowy field, running dog
Photo by Tuula Pekkala on Unsplash

Embrace simplicity. Run with gratitude.

I love to watch dogs run in the snow. There’s even a German word for “the happiness of a dog running in snow”: Schneelaufenhundefröhlich*.

I channel some of that love when I run in winter. Maybe it’s the bracing air. Maybe it’s the privacy of early morning, or the accomplishment of outlasting the fair-weather joggers. Maybe it’s that hot coffee tastes that much better after cold. Maybe its the limits imposed when just that one three-mile loop is plowed and you have to run it over and over. Maybe it’s the occasional knock-your-gaiters-off sunset enveloped in snow.

Even when it’s freezing or the darkness is getting to me or the clouds above upstate New York refuse to stop Ithacating** in the bitter days of mid-April, there is a special zing to running outside in winter.

I hope you get out there this winter. Let me know how you’re doing!

*I made this up.

**Someone else from Ithaca, New York, made this up.

1 Comment

  1. Colin on November 26, 2020 at 9:43 am

    Thanks for sharing. These are all great reminders. And, although I’m ashamed to admit it, you got me with that German word. I thought you were being serious!

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