Follow these tips for running safely and comfortably all winter long.
If you’re one of the many Canadians who took up running during the pandemic—and want to keep it up—you’re now faced with your first winter as a runner. The prospect is daunting, I know; you may be tempted to hibernate for the season and dust off your shoes come spring. But if you decide to power through and brave the elements, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible workout and beautiful scenery. Follow these tips for winter trail running, and you will emerge this spring feeling like a superhero.
Cold weather diminishes the body’s thirst response by up to 40 per cent. Because sweat evaporates faster in cold air, you don’t notice you’re losing fluids (and need to replenish them) like you do in the heat. But just because you’re not thirsty doesn’t mean you’re hydrated.
“If you’re sweating, you’re losing water,” says Ben Nelson from the Runners Shop in Toronto. “And you’re also losing key electrolytes or micronutrients that help your body to function efficiently and properly.”
In fact, you may be more at risk for dehydration in the winter. The weight of winter gear forces your body work harder, and you lose more fluids through respiratory water loss (water vapour) in cold weather.
The key is to stay hydrated all the time—not just when you’re running. You should be able to run for 30-40 minutes without needing a drink. But hydration needs vary from person to person, so if you tend to get thirsty—or if you’re going for a long run—take water with you.
Watch the Weather
To avoid getting caught in a blizzard or freezing rain, keep an eye on the weather forecast and plan your runs around the conditions—not the clock. And since the weather can change suddenly, dress accordingly. This might take some trial and error.
“For new runners, it can be helpful to track in your log what you wore in what conditions, and how well it worked,” says Nelson. You’ll soon learn what to wear and when.
Even on the best of days, winter is cold. Take your cell phone, Nelson says, and “Always tell someone where you are going and for approximately how long.”
Warming up helps improve performance and may prevent injury. That’s especially important in the winter, when frigid temperatures make muscles and joints tighter and more injury prone. You’re also more likely to slip and fall when you’re running on frozen ground.
“Take it nice and easy,” says Nelson, “and slowly work into the run.” He suggests using the first kilometre or two to warm up, focus on your breath and check your posture. You can also add dynamic movements like high knees, lateral shuffles and lunges.
Don’t skip the cooldown, either. “Your last kilometre doesn’t necessarily have to be as slow as your first,” says Nelson—but don’t sprint all the way home. He suggests a walking shake-out for the last 500-800 metres. Or take 5-10 minutes to stretch and cool down once you’re inside.
Put Your Feet First
Whether your current runners are worn out or you want a pair for the cold weather, winter running shoes are a good investment. They’ll make winter running safer and more comfortable, and they’ll last a long time.
“You may have the same winter shoe for five winters,” says Nelson, “because you’re only using it for a few months.”
Look for trail shoes with a rugged outsole and grippy lugs to guard against falls. A waterproof version, made with a Gore-Tex membrane, will keep out the slush and snow.
And don’t skimp on socks. “The best thing you can do for yourself is get good wool socks,” says Nelson. “Wool will keep your feet warm even if they’re wet.” Wool running socks are usually blended with other materials so they’re not itchy or irritating.
Get a Grip
“If you don’t want to invest in winter-specific shoes, there are grip aides that you can add to any shoe,” Nelson adds. He recommends Korkers, ice cleats that slip over your shoes and have metal spikes to provide traction on snow and ice.
“They essentially make you ice-proof,” says Nelson.
Good ice cleats are lightweight and flexible. Nelson says that although you can tell you’re wearing them, Korkers don’t affect your running—and the security they provide far outweighs any slight difference you may feel.
“You want to be cold when you start,” says Nelson, because you’ll gain up to ten degrees once you warm up. If you sweat too much, even the best running gear will get damp—and then you’ll be cold and wet. Don’t overdress and remember to use the zippers on your gear so you’re ventilating.
“If you’re comfortable when you’re not moving, then you’re not really dressed for running,” says Nelson.
What to Wear
“Layering is your best friend,” says Nelson. For tops, he recommends three layers. The first layer should be lightweight and form-fitting to protect skin from chafing. The second layer should be medium weight, with a zipper for ventilation. The third layer is a windcheater, which “knocks the wind and water off.” Look for one with a handle or a shoulder strap so you can carry it if you get too hot. On the coldest days, swap the windcheater for a winter running jacket.
For bottoms, start with insulated undershorts like men’s Midzero Wind Boxers or women’s Midzero Bun Toasters. Throw on some winter running tights, and you’re all set. In most climates, two layers are enough—but if you’re in the far north, you may need wind-blocking pants on top.
Hands get less blood flow than the rest of the body—so invest in good running gloves and mitts. “At some point you’re either going to ditch the gloves for the mitts,” says Nelson, “or you’re going to have the gloves inside the mitts.”
Take Baby Steps
A lengthy stride makes you land on your heel, putting you in a falling position. “If you hit a piece of ice,” says Nelson, “you’re going to continue to fall backwards.”
To prevent falls, shorten your stride and keep your feet directly underneath you. That way if you slip on an icy patch, you may simply fall into the next foot strike—instead of on your backside.
Listen to your Body—Not your Device
Running on snow and ice—especially on trails—can slow you down by a minute a kilometre. But even though your pace is slower, your body is working just as hard. So instead of trying to clock the best time with your running app or your fitness watch, pay attention to your heart rate and how fatigued you feel.
“Don’t be obsessed with your GPS watch,” says Nelson. “Your perceived exertion is a better scale than your pace.”
Take it Easy
Whether you’re traversing a hill or going up and down stairs, don’t be ashamed to walk.
“You’re far better off to take your time and descend carefully so you don’t hurt yourself,” says Nelson, “than hurt yourself because you’re trying to kill it. And then you can’t run for a few weeks.”