Safety Tips for Trail Running in Winter

When the cold weather comes and the snow starts to fly, many of us retire the trail running shoes until late spring. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are a few suggestions that will allow you to continue to run with comfort and safety through the winter months, so you can enjoy yourself and stay in shape.

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Lighting

An important consideration in the winter is the lack of light available to run in. The days are obviously shorter (around 9 hours of daylight in the Northeast). This means morning and late afternoon runs are certainly in the dark. In addition to this, the sun is also lower in the sky making it quite dark in the woods even in the middle of the day. For these reasons you want to make sure that you have a headlamp available for all of your runs. Since the cold can affect the power of your light, an extra set of batteries or even a spare lamp is a good idea as well,

The Petzl Swift RL is a great choice because it will automatically adjust the light based on the level of darkness present. This saves you from the aggravation of removing gloves and fumbling with buttons or switches as conditions change.

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Appropriate Footwear

In the winter it is extremely important to consider the type of footwear you will use based upon your chosen activity and environment. You need to make sure that whatever your choices are, they will keep your feet adequately warm in the cold and provide enough traction to negotiate snow and ice on the trail. This does not mean that you have to put on big, insulated winter boots to hit the winter trails. Nobody wants to run in those. There are other things you can do keep your feet and toes warm enough.

The first is to wear a good pair of wool socks. Wool has the wonderful ability to keep its insulating properties even when wet. If your feet sweat or if you get snow in your shoe, the wool will continue to provide a level of warmth. If it is particularly cold, I choose to wear a good pair of ski socks like the SmartWool PHD Ski Light Elite or Slopestyle Medium socks. Because they are knee high, they help to keep your legs warm as well as your feet.

If you have feet that are sensitive to the cold, another thing you can do to keep your feet warm is to use foot or toe warmers. The Yaktrax brand have chemicals that are air activated and can stay at 105 degrees for up to five hours.

As for the best footwear choices, I recommend finding a trail running shoe that uses a Gore-tex lining. While they are not insulated for warmth like a winter boot, they do make the shoe waterproof and insulated from the wind. A couple of great examples are the Salomon Sense Ride GTX (men’s/women’s) or the North Face Ultra 109 GTX.

Traction is the second important factor when considering winter footwear. Falls are considerable hazard in trail running, especially in the winter when you add in snow and ice. Modern trail running shoes do a great job of providing traction for most cases. They have deep lugs and grippy material on the soles. But much like a good tire on black ice, there are some conditions where they are just not enough.

Kahtoola NANOspikes are a great choice if you are going to be running over trails with periodic ice or packed snow. They use carbide spikes that are narrow enough so that they can go over dry pavement, but deep enough to bite into ice and snow. Kahtoola MICROspikes, on the other hand, are the choice for trails that are completely frozen with snow and ice. They use deeper stainless-steel spikes that really dig in.

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Hydration

The winter can make staying hydrated a challenge. When you’re in the cold you have a tendency not to feel thirsty even when you need water. If you are not careful, your water may start to freeze and make it impossible to drink it from your container of choice.

Using a hydration pack and bladder is a good way to go in the winter for a couple of reasons. The first is that the water is generally close to your back so your body temp can help prevent it from freezing. You just want to make sure that you blow back the water into the bladder after each time you drink so the water does not freeze in the tubes. Insulated bladders are available, like the Camelbak Stoaway, that protect the water from freezing. If you already have a bladder, you can get insulated tubing to switch in to it.

If you decide to go with water bottles, there are some important considerations to make. While it might be tempting to use insulated metal bottles, they are not a great choice because they are extremely heavy for running and their caps may freeze. It is probably best to use a 32-ounce Wide-Mouth Nalgene. Make sure you use a large mouth bottle because the small mouth increases the risk of freezing. Fill the bottle with heated water. Consider adding electrolyte tablets like those made by Nuun. The salts decrease the freezing point and the flavor makes warm water more palatable. Put the bottle in an insulating container or if you don’t have one, into a thick wool sock. Then keep the bottle as close to your body as possible.

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Clothing

Layers art critical for any winter activity. You always want to check the weather first and look at the real feel temp to factor in wind. Then pick clothes for 10 to 20 degrees warmer than that temperature. During exertion, your body will generate heat and over-dressing can be dangerous because you will sweat too much.

The base layer should be a long sleeve shirt that is highly breathable and wicking. Either wool or synthetic is fine, just stay away from cotton or blends. A couple of good choices would be the Smartwool NTS Mid 250 or the EMS Techwick Midweight Top. Whatever your choice, you want to make sure that you tuck this shirt in.

For the middle layer, you want something that provides good warmth but is lightweight. There are many great choices like running jackets, down puffies, or synthetic hoodies. I prefer to run with a hoodie made from the Power Stretch Fabric made by Polartec. It is very breathable, it wicks moisture, allows for easy movement, and is warm. The EMS Equinox Hoodie is a great example.

In snow, sleet, or rain you need to combine these layers with a shell of some kind. If it is particularly cold, nearly any kind of lightweight shell will do because the cold snow sheds easily. If it is a little warmer and there is wet snow or mixed precipitation you should go with a fully waterproof but breathable rain shell with a hood so that you remain reasonably dry.

When it is under 30 degrees, you definitely want to wear full length running tights that have some wind protection. The EMS Northshield Pant is an example of one. If it is getting down below 20 you need to start thinking of using a fleece lined tight or perhaps doubling up by using tights under a running pant.

Needless to say, in winter weather you need to be wearing a hat and gloves. When you choose a winter hat the most important consideration is to be sure that it wicks moisture. If it just soaks up the sweat it is not going to be much of a help. So once again, you want to be thinking of synthetics or wool. When it gets below 20 degrees you should probably double up with a hood.

Thin running gloves or glove liners are usually adequate at 30 degrees or above. If it gets much below that or is windy you need to start considering heavier gloves. I have found that mittens work better for me when running in cold temperatures because they trap the heat generated by the hands during exercise. I like the Karrimore Peak Mitten because it they are very lightweight, and packable, but extremely warm.

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Getting "In The Flow" of Trail Running

Road running requires conditioning and form. Trail running requires these, too, but it additionally requires skill and coordination in order to negotiate obstructions. In this way it is like skiing or mountain biking: When everything is going flawlessly, it is known as being “in the flow.” In trail running you are “in the flow” when you are taking all the right steps, dodging each obstacle perfectly, and seeing everything you need to see. This is the state with which we as trail runners seek to be in. Here are some techniques that those new to trail running can use to help them get “in the flow.”

Vision

The first technique has to do with your eyes. When you start running on the trails the natural tendency is to look down at your feet for roots and rocks that might trip you. This is especially the case if you already have tripped (everybody trips in trail running). The problem with this is that this gives you little time to react. Things go much more smoothly if you are able to keep your vision 6 to 8 feet ahead of you. This allows you to see and anticipate obstacles and use your peripheral vision to avoid them.

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Shorter Steps

One of the most common mistakes that runners make is over-striding. On the road, this leads to inefficiency. On the trail it can lead to injury. When you take long strides on the trail you dramatically increase the likelihood that you will trip on an obstruction. In order to avoid this, trail runners need to take much shorter strides. It seems like this should be a simple adjustment—just take your current running stride and shorten it. In practicality this is harder than it seems.

A way to determine the optimum stride length for the trail is to do a good quick jog—in place. When we run in one spot we tend to have a good natural cadence with our legs underneath like they should be. After the minute is up, try to duplicate that cadence while running forward. You should notice that your strides are shorter.

Toes Up

In addition to shorter strides it is important to keep your toes up when you step. I wouldn’t even attempt to get into the debate about which is better—heel striking or mid foot striking—that’s for running gurus. But I will say that in trail running—where there is an endless supply of tangled roots, downed tree branches, and gnarly rocks—it is a good idea to stride with your toes up to prevent them from getting under any of those obstacles and sending you head over heels.

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Elbows Out

Another technique that will help you, is to swing your elbows out wide. This movement can help you keep your balance much like a surfer might use to stay on his board. It can be especially helpful on downhill sections and combined with fast feet and shortened strides.

Walking and Power Hiking

When I run on the road I never stop to walk. I am out there to run and anything less seems like a failure. I know it is silly but I also know that I am not the only one who feels that way. One of the great things about trail running is that it knocks that “run at all costs” attitude right out of you. There are sections of trail that are just impossible to run—hills that are too steep, wet rock scrambles that are dangerous, or downhill sections with loose footing.

Even the best trail runners in the world find that in these conditions running is no longer efficient and that is better to hike. When hiking an uphill section that is steep, you want to make sure that you lean forward to keep your weight under your feet. You can even put your hands just above your knees on your quad muscles. This will keep you forward and you can even push on them to get leverage. This is known as power hiking.

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Trekking Poles

When trails are particularly difficult you might consider using trekking poles. These might seem like something that would be used for strictly hiking, but many trail runners—including professionals—have been using them more and more in recent years. Poles help you to generate force by using your arms as well as your legs and can take some pressure off of your knees. They are best used on climbs or descents since running is much more efficient on flat sections. If you decide to use poles for only part of the time you will need to make sure that you have a running vest or pack that allows for stowing collapsed poles for when you are running. You will also want to make sure that the poles you use collapse small enough so that they are easily stored or secured.

There are three main techniques when using poles. Diagonal poling is when you step with one leg, and plant the pole with the OPPOSITE arm. It is the most natural technique since it mimics natural walking or running. This can be very effective because it helps you develop a rhythm. It is best use when things are starting to get difficult but you can still go at a good clip or when going down.

Another technique is called off-set poling. This is when you step with one leg and then plant the pole of the SAME arm. With this technique you only stick the pole on every other stride. This method is great for when uphill portions start to get really difficult.

The last way to use poles is called double poling. This is best used on really steep hills and can be used both up and down. This move is comparable to cross-country skiing where you plant both poles out ahead of you, then pull yourself through. This move can take a little practice to get used to and is best done with one pole coming down ever so slightly before the next.