Running in winter conditions.


Running in winter conditions


There’s no doubt that winter conditions can make for some of the most memorable running. The same familiar landscapes are transformed into a completely new, and often beautiful, world under a layer of the white stuff. A standard training run suddenly becomes an adventure. If you have enough respect for the conditions there’s no reason not to embrace winter running. Read on to find out what the risks are and what you can do to keep injuries at bay during the coldest months.

What exactly is it about winter conditions that make us vulnerable to niggles? We asked Sheffield-based orienteer Cat Taylor, who has several years of training through long Scandinavian winters under her belt.

“Even for top orienteers, who regularly race on wild, untracked terrain, winter is a nightmare!” says Cat. “First there’s the ice. It’s much more difficult to run with a normal, relaxed style when there’s a constant risk of slipping on icy or frosty ground.” Even if you stay on your feet, your whole body has to work harder to provide extra control and stability and a hard frost can also be problematic if you usually run on softer ground to reduce impact - now your usual off-road run isn’t just uneven but also as hard as tarmac.

What about snow? “It varies, depending on the type of snow. Deep powder snow over an even surface can be great for high resistance and low impact running, particularly if you’re used to running off-road, but remember that the movement is quite different to normal running.” Deep snow means pushing off harder with a higher knee lift and this works the hips, pelvis and lower back more. On the other hand, old or slushy, melting snow can be downright unpleasant. “Slushy or icy snow is terrible for running! I’ve been on a lot of training camps over the years just to avoid it. It’s not much fun and the load it puts on your lower legs and feet can cause problems.”

Quite possibly, though, the toughest part of winter running is that these conditions are constantly changing with little chance to adapt. Here in the UK, at least at lower altitudes where most people live and do their running, temperatures are rarely below freezing for longer periods and underfoot conditions can change from hour to hour. For one run there’s powder snow, for the next slippery slush and the next morning there’s a hard frost and patches of ice and re-frozen snow. That’s three different types of increased load. It’s no surprise that each year the clinic sees a whole host of foot, lower leg, hip and back injuries related to the Great British winter.

Given these risks, what can you do to avoid becoming one of our statistics?

Start by thinking about your footwear.

If there’s a chance you’ll be running for longer periods on snow and ice, the best solution is a pair of shoes with short metal “dob” spikes designed especially for winter conditions. For example, Icebug specialise in winter running shoes and Inov-8 models Arctic Talon and ORoc are also good options. Another solution is to attach ice grips to your running shoes. These are much less expensive than a new pair of shoes, but can cause problems with loading different points in the foot where the metal is. So shoes are probably a good investment if you’ll spend a lot of time on snow. Watch out, though, if you’re keeping to the roads. The extra impact force of metal on tarmac can do more harm than good. If you’re in town, you’re much better off wearing normal trainers and avoiding the ice. If you can, find a park or run on the grass at the side of roads and paths rather than on the tarmac.

Plan your running sensibly.

This one sounds a lot like plain old common sense but it’s easy to underestimate the demands of winter running, particularly if you’re already working to a demanding training programme, if you’re new to running or are trying to increase your training load ahead of a target race in the spring. It’s worth being cautious and planning your training in a way that makes allowances for the conditions:

  • Leave extra recovery time between runs or sessions, particularly if you are feeling sore or tight from a previous run

  • Stretch and foam roller tight calves, feet, hips and back

  • If speed is important, consider doing harder runs on a treadmill or indoor track (note that this is also a change of surface! Suddenly alternating hard intervals on a track and soft snow running could be particularly risky)

  • What cross-training options are available? Try biking on a turbo trainer, a spinning class, swimming or aqua-jogging

While you’re out running, remember:

  • Keep your stride shorter to avoid slipping

  • On icy ground you might be tempted to shift your centre of gravity further back (to avoid falling forward) but the best place to plant your foot to stay upright is directly below your body!