Winter Running #2

By Rob McWilliam and Larry Duguay

So far this has been a great winter for running you just can’t beat or expect to have a winter as mild as this one every year. But even so, it’s not over yet. It’s only February and there’s lots of time for good old Mother Nature to set us up with a couple of traditional cold snaps. Regardless of whether the weather is cold, mild or normal it can be a good time to go for a run. But regardless of conditions, there are a few things that you should consider before lacing up your shoes.

Last article we wrote about how to dress for cold weather running. Keep all of that information in mind as you read this article. Most of what makes for an enjoyable winter run happens before you ever leave the warmth of your home or office.

In this article well try to help you with some advice about where to run and safety issues associated with winter running. As a general rule, the colder the conditions, the more care and attention that must be given to planning and executing a run. Do it right and you will have an excellent experience.

First, where to run in the winter? There are really only three options and they’re the same as for summer: on the roads, on the trails, or on a treadmill. For our current purposes we’re not really considering treadmill running, so that leaves the roads and trails.

The advantages to road running are generally that the footing can be better than on the trails. The snow may be cleaned off or hard-packed by frequent use. While this is an advantage, there are a number of disadvantages to winter running on the roads. These include traffic and slippery road conditions due to snow-pack or ice on the road surface, and greater exposure to wind. Slippery road conditions can translate into a significant safety issue, especially if you are running along a major thoroughfare or highway, where vehicles are travelling at high-speed under less than ideal conditions. When running around traffic it is always wise to run defensively and this is especially true during the winter. The other hazard to winter road running is wind. We all know that wind and cold means wind-chill and this is something that can seriously effect our body’s ability to stay warm and comfortable. Roads are generally less sheltered from the wind than the trails and so are more likely to present wind-chill conditions to the winter runner. Remember that exposed skin can freeze very quickly under these conditions and that’s something that you want to be careful about. If you’re going to run on the roads, try to stay off the highways and busy streets and find a much shelter as possible. Running through sub-divisions is generally both safe from a traffic perspective and fairly sheltered from wind.

Trails can also provide wonderful winter running opportunities. Personally, I prefer running the trails to the roads. Many of your favourite summer trails will be used in the winter by snowmobiles, mushers, cross-country skiers, or by some combination of those users. With the exception of cross-country skiing, these activities tend to pack down the snow and create a good winter running path. On the down-side the footing on winter trails can be iffy and there are different safety concerns associated with winter running when you’re out there somewhere away from vehicle and pedestrian traffic or a convenient (read warm) safe haven. But don’t let the down side considerations deter you from the trails. With some common sense preparation, these concerns are easily addressed and the rewards are more than worth the extra effort.

Here are a few suggestions to consider. Wherever you decide to take your winter run, you should take the time to plan the outing. Plan your route and tell someone where you’re going. Run only on trails that you know or with someone else that knows them. Plan the time of day that you run avoid running on trails during the dark, when getting confused and lost is easier with potentially more serious consequences. Plan to take along some extra gear if you’re going on a long run; you never know when one more layer, or a face mask, or a dry pair of mitts or gloves could be the difference between a good experience and frozen body parts. If you’re running longer and farther out there it’s a good idea to carry some power gels or energy bars if you run in the cold, you will start to cool down and hypothermia can become a risk. On those types of runs many experienced trail runners will carry matches or a lighter in a watertight bag or container. Waterproof is important as your perspiration can soak a match or a lighter flint making it useless for fire-starting purposes. If you’re not sure about conditions or don’t want to run too long, look for a shorter trail. Many of our sub-divisions have green belts and trails running around them. These provide excellent and safe running opportunities and are usually well enough used to ensure adequate footing. When you’re running on a snowmobile or dog-mushing trail the usual rules about running defensively take a bit of modification. For example, when meeting a dog team you should come to a complete stop to avoid confusing the team. Try to avoid running on cross-country ski tracks. The tracks are hard to set and running on them can mess them up, diminishing the enjoyment of other trail users. If you can, run with a partner. It’s a good idea to have someone with you to check for frost nip or frost bite, for morale, and generally just for company. Above all, don’t over-extend yourself, either with distance or level of effort, as stopping short or exhausting yourself on a winter run can only lead to problems. Follow these few suggestions and you will have a fun and rewarding run.