How to Crush Winter Training — Pt. 1
Running in weather from freezing rain to -25° Celsius and colder
There are a lot of good reasons to keep running outside during the winter. It’s hard to commit to treadmill runs, especially longer workouts. A treadmill run requires the logistics of, usually, going to the gym and working this into a normal day. Simply not running sucks, and cross-training can be boring, because, well, it’s not running.
It’s also pretty badass to be a full time runner in the Canadian winter
That said, the prospect of daily runs outside in the incredibly varying temperature, climate, and terrain can be daunting. In Vancouver, you could be facing a cold or freezing rain and hard-packed ice on the urban trails. In Edmonton’s river valley, a deep, dry cold and ice particles borne upon wind assail outdoor winter runners. Montreal has the combined challenge of frigidity, tons of snow, and hills.
Physiologically, running in snow can be arduous. It saps energy, literally, as one loses kinetic energy with every push-off, dissipating it uselessly in sliding snow and shortening every stride. Staying upright requires more vigilance and micro-muscling, and therefore more calories as your brain fires more neurons to keep you balanced and upright. However, this is great for building strength. And who wouldn’t rather be outdoors?
Let’s explore the various approaches and strategies to gear and logistics.
All temperatures and weather references are as neutrally phrased as possible. The impulse to scoff at certain temperatures or weather combinations is common in Canada. This article is intended to encourage and help those who feel intimidated in any or even just some types of winter weather.
General winter run gear that works well in every temperature:
- Thin Merino toque
- Buff or similar type of versatile neck/ear/head warmer/neck gaitor/tube
- Wind proof mittensand base layer gloves
- Many, many pairs of wool running socks
- Anti-fog polarized sunglasses for sunny bright snowy conditions
- Low or long brimmed hat(s) to keep snow and wind away from the eyes
- Lightweight waterproof shell
- Versatile waist pack or light vest or fast pack
- Some swear by shoe gaiters
- Waterproof shoes
- Reflective gear — vest, band, lights and a headlamp
The cliche that “you get what you pay for” is very, very, very true when it comes to winter gear. A brand like Salomon is a good example of this adage (we don’t represent them in any way). Salomon tests its product in extreme conditions (long distance, mountain weather, endurance athletes). If the conditions you’re facing as a runner are extreme (drenching, cold precipitation, for example, or a Prairie long run beneath an Arctic high pressure system), you need to spend money on the best product you can afford.
Caveat: this article has links to products. Those were not elicited. These are products that are high quality and dependable through personal attestation or reputation.
1. Mild/Moderate and Wet (4° Celsius to Zero, rain/freezing rain/sleet)
This is arguably the worst weather to run in. For this weather you need to have very warm clothing or absolutely waterproof and windproof clothing.
If there is no precipitation you can run in two simple layers, like a base layer and a technical t-shirt, but this temperature and precipitation go hand in hand. The West Coast, Great Lakes and Maritimes commonly experience this weather. Expect to pay at least $200 for a waterproof shell.
Waterproofness is a thing, but so is wool. Merino is by far the best for activity outdoors, and it is best to start with base layers (socks, core, toque and gloves — best to get actual running tights in Merino at this temperature) in terms of value and quality. It tends to stay wet compared to synthetics but it kills it for warmth. Icebreaker and Smartwool are two leading brands for merino base layers. You may be allergic, so if that’s the case, it’s silk or synthetics for you.
Wool socks are crucial, unless you swear by Gore-Tex or other brands of waterproof shoes. Unfortunately, puddles and streams exist and at this temperature, they usually don’t freeze. Also, water and mud spatters up onto the legs and seeps down into tights, socks and shoes. The easiest solution for this is thick wool socks, and save money on below-the-knee waterproofness.
This combination of wet and moderate cold is the worst for the quads and nether regions. Consider synthetic running/activewear undies beneath tights if you’re running anything more than 10kms, or more winter specific tights.
2. Moderately Cold and Snow (Zero to -10° Celsius, snow — falling or packed)
This is arguably the best winter weather combination to run in. It’s surprisingly easy to dress for weather like this.
I’ve seen an astonishing variety and spectrum of clothing and equipment on the trails in this weather: people wearing vests, carrying poles, with gaiters, spikes and trail shoes for an afternoon 10k. I’m not mocking anything — it’s really important to ensure you have with you whatever makes you able to set any anxiety aside to have fun and accomplish your goal that day! However, you can simplify things on an urban trail, a closed loop, a favourite or well-known route, or some other variation of an easy trail run.
It’s nice to have a nylon shell or vest of some kind, although it doesn’t have to be completely waterproof. If it’s snowing, the flakes usually don’t settle — they do on the very common half-zip long sleeve made by every brand imaginable that seems to be a staple of cold-weather runners.
That said, the most common problem is how to layer — not when you need to layer — but how. When the temperature gets closer to zero, a base layer underneath a shell is often enough. Colder than -3 to -4 degrees Celsius…and you might want two layers, although this will vary from individual to individual. Always prepare for the worse.
Don’t be afraid to layer technical clothes if they’re thin, especially layering base layers. A base layer t-shirt over a base layer long-sleeve is surprisingly versatile and warm.
If it’s snowing and colder, I highly recommend a thin Merino toque with a Buff pulled up over the ears, and a low or long brimmed technical cap on top of that and pulled low.
3. Very Cold and Icy (Beyond -10° and generally clear/cold)
Prairie running: “ice” to meet you. Terrible puns aside, a big chunk of Canada is flat and in the middle of it. This inland chunk of a continent can get really cold, dry and icy.
The key to these runs is layering. You’ve probably read this before. It’s important to experiment in the coldest weather so that you are not a) too cold or b) …you guessed it, too hot.
Most runners in extremely cold weather supplement their gear with layers that the greater proportion of Canadian trail runners don’t need: the ubiquitous “puffy” jacket or vest, a thick toque and separate ear warmers, ski gloves or mitts, and wool or felt-lined tights or pants with a windproof layer, or layered bottoms (base layer plus windproof shell). You may need winter running shoes with spikes or microspike attachments if the snowpack gets icy — or even just a winter shoe with optimal grip.
First, based on the weather and geography of your location, choose a cut-off temperature to run within. This will make the choice to run outside far easier than having to assess every possible day outside. It will be easier to shop for clothing for a specific temperature range.
What’s a medium distance run for you? Let’s say it’s 8kms (5 miles). Plot an out and back route from home so you can cut it short if you make a bad decision. If you think you have the appropriate clothing for the absolutely coldest weather you’d consider running in, wear that, and see what happens. Then you can modify and scale back as the temperature moderates and strike out and hit up your favourite trails with confidence.
Winter Mountain Running
Most mountain trail runners switch to a form of skiing in the winter — backcountry, ski-mountaineering, nordic skiing, cross-country skiing — so many variants and terms. This article is not intended to address those sports or their requirements.
Trail runners who run through the winter tend to be west coasters in moderate climates, like the Pacific North West and the BC Coast. That’s because at least the lower sections of trails tend to stay clear of snow and it’s easy to stitch together longer, lateral runs along the bases of mountains. The requirements for this sort of weather tend to stick to the issues encountered in category one of this article. However, when you pair trails and mountains and radical shifts in weather, you encounter a host of new variables, such as necessities for specialty gear and logistics, as well as safety and rescue equipment, which all depend also on the accessibility of the area you are running.
- Whistle/mirror/Satellite phone
- Avalanche training/beacon/pole/shovel
- Vest with water
- Emergency nutrition (enough to get you through a search and recovery mission)
- First aid kit
- Space blanket
This is not a comprehensive list. Gear needs can shift drastically depending on terrain and weather. It’s not recommended to start running mountain trails in winter unless you are with experienced mountain runners — and they do a gear check for you.
If you need a solid reason or motivation to keep running all winter, and if you don’t have to travel far to work, consider run-commuting through the winter. All you need is a fastpack for clothes or essentials, and a change room or shower. If you don’t want the hassle of showering before work, run-commute home. I run-commute short in the morning (4–6kms) and whatever I feel like home, because I can easily add loops, extensions or doubles to my route. That way I can towel off after my morning run without grossing anyone out.
The one thing I love most about run-commuting through the winter is that it compels me to stay honest and to commit to every combination of weather and topography in my neck of the Canadian woods. There’s no down time or off-season. And, with no car, car insurance, expensive gas, or even a transit pass, I save a lot of money. If I need the occasional break I’ll ride my bicycle.
Keep wet wipes and deodorant stashed at work. I am not smelly (I swear!) but it helps. Of course, you might have a shower at work — I in fact do too, but I find this is rarely necessary for the short hop in I prefer.
Visibility is crucial once the clock jumps forward. Lights and reflective gear are a no brainer, but you may want to consider ensuring you can see as well — while a headlamp can be overkill with all the ambient light in an urban setting, clear glasses keep cold air, wind, snow and ice out of your eyes. There are so many glasses and lenses on the market you’ll have to do your diligence (Bolle and Smith both have glasses with interchangeable lenses in the $200 range), but you can also get a pair of safety glasses at Home Hardware.
What kind of winter training do you do?
Comment below with your thoughts, questions, advice, or anecdotes.