Sustaining a running regimen in the winter.
By Sarah Lavender Smith
There came a day in January of 2020 when I wondered if perhaps I had taken this winter running thing too far. My eyelashes froze into icy triangles, and my lips numbed as they touched the frigid crust of fabric wrapped around my neck. Hoary frost settled like old-man whiskers on my cheeks. My chilled fingers could barely grasp the jacket zipper.
A progressively fierce snowstorm had blown in while I ran laps on Alta Lakes Road, and my eyes strained to follow snowmobile tracks through swirling snowflakes. I slowly jogged and took hiking breaks through ankle-deep powder on the steep three miles up, then ran fast on the three miles back down, four times.
Under my layers, the working muscles and organs in my legs and chest generated heat like a furnace that kept my core and lower body warm enough to run fluidly. After doggedly working my way up to the base of Alta Lakes, around 11,000 feet elevation, I flew back down the road, grateful the metal spikes on my shoes prevented slipping on ice. I felt giddy with a runner’s high on this stretch through the forest, which I had all to myself.
I had signed up for a fixed-timed ultramarathon in Utah, on a snowy mountain with a 3000-foot climb (the person who summits the most times in a twelve-hour period wins), so I needed to log long training runs like this twenty-four miler in the dead of winter.
My husband and other reasonable people our age (50-something) would be skiing on the other side of this mountain, perhaps waiting out the storm at Alpino Vino. Other friends would be skate-skiing loops on the Nordic tracks of the Valley Floor or breaking a sweat indoors at the gym.
I tried to be agreeable and embrace winter sports when we moved to Telluride year-round in 2019. I had been a part-time resident here my whole life, but I only knew the region during summer and fall. As a Californian, I wasn’t sure how to handle winter. I assumed I had to take a break from running and hiking during the months when snow covered my favorite trails.
So I invested in downhill skis, Nordic skis, and lightweight snowshoes for snowshoe racing. I tried them all, with mixed success and a “meh” reaction.
I am a runner, and I coach other runners for a living. I am addicted to the sound and rhythm of my breath and footsteps during a run, and to the burn of energy as my legs gallop over the ground. So I decided not to let some snow interrupt my running routine. I would adapt.
I trained well enough that winter to win the twelve-hour ultra on that snow-covered Utah mountain, and during the following winter of 2020, I ran enough to race and earn a podium finish at a 100-mile ultra in Arizona in January. I also formed a winter running group to coach several local women to prepare for a trail race in Moab last March.
Though we avoided white-out conditions, our training group ran even when it snowed so heavily that visibility diminished to a gray fog and thick powder coated the plowed road. “I’ve never done anything like this!” one of the women shrieked and laughed as we ran out and back on Fall Creek Road all the way to Woods Lake during a stormy eighteen-mile training run last winter. Back at our cars, our bodies steamed with heat and we were beaming.
Many runners I know act as if they’re allergic to snow, believing they’re restricted to a treadmill during snowy months. To free them, and you, from the “dreadmill,” let me share some winter-running advice.
The truth is, you do have to tell your favorite trails, “Goodbye, see you in late May” when several feet of snow blanket the region. Trail running is virtually impossible when deep snow reduces your steps to post-holing, and it’s risky due to avalanche danger and the difficulty of navigation.
But, you can log high-quality runs on hard-packed snow on numerous plowed dirt roads around the region. My favorite roads to run in snowy or icy conditions include: Last Dollar, Mill Creek, Ilium, Sunshine Mesa, Ophir (between the highway and town, not the mountain pass), Silver Pick, and Fall Creek. For an extra-long run, I sometimes head to Ridgway and run county roads 23 and 17 out and back to Ouray, extending the route on Camp Bird Road for additional mileage.
These runs on quiet, mildly hilly county roads are almost as satisfying as rugged summertime mountain routes—if you prepare properly. To stay safe and relatively comfortable, follow these tips:
Get traction. Slipping on ice is one of winter running’s biggest risks. Investing in a device that straps onto your shoes is an easy, effective way to prevent slipping. My favorite is Kahtoola’s EXOspikes, because they’re lightweight and their spikes are minimal enough that you can run with them on melted-out snow-free patches. Yaktrax also specializes in traction devices, and their Run model is designed for running on hard-packed snow.
Dress in layers. Remember, if you’re comfortable when you start your run, you’ll feel too hot in about a mile, so don’t over-dress. I recommend running tights (not as thick as leggings used for Nordic skiing; those tend to get too warm for running), a long-sleeve wool base layer, and a medium-weight jacket with vents. If it’s extra cold, add a fleece pullover under your jacket, which you can tie around your waist if you get too warm. Wear a beanie on your head and a buff or other type of layer around your neck that you can pull up to warm your cheeks and lips. Choose socks that go past your ankles, so snow doesn’t get into your sock. You don’t need to layer socks (this might cause blisters from shoe tightness); surprisingly, feet tend to stay warm while snow running. Hands, however, easily go numb. Wear thick gloves and bring hand warmers to put in them. Ski goggles work well in lieu of sunglasses for stormy, low-light conditions and for added warmth on your face.
Don’t neglect hydration. It’s easy to think you won’t get thirsty when it’s cold outside. Wrong. You will be breathing hard and sweating under your layers, in extra-dry cold air, so you need to replace fluids as you run. Avoid using a reservoir in a hydration pack during winter runs, because liquid in the long tube can freeze. Instead, carry soft-flask bottles in a pack and fill them with hot water, so the water will be warm when you drink.
Keep the intensity of effort relatively low. Breathing hard in very cold, dry air can lead to exercise-induced bronchospasm, similar to regular asthma, in which the dried-out airways of your lungs trigger an inflammatory response, causing the airways to narrow and produce mucus. This in turn can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. In short, wintertime conditions can be hard on your respiratory system. To moderate the risk, run at a slow, easy pace that allows you to breathe deeply and to talk in full sentences. If you want to do high-intensity speed intervals that elevate your breathing to the point where your ability to talk is limited to a short phrase, then head inside for a treadmill workout.
Get inside soon after you finish running. You’re at greater risk of catching a dangerous chill when you finish your run if you stay outside in the freezing temps. Your body temperature will drop rapidly, and the damp, sweaty layer close to your skin will suddenly feel cold. Get inside to warm up and change into dry clothes. Take a steamy shower immediately following a run to soothe your overworked lungs.
Beware of the “umbles”: The mumbles (slow, slurred speech), stumbles (stiffness and loss of muscle control), grumbles (unusual grumpiness or change in behavior), and fumbles (loss of dexterity) are warning signs of hypothermia. If you notice you or your running partner acting “umbly,” it’s time to get back to your car and turn the heater on or go inside ASAP.
Don’t go to extremes. Personally, I can handle running in temperatures as low as about ten degrees. When the temps dip to the single digits, then exercising outside for a prolonged period feels risky and unpleasant, so I find a treadmill to get my run done. Or I wait until midday when the sun is overhead, and temperatures climb to the teens.
We all have different levels of adapting to and tolerating winter conditions. If you feel truly uncomfortable running or hiking outside due to the cold and snow flurries, and you feel your extremities going numb, then go inside to warm up and workout. But if it’s a sunny fifteen degrees and you’re itching to run rather than ski, then strap on spikes, layer up, and go for it.
Sarah Lavender Smith is the author of The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras. She publishes a newsletter called “Colorado Mountain Running & Living” at sarahrunning.substack.com.