Get In The Winter Running Game

In this month’s ‘Blaze a Trail’ column, we discuss how three different trail runners in three unique running climates prepare—both mentally and physically—for winter running. If this winter will be your first or second on the trails, this article will help you think about the mindset, clothing, and gear you might need for a warm, dry, and fun winter adventure.

Powder Day in Salt Lake City, Utah
The alarm rings and wakes me with a jolt. I was dead asleep and I lay there wondering if I have the motivation to get out of bed today. Or is it tonight? If it is still dark out and it will be when I finish running too, does that mean I am getting out of bed at night? These are the thoughts that plague me as I unplug my phone from the charger and use it as a flashlight so I can creep into the bathroom to change. The clock is ticking. Thirty minutes to change, brush teeth, poop, make coffee, and get out the door. If I don’t hustle, I will have to cut my 10 miler short so I can make it to work on time. Before anything else, it’s time for a weather check. It says that it snowed overnight and that the storm has moved on, leaving the sky clear and the temperature in the frigid zone. I shiver a little thinking about how it’s going to feel while I pull on my insulated tights, base-layer tank, insulated long sleeve, and waterproof vest. I stuff my designated ‘trail bag’ with the warmer gloves and a pair of dry socks and shoes for after my run.

Coffee in hand, I step out the door and am greeted by four inches of new snow in the driveway. There will be more at the trailhead. I perk up at the thought of running through fresh champagne powder, the snow that makes Utah such a popular skiing destination. I start the car and make the 10-minute drive to the Bonneville Shoreline Trailhead. There are only a few other cars on the road and the parking lot is empty when I pull in and I see that there are eight fresh inches of snow waiting for the kid in me to explore. I open my trail bag and pull out my gear for the morning. I put on my beanie and pull my headlamp on over it. Then I wrangle my feet into my Kahtoola MICROspikes and stuff my hands into my gloves. All set.

As I step out of the car, my breath catches in my chest again. Twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit feels colder now than when I left the house. I lock the car, stow the key, take a deep breath, and start running. I should call it jogging, probably. In the cold months, I start extra slow. I even make a commitment not to look at my watch until two miles into the run. My joints and muscles seem to need me to be patient as I allow the blood to get moving through my legs and I settle into the pace of the morning. Just like that, my watch tells me I have run two miles and I feel the switch flip over, ready to roll. I quicken the pace a little, the spikes I am wearing give me the traction I need to keep the legs moving, and I settle into my 10k effort for the next three miles. I have two sections of tempo this morning, made more challenging by the snow. I don’t mind the challenge, though. I know to be flexible with my pace—this run has to be about finding the right effort rather than a specific speed with this new snow—and enjoy the extra entertainment that is provided by the surface of the trail.

After about 90 minutes of running I am back at my car. I change into my dry socks and shoes and crank the heat to combat the wet, sweaty clothes I am wearing in this cold weather. Staying warm isn’t a problem while I am running and producing excess body heat. After I stop, it is a different story and my clothes, wet from sweat and melting snow clumps, drain me of all my excess energy. I scurry out of the car and into the hot shower that has been calling my name for the last 15 minutes. Work is usual. After work is usual. Then I lay my head down on my pillow, exhausted by the day, and set my alarm to do it all again tomorrow. 5:30 a.m. comes early, each and every time. The run that follows fuels my life, it gives me the passion I need to make it through the rest of the day. Worth it.

Wet and Muddy in Seattle, Washington
Looking around at my life, it is a fury of motion. Breakfast is on the table, check. Everyone is actually eating their food, check. Alarm is set for the kids to catch the bus, check. Grab the dog, check, and the leash, check. Keys in hand, check. Wave goodbye and, Hallelujah, I am out the door! A husband, two kids, and a dog are the story of my life. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of them. Let me let you in on a little secret, I love me too! I have been doing marathons for a few years now and I love the time I get to spend on my own. So when my friend told me she had just signed up for her first 50k, I did a quick calculation to determine it was longer than a marathon and then told her to sign me up! A little extra alone time never hurt a mom, right?

The run over to Discovery Park is about 1.5 miles, which means I am going to enjoy an entire hour running the trails in the park. Admittedly, I don’t actually know much about training for a 50k. Here are a few things I do know. I know that it is on trails so I train on dirt. I make it up to Cougar Mountain on the weekends so I can practice going uphill and downhill but during the week, Discovery Park has to be good enough. I already commute to work, I don’t have time to commute to my trailhead every day too! I know a 50k is longer than a marathon so I get to spend some extra time running. When I realized I had no idea how much more I would need to run, I downloaded a training program off of the internet, “Sixteen weeks to your first 50k!” I know that training for a spring race through these months when the rain has settled in is a new challenge all in itself. I am used to training for a fall marathon in part so I get to train in the best part of the year in Seattle. Training for a spring 50k is different. The temperatures are not that different but it is wet and the dirt is mud practically every day. We just don’t ever dry out here, you know?

Anyway, this is what I learned in my first few weeks of training. First, layers, layers, layers! It is easy to get too wet here. If you aren’t getting wet from the rain, you are getting wet from sweating through your layers. I like lots of light, thin layers. A thin tank under a lightweight long sleeve is perfect for me. I also got this cool jacket that is lighter than a feather and packs into its own pocket so I can take that with me if it is raining, not misting or drizzling. Second, everything is slick in the winter months. I end up with mud on my shoes every time I go out. I spray them off with the hose when I get home but I got sick and tired of putting wet shoes on every time I run so now I have two pairs. One dries out while I am getting the other one muddy and wet. Rotating them has saved my feet from rot, I swear it.

Last, I learned that winter is the best time to run here. Listen, I’ve lived here all my life so I am biased but it is the prettiest place on the planet. We have unparalleled natural beauty even in the middle of a major metropolitan area and some famous trail runners even train around here! If I had to choose my favorite part, it would be that the crowds die down in the winter. I have done my training runs in Discovery Park since I started running eight years ago and the mornings and evenings can get crowded and busy. In the winter, the people fade indoors and the only people who are out here are the most dedicated athletes. It feels pretty great to be one of them. I kinda’ like this trail running thing. I might even sign up for a 50 miler next!

An Icy-Cold Morning in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Wake up. Wake UP. WAKE UP! The alarm reads 4:30 a.m. and I just got the baby back to bed about 45 minutes ago so needless to say, I am tired. But I’m a runner, not just a runner, a trail runner, in Michigan, the toughest of the breed, so, wake up! The wind is scheduled to kick up today. Running in the dark and cold will feel warmer than running in the light when the wind-chill factor drops the temperature and cuts to the bone. If I can just peel my eyes open to roll out of bed, WAKE UP! There is extra impetus to get out the door: my wife is staying home with our new baby while I train. The sooner I go, the sooner I’m back to spend the weekend day with them.

The morning wardrobe is folded and organized in its place so I can get dressed blindly and half asleep. Cover the important stuff up, let everything else breathe and ventilate to maintain temperature. Core gets the protection, everything else gets thermal layers. Windboxers go on first—protect the essentials—tights over the top of that. Then a warm long sleeve followed by the windproof vest for core warmth and wind-blocking. Socks, gloves, hat, headlamp. Shoes, then Yaktrax, then out the door.

Head out to the Arb to get my first loop in. Warm up. That phrase is literal when it is this cold. Move your body, get the blood flowing. Gotta’ get my head in the game. Today’s run. What is today’s run? Four hours, 50% hill work. Loops, lots of loops. First here, then to the Arb, finishing out at the Leslie Science Center. First here. I am here. Run. Am I even thinking in complete sentences? That was a complete sentence. Now I am two for two. The baby did a doozy on me last night. At least I get to be out here. Right here, right now. Get present, get with it.

Twenty minutes in. The heat is coming. I can feel all 10 fingers and toes. The frozen eyelashes will thaw, eventually. I’m moving, going, making progress. Look around. Look at this place, this beauty. Whoa, don’t look that much or I will end up on my ass. Look down, watch my feet, where they land. It’s dark outside, don’t I know that? You know better. Focus. Crank out the miles but be mindful of my surroundings. That is why I am here, early morning, running over these icy, rooted trails that want to lay me on my ass. I am stronger than this, than this baby-induced fatigue, than this moment. There is a bigger goal, a bigger picture. This is going to be a long run, longer than a marathon. I hate that metaphor, “It isn’t a sprint, it is a marathon.” How many people have run a marathon who say that? You should have to run a marathon to get to say that. FOCUS. I got this.

Awake, I am more than awake, I am alive. This air, this freezing cold, winter air reminds me what it feels like to be alive. Finish the cool down in that spot you love. It is the best place to finish along the Huron River, taking in the crack of dawn so I can look over the frosted landscape. This is what it is about, this is me, this is the best place on the planet to live, to trail run, to witness life. Stop. Stand still. Witness what is all around. This is something pretty special.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Let’s exchange some knowledge on winter running! What tips and tricks do you have on getting your mind ready for a cold, dark, and/or wet winter run? And what about physically? What tips on gear and clothing choices do you have for winter running?

Rhielle Widders

is passionate about introducing her favorite sport to newcomers. She created and directed the Park City Trail Series, a four-race series designed to get people running on dirt, from 2010 to 2014. When she isn’t in Park City, Utah, where she lives, you will find her traveling to try out new dirt. Follow her on Instagram.

There are 3 comments

  1. Marcus Schmidt

    Awesome article. I made coffee, sat down and enjoyed every sentence. Now I am waiting for the show to come. In my opinion, a freezing day in the show beats the mud every time.
    I also like to run in the dark. Seeing only a small spot of the world through my headlamp is like meditation for me.
    On clothing: I find that the more I run in the Winter, the less it matters. Freezing point feels like a comfortable temperature by January.
    Great that we share these thoughts here!

  2. Brad Patterson

    Wow, this was a phenomenal article. I especially liked the 3rd story, from Ann Arbor Michigan. I can relate to everything they wrote, as I live in Grand Rapids Michigan. And I commonly get up at 4 or 4:30am for my runs too. There IS something peaceful about being all alone in the dark, just you and the woods and the animals, on a crisp winter morning — ESPECIALLY with fresh snow!

    I don’t really have any tips on getting my mind ready, but for getting my body ready: I always do a warmup in my living room after I have all of my winter gear on that includes the lunge matrix and also some leg swings. Then I do a short brisk walk of about a 1/4 mile and I am ready to go. I find that doing a nice 8-10 min warmup inside the house before I leave makes the cold winter much less shocking when I walk out the door.

    For gear — I also go with layers; with the number of layers varying based on how cold it is. This is very individual as some people need more layers/clothing than others. I can usually get away with my one single pair of Saucony Ultimitt running gloves for my winter runs, but if it gets REALLY cold (10F or below), then I will sometimes add a fleece mitten over the top of those gloves (again layering). Other items are a Pearl Izumi elite barrier hat which works for all temps, and I will mix in various neck gaitors or a buff for some face and neck protection if it is extra cold and windy.

    I don’t own any “wind briefs”, so I started wearing running shorts underneath my tights or running pants a year or two ago and it actually works very well for me. Provides a little bit more layers to keep my nether regions warm. :-)

    I end up choosing my winter traction based on surface and conditions. If I am running road and it is hard packed snow or icy, I use screw shoes. If it is deep and loose snow on roads, then I will use a pair of long lugged trail shoes. I will go with the long lugged trail shoes on trail as well, unless it gets really sketchy and then I add on the microspikes. I bounce back and forth between a pair of trail shoes that have screws in them and using the microspikes depending on trail conditions (including depth and packed-ness of the snow)

    I did just get a pair of Dion running snowshoes for my birthday in October, but I have to wait for snow to try them out!

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