A Great Time To Be A Runner

As the calendar year comes nearer to its end and winter begins to take hold, it’s such a natural time of year for running to take a backseat in a trail runner’s life. The always exciting and anticipated The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships are coming up this weekend, and should be as exciting as ever to follow (so much so that I’ve decided to hop on a plane and head out to the Bay Area to check out the action firsthand), but once this event comes and goes and the temperatures continue to drop, and the snow begins to build up on the trails, it seems like such a perfect time to sit around the fire with a bowl of soup, a warm drink, and replenish our bodies and our minds after another season of memorable runs.

This all makes perfect sense except for the reality that running in the winter (as well as other winter-fitness activities) is so much fun, so nourishing, and so unique compared to the running we do the rest of the year. I certainly agree that a nice, extended break from both the physical and emotional aspects of running is more or less essential at least once every year, but over time I’ve come to realize that winter really isn’t my preferred time to take this rest.

There are so many things which are so satisfying and appealing about running in the winter. Some of these are very basic and obvious: cooler weather is much easier for our bodies to cope with than warm weather (you can always add layers of clothing to get warmer, but after a certain point there really isn’t anything else you can do to get cooler when it’s really hot), trails are generally much less crowded in the winter months, and we tend to have more free time to devote to running in the winter when so many other areas of life seem to ‘quiet’ down.

Beyond these things though, there are the more subtle, but also more powerful aspects that are appealing about winter running.

Anyone who has ever run in the snow knows how quiet and serene a few inches of fresh snow can make everything feel. To me, running in fresh, un-tracked snow feels so much more gentle, relaxing, and nourishing than any other surface. Everything just seems to slow down and get quieter, and I think these changes are very beneficial for both our bodies and our minds. Another thing we get to do a lot more of in the winter is running in the dark. It’s easy to look at this as a reason to take time off in the winter, but much like running in the snow, I find running in the dark to be a very peaceful, quiet, and nourishing activity. Not to mention that running in the dark can be very beneficial if we have any plans to race 100-mile (or longer) races in which we will need to do a large chunk of nighttime running. If you’ve never been out on a run in snow on a cold, moonlit night when the snow is so cold that it crunches under your feet, you are missing out on one of the most satisfying things to encounter as a runner.

Beyond these aspects of running that I think come alive more in the winter than any other time of the year, you also have the opportunity for activities like snowshoeing and skiing that you just don’t have any other time of year. I know, it might sound like a stretch to say that winter is a great time to be a runner because it’s a great time to ski or snowshoe, but over time I have come to see less and less separation between running and any other human-powered outdoor activity. In the same way that I have come to think of going out in rugged mountains and pushing myself to travel quickly and efficiently over the land as ‘running’ (even if the terrain causes me to walk most of the time), I also think of going out in the snow on snowshoes or skis, in conditions in which those tools make travel much more efficient than traveling on feet, to simply be another form of running. This is to say that, if there is so much snow underfoot that strapping on a pair of snowshoes is the most effective way to move efficiently over the terrain, even if this means I’m walking the majority of the time, I still consider this to be running. It’s really not that much different than putting on a pair of racing flats and running 6:00 minute-miles for several miles of flat pavement. In both cases, I’m using the most efficient method available to travel quickly under my own, non-mechanized power in the conditions that I’m encountering.

As I’ve shifted to this mindset over time, running in the winter has become steadily more and more appealing to me.

Yes, the dark and cold winter months do in many ways make for a logical time to take a nice, extended break from running, but as I’ve noticed more and more of the subtle perks of winter running over the last several years, I’ve come to realize that the winter is also as good a time as any to ramp up my running.

This is certainly the mindset I am going into this winter with (as I have taken the past two months almost completely off), and I couldn’t be more excited than I am to get back to a more consistent practice of getting out several days a week and traveling over land under my own power. The snowshoes and skis are sitting next to the running shoes in the garage, and just as so many runners are winding down and moving into a nice break from their running, I’m keeping the fingers crossed for more snow and more cold.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way about winter running, am I? I would love to hear if any others might be looking forward to winter coming back around and bringing with it such an exciting time to be a runner?

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Geoff asks, we answer. Are you looking forward to winter running? If so, in what ways? Have you been on the skis and snowshoes, too?

There are 2 comments

  1. FernandoNBaeza


    Ditto my friend! Winter running always brings with it a new sense of appreciation. The trails are almost empty for one, trail runners number dwindle in my part of the country. The only headlamp I see at 4am is mine! I don't have to worry about mountain bikers, hikers or rattlers! ;D Even a 6:30pm run after work is exhilarating, as the air is cooler and you clip faster miles and get a feeling of euphoria as you fly past the trees in the dark! So no Geoff, you are not alone in feeling a new sense of urgency to run the trails in winter land! Happy trailrunning!
    Fernando N Baeza
    San Antonio, TX

  2. Jimmy Mac

    I, for one, am excited for Geoff to be running again.

    To answer the questions: yes, I am looking forward to winter running (although we don't have much of a winter in the Bay Area; hopefully we get plenty of rain this season). I have traveled back east a few times recently (and weekend ski trips to Tahoe) so I have run in the snow, and I have to agree with Geoff on how satisfying and nourishing that can be. I tried "running" on the Tahoe Rim Trail north of Kingsbury, NV and remember squealing with laughter as I post-holed down to my knees and thinking "yeah, 14:00 mins per mile is a great pace in this!"

    But the soft, acoustic buffer as snow falls is unforgettable- noises seem to be more gentle, it's like the "edge" is taken off of the world for a little while…

  3. Carsonaceae

    For some reason I seem to almost run more in the winter. I think it is because I live in Colorado and there are way less people on the trails in winter, not to mention its a lot cooler than in the summer months. I like the solitude and the quiet of winter, especially when in the forest. Also, it is just really inspiring when it it snows and compels me to get out there and run. Today is one of those days!

  4. autismson03

    For me, this season is a time where the body hurts less due to the colder temperatures. Living in San Antonio, Texas, doesn't give us snow, but we do have some days of cool weather. For me, I am usually the "Running NUT" because I am up at the earlier hours when everyone else is sleeping, I am the person running alone with my headlamp lighting each step that I take, and maybe, just maybe the only lights I see are from the homes in the distance. I have a new Power line trail near my home that I was introduced to that I've been running lately. Its exciting to be able to run just a mile from my home, and get on the trail which can easily turn into a 15 miles run if not longer. I am alone to listen to my music, letting my mind roam and think of whatever comes to it as I climb the hills, and then run down them fast. The best thing is no bikers and no crowds to distract me from the long running I do. I would be lucky enough to find another fellow "Runner Nut" as myself on the trail in the earlier hours or late in the evening after the sun has set. We do not have the mountains as in Alaska but the few hills and local parks in the area, provide enough distance for running.
    You are not alone in how you fell, I agree with you and am excited as well as loving the "peaceful, quiet, and nourishing activity" that running in the winter times provides us with. Enjoy your runs, and maybe, I might take a trip to Alaska to enjoy the snow and the trails in your neck of the woods.

    Alejandrina Collado

  5. jstemple

    Winter in the East is winter in the East. Those rare days when we have powder are always remembered and keep us waiting for the next powder. I for one am envious of our Rocky Mountain brethren, and the dry snow conditions they can routinely enjoy. Mostly we have to deal with wet snow and slushy trails. Still, it's just part of the sport. For years, I have jokingly told people we cannot use the weather as an excuse not to run, or we would not run at all. I totally agree with Geoff about the solitude and special memories of long runs through untrammeled snow with ice crystallizing in my nostrils and tears freezing at the corners of my eyes. Ahhh, spring! She's just around the corner (with more mud).

  6. hthe3rd

    I love the winter in Chicago because it clears almost everyone off the Lakefront Path (the only regularly plowed running route). No more worrying about cyclists who think they are Bradley Wiggins or dog walkers with those darn extendable leashes. Most days I'll only see a handful of other people out on the trail, which is remarkable in comparison to the human highway it becomes in the spring and summer.

    And then, as Geoff mentioned, there are those perfect days when a couple inches of fresh snow have landed on the path. On those days I make sure to beat the plows out to the Lakefront and leave my mark of fresh footprints on this well-trodden urban running route that has been washed with snow.

  7. mmarti37

    I live in Breckenridge, Colorado, and we have a very active ski/snowshoe/trail running population. This keeps a good number of trails well travelled and runnable all winter, even when we have 400+ inches of snowfall for the season. The transition to the snow is one I also look forward to. Some of my most fun runs last year were 4am winter runs out into the mountains clipping off 12 minute miles through a few fresh inches of snow over snowmobile tracks in total silence. It almost feels like magic and I agree with Geoff that the slower, quieter pace has a definite nourishing effect on the body and the mind. Another benefit of winter trail running for me is that it, by the contrast, creates a more profound appreciation for those perfect summer trail runs. As always, thanks Geoff for another thought provoking article. Also, it was such a pleasure meeting you at the Vail Pass aid station during UROC. Thanks for all you give back to the ultrarunning community.

  8. Nick Jenkins

    Running in snow and cold in the mountains is really great I just get fed up with putting all my gear on… I mean there's so many layers and peripheral items like buffs, hats and gloves. Then there's the rucksack for my spikes and ice axe plus extra layers and when that's all on and I'm ready to go I realise that I didn't thread my headphones under my T-shirt and it all has to come off again. I love winter running, don't get me wrong but there's nothing simpler than heading out the door in a pair of shorts and shoes in the summer months!

  9. georgieruns

    I love running in the winter and I will run whatever the weather (within reason, living in Calgary). I agree I love the solitude of running on the snow, and the peacefulness is so nourishing. I do also ski and cross country with snow shoeing on the odd occasion, but there is nothing like running to really appreciate the quietness, space and environment. I do just love it.

  10. Ian North

    Georgia's temperatures usually run in the nineties with high humidity in the summers. Even in the cool of the morning, I start pouring sweat before my first mile is finished. Our winters, on the other hand, are perfect for running, rarely getting too cold to hit the trails in shorts and a long-sleeved running shirt. And with the leaves fallen, we get chances to see the forest through the trees!

  11. Joan Roch

    Just this morning, when running to work on a thin blanket of snow, the only other tracks I could see on some portions of my usual trail were my very own footsteps from the day before. And this is Montreal, a metropolitan area with a population of almost 4 million…

  12. jamunguia25

    A sweet reminder (a memory) that "moving" does not depend on the weather or the season but only on us.

    One my fondest memories of running in the mountains was in eastern Washington State on a slow, heavy snow fall where evidence of life was everywhere. Coyote, rabbit tracks, birds on branches, squirrels scurrying up and down trees and the river breaking ice and pushing down stream.

    And I share the mindset of being able to travel through space "quickly under my own, non-mechanized power." It's an empowering and badass feeling of confidence.

  13. MTtrailrunner

    Well, Geoff, here in Montana it was 2 degrees this morning with a stiff wind. Work kept me from my normal daily run but I can't say I compained too much! Most of the winter though is a nice change of pace with a mix of skate skiing and quiet runs on powdered trails. Winters are long here and it is important to embrace all it offers!

  14. ToTheTrails

    Right there with you Geoff! I love waking up early when life is calm, the moon reflects off the snow and I take a deep breath and on the exhale I see my breath. I smile immediately and then off I go inviting the brisk cold air into my lungs and then the feel and sound and sight of being the first of the day to make tracks down the road and into the trails. Nothing beats it!

  15. ClownRunner

    Love Winter Running;
    Winter is Different, Yes?
    Same as Summer though.

    Also, top ten reasons I hate winter running in Hamilton, Virginia:

    (1) Shades of Gray do not make my Day.
    (2) Snow is wet and cold, rarely powdery, often icy.
    (3) Layering is always a crap-shoot. Need Vapor Barrier at 6am, Short Sleeves at 9am, Wind Stopper gear at Noon, Rain gear at 3pm, Snow goggles at 5pm, the back to the Vapor Barrier at 7pm.
    (4) Craggy trees and Civil War ghosts give me more shivers more than the cold air.
    (5) Post-Holing in Slush is not as fun as Post-Holing out West.
    (6) Yaktrax are great until you hit the few patches of ice hidden on the snowy dirt road.
    (7) Spikes are great for those patches of ice but frustrating the rest of the run.
    (8) Wearing ManPris near hunting trails elicits laughter and occasionally a warning shot. And my shins get frostbite.
    (9) I've yet to find the right footwear that can accomodate double socks + double plastic grocery bags.
    (10) Sometimes the humidity disappears completely and wearing polyester running clothes can remove 3 or 4 layers of skin in one run. Chapped lips can shred and the post-run beer and nachos become obstacles to joy.

  16. Phil_Stapert

    I couldn't agree more about winter running! I struggled through my first winter of running, but it's grown on me every year since. I love the feeling of getting warm from the inside out. I love the sound of snow crunching under my feet. I also think running on slippery surfaces teaches good form. I don't snowshoe or ski, but in the last few years I've gotten into winter camping. I like to tow my camping gear on a sled.

  17. runHerne

    All aspects of Geoff's post are true for me. Although I'm mostly run through the city, I run the city and the off-road paths when snow is here and running in the dark gives me a brand new view of my city. It feels different and I don't want to miss this. Go out and enjoy the winter!!!

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