It’s a curious quirk of the Northern Hemisphere calendar that the time of year when most people start running (the New Year) coincides with some of the most uncomfortable conditions for running in (the winter). For many runners, whether they’re beginners or experienced, these conditions also raise safety concerns. Poor weather conditions can increase the risk of injury, and the dark presents the potential for personal safety or traffic problems. To help you run confidently at this time of year, we’ve put together a few tips to help you stay safe when winter running.
Cold, wet and windy winter weather has the potential to make winter running uncomfortable or even dangerous, should hypothermia set in. With some good clothing choices, however, you can run year round without any problems.
Dress for the occasion
Fortunately, running generates heat, so you may need to wear fewer clothes than you would otherwise expect for this time of year. Every runner seems to have a different internal thermostat, so you might even find you can get away with shorts and a t-shirt on a cold, dry day. Others will wear hat, scarf, long sleeves, base layers, gloves and leggings. With a little experimentation you’ll find what works for you.
The problems can arise when it’s wet or windy, as well as cold. Water is a better conductor of heat than air, so as soon as it rains, you’ll start to feel colder. Add a biting wind on top, and it will feel colder still. Of course, a waterproof or windproof layer can be all you need to stay warm, so it’s a situation that is easily avoided with just a little forward planning.
Be prepared for the worst
What if you have to stop during a run – perhaps due to an unexpected injury? Then, the few layers that were OK when you were generating excess heat might be insufficient to stay warm. If you’re adventuring far from home, or out in exposed hills, then it is sensible to carry emergency clothing with you.
If you’re somewhere more built up, such as a town or city, the risks of continued exposure to the elements are reduced as there are more people and buildings around. Take a phone so you can call for help, and some money so you can get a bus or taxi or home if necessary.
There is a point at which no matter what clothing you wear, going out for a run is a daft idea. Flooding, lightning, gales and blizzards should probably be avoided.
Winter weather can change the conditions underfoot, making them trickier than they would be in the summer. Whether it’s mud, snow or ice, there are things you can do to keep your footing and stay upright. Common to all of them, however, is slowing down. Ease back slightly, and you’ve got less chance of doing yourself a mischief and falling over.
Mud can be slippery – that much is obvious. With some suitable shoes on, though, this slipperiness need not be an issue. Choose a trail shoe with knobbly lugs on the sole. Or, if your routes also include long stretches of road, check out one of the ‘hybrid’ road/trail/park shoes that more brands have started doing. The soles on these are part-way between the flat surface of a road shoe and the big lugs of a trail shoe.
The big risk with mud is what might be lurking at the bottom of a deep puddle that you can’t see. What might look like a shallow depression on the trail might actually be a deep hole or hide other hazards. If possible, hurdle such puddles, or take it a bit easier as you run through them.
If the forecast says overnight snow, then think about moving your run to the morning in the hope that you’ll be one of the first to run on it. Fresh, powdery snow, that hasn’t been walked or driven on is surprisingly grippy. It’s once it gets mushed up by feet or tyres that it becomes slippery.
Like with mud, there is always a risk that snow is hiding something that could trip you up. Take it slow and accept that a snowy day isn’t going to be the best day to run quickly.
Ice is horrible to run on. Frozen roads are slippery and every step feels harder than it should. Even heading off road doesn’t help, as frozen puddles contain foot-numbingly cold water.
In very icy conditions, the solution is to find more grip. You can buy ice spikes that slip on over your regular running shoes. Alternatively, some brands – usually Scandinavian ones, unsurprisingly – sell running shoes that have ice spikes already built into the sole.
Finally, some runners report that pulling socks on over their running shoes can help in icy conditions, as the fabric can provide more grip than rubber soles. Just don’t do it with your favourite pair of socks.
With longer nights, there can be months when morning and evening runners do all their runs in the dark. This can cause three problems: Seeing where you’re going; Being seen; Personal safety.
Seeing where you’re going
You might love disappearing off into the woods in the summer, but unfortunately that same perfect summer running route can be a nightmare in the winter. Poor visibility increases the chances of you getting lost, tripping over something, or rolling an ankle.
To avoid this, you need light. Either run during daylight hours in the winter, or along routes that are well lit. Where this isn’t possible, wear a head or chest mounted light, or carry a torch.
Some runners like to run with more than one light. For example, a narrow spotlight on a head torch to see where they’re stepping, and a wide beam chest torch to light up their peripheral vision.
Even the safest of road users will occasionally make a mistake and miss something they should have seen – such as a runner on a country lane at night. You can make life easier for them, and safer for yourself, by ensuring you’re visible if running on the roads in the dark.
In dusky, low-light conditions, fluorescent clothing is your best bet. In dark, night-time conditions, white or reflective clothing is better. Add a light or two and you’ll be even harder to ignore.
If you wouldn’t feel comfortable walking through somewhere in the dark, then it’s probably not a good idea to run there in the dark either. Unfortunately that may mean some of your favourite running spots are off limits in the winter, but at least you get to look forward to returning to them when the days get brighter.
Regardless of whether you’re running through anywhere a bit dodgy, it’s a good habit to let someone know where you’re planning on running, and when you expect to be home. If you live on your own, a text to a friend or family member will do the job.
Some apps, including Strava, offer the option to send live tracking information to someone else while you’re running. Many will even alert an emergency contact should you stop unexpectedly.
Yes, there are challenges to running in the winter, but they can all be overcome. With a little planning and some sensible kit choices, you can keep on running all year round in all but the worst of weather conditions.
For advice on clothing choices, shoe options, or apps and gadgets to make your winter running safer and more comfortable, join the conversation in the Facebook Chat Group, on Instagram, or at our Strava Club page.