If you’re living anywhere in Canada that is not along a coastline, at some point you’re facing the reality of frigid temperatures. Some take their workouts indoors, others stare like Grumpy Cat out the window waiting for the weather to improve. But, what if you want to run outside in the winter and you also don’t want to die?
Below is tried and true advice for running in a Canadian Winter, even through a polar vortex. This advice is for trail running, not road running, an important distinction that is missed in most articles on “how to run in the winter”. There is a difference. Let’s start with road runners.
Road Running in the winter
Road runners navigate plowed sidewalks, often with a sheen of slick ice over cement sidewalks, occasionally resulting in a broken bone after a slip and fall. Grips may help but are not ideal for road runners: If the grips are too aggressive, you feel like you’re running on a hundred painful tacks. If they’re not aggressive enough, you can still fall if you’re not careful.
Road runners also navigate Wind. Totally exposed, they are at the mercy of the elements. Wind Chill is their rival, and a mean one at that.
In my opinion, winter road runners are the true Heroes of the North. And possibly the most Insane.
Trail Running in the winter
For those willing to venture off the paved path into gnarly single-track trails, you’re in for a treat. In fact, it’s not uncommon for runners to try winter trail running only to find that this becomes their most favourite run season. Here’s why:
- No wind
The trees do this really cool thing – besides looking awesome – of protecting runners from the elements. Trail runners only care about the true temp, It still might be -20 Celsius, but without the wind choking your breath and freezing your teeth when you dare to suck in air, even the coldest wind-free temperature can be 100% enjoyable.
No broken bones
Trail runners wear grips, usually the most aggressive micro-spikes you can find, which dig nicely into snow-packed trails that smoothly conceal gnarly summer roots and rocks. There are sometimes icy patches, and the ups and downs of trails can be slippery, but anyone with good grips will find a level of confidence in winter running only rivaled by wildlife. Plus, if you slip and fall, you land on soft snow, or maybe in a bush, but the landing feels more like a bowling ball on memory foam. No damage, no breaks. Just pick yourself up, brush yourself/ego off, then you’re on your way again!
- No boredom
The views on summer trails are amazing. However, winter is when Nature really shows off, rivaled only in epicness by peacocky Fall. While the streets have turned to brownish-gray snow framed in glass-shard windrows, the trails turn into a scene out of White Christmas. Sparkling snowflakes delicately balance on branches, paths are glistening white. Even the skies compete for the best performance, with sunlight beams shooting across pristine trails, or plump snowflakes softly descending like a cosy blanket. There is no bad day.
How to Dress for COLD Winter Trails
Now that you are convinced that winter trail running is dope, let’s discuss how to enjoy the trails, especially how to survive Deep Freeze runs. Below is a list of what to wear for IG pics that will blow your friends’ minds, scare your mom, and maybe even land you on the front page of a magazine.
1. Winter Trail Shoes
The difference between summer shoes and winter shoes is this: protection from the elements. I’m not talking about wind (remember, we don’t worry about that in the trails). I’m talking about Snow. Trails have lots of it. If it’s -20C and you decide to wear mesh running shoes into the trails, the minute the snow seeps through that thin outer layer and wraps around your toes, they will freeze almost instantly.
Not sure where to begin? Some of our athletes’ favourite trail shoes for winter are Icebugs, Arc’teryx Norvan, Salomon Snowcross, and Saucony Razors. These are not ALL of them, but this selection is a good way to gauge if you’re in the right shoe store for trail running. If the staff don’t know what you’re talking about, turn around and leave. Right now. Then, find a shop that carries at least one of these brands and try on some other trail brands, too. You need to wear shoes that are right for the conditions and also right for your feet.
There are two popular grip options for winter trail running. The first is micro-spikes and the most popular brand is Kahtoola. In my opinion, the Kahtoola brand is still my go-to product but it has been declining in quality each year, with the rubber cover getting thinner and less durable. For the hefty price tag of almost $100 per pair, they should last at least a couple seasons. My first pair in 2008 lasted 8 years. My last pair barely made it through 2 seasons. Current runner feedback is hit and miss. When they last, they’re worth every penny.
If you don’t want to drop that kind of dough right away, there are knock-off brands at a fraction of the cost. I am not endorsing others benefiting from someone’s creative genius, which is what knock-offs do, copying a great idea that they never came up with and then profiting from it. BUT, I’m not here to judge. I just want to see people enjoying trails. My assessment of the knock-off microspikes is that the actual spikes are not as well done, either over-done or under-done, but if you’re on a budget, they are a consideration.
The second popular grip option are carbide tips built right into the shoe. It’s what I use and it’s great for those who are more confident with sliding on trails. You get what I like to call “traction with action”. If you have spent a season or two in micro-spikes and you’re ready to take your running up a notch, maybe work on proprioception, the carbide tip shoes are a lot of fun. Still, there are a couple runs each year where I’m pulling grips over these shoes. Options are good.
3. Hot Pockets
No, I’m not talking about a microwavable snack loved by teens and college students. Hot Pockets for runners is slang for hand warmers and toe warmers. You can buy them at Costco, Shoppers, London Drugs, even some grocery stores. Throw a couple of these in your jacket pocket or pack when you head out. If your hands and feet don’t warm up after 5-10 minutes on the trails, stop and jam a pair into the end of your shoes (think about wrapping your toes) or inside your gloves/mitts. They can be a game changer on a frosty day.
4. Male Protection
The struggle is real. Guys, if you care at all about your nether regions, and we know you do! – you have a couple options. One – you can buy fancy thermal running underwear – or two – you can throw a pair of shorts under or over your pants. (This concept also works well for females, but more to keep cold bums warm and less to protect the next generation of trail runners.)
The look you choose depends on how much you care about what other people think. Ultimately, your goal is to keep the bits frostbite-free and bathroom breaks, pain-free.
If you have layers on your hands, feet and head, you will be golden. I often carry an extra buff because they’re so versatile. Wrap one around your neck, use it to cover your nose and mouth or keep it pushed down if you get too warm. You can use the other one as a “hat” by tying a knot in the end. Ear protection and neck protection are key. Plus, buffs are easy to pull off if you get too warm. You can buy buffs at any running store, or even at the Dollar Store!
This leads us to one final important piece of information for winter running:
It is always better to wear four thin layers in extreme cold than to wear one heavy layer. You’re not just managing the weather; you’re also managing your sweat. Technical layers are the goal. (Translation: no cotton.) If you want an excuse to go shopping, you can find merino base layers and high quality wind/weather resistant outer shells at some of our athletes’ favourite shops, such as Arc’teryx, Track ‘n Trail, Fast Trax, and MEC. If you’re on a budget or would rather save your money for shoes (who wouldn’t?), go through your old race swag for technical shirts, check out Costco for merino base layers and fleece pants, or head to Value Village for $20 worth of polyester long-sleeved shirts and a fleece vest.
This concludes all the broad strokes to running trails in winter. The rest are details and usually personal preference. The best way to get going on winter running and to keep going is to join others in trail adventures. If you visit or live in Edmonton – an Urban Wonderland in Northern Canada – check out https://yegrun.com/ for a variety of winter running options, including Edmonton Trail Runners for trail adventures at every pace and the Hashhouse Harriers for drinkers with a running problem. Find your fit! And remember, it’s not just about the run.