How to Embrace the Suck and Enjoy Winter Trail Running

During a trip to Wisconsin this summer to visit my family, I stepped into the thick humidity, a small band of sweat emerging from my hairline almost immediately. And then I started to run, which was fine for about one or two minutes, until it became downright oppressive. I somehow clocked six miles that morning—and my slowest pace to date—having wallowed deep in Type 3 Funland the entire time.

When I returned home, I collapsed on the living room floor, the lifeforce drained from my body, then sprang up once I realized that I was quite literally dripping with sweat. I mumbled an apology to my stepdad, who looked kind of concerned for both my wellbeing and his carpet, then dashed into the bathroom, peeled off my heavy clothes, and cranked the shower dial to its coldest setting until I once again felt semi-human.

Five months later, I’m back in Wisconsin for a holiday encore—and for a redemptive experience loping along in the cool breeze blowing across Lake Michigan. However, I’ll admit that until a few weeks ago, I felt totally unprepared to lace up in winter conditions, so I tapped a handful of folks with plenty of snowy miles under their shoes to offer guidance. While perhaps the best advice was from Vernan Kee, a graphic designer who logs miles around the Four Corners region, who simply told me to “be prepared to embrace the suck,” I was also bombarded with more practical tidbits. Here are some of the best.

photo courtesy Heidi Kumm

Tip #1: Assess Your Surroundings
Yes, definitely check the weather before leaving home, but also think beyond the immediate forecast. Has previous snowfall closed any access roads? Are avalanche conditions present along your route? Are trails dry or covered in ice? Do you have the equipment necessary to deal with ice or possibly even curl up outside for the evening if things go south?

The relatively crumbly San Gabriel Mountains serve as home turf for Ricardo Soria, a SoCal ultrarunner and founder of TRVRS Apparel. When winter precipitation hits the range, it makes for notoriously unstable conditions that can include mudslides and dislodged boulders covering trails and roadways.

“I am in the camp of wearing headphones to get pumped up and leave my thoughts behind—sometimes, but just after a rainy day is an especially good time to practice awareness on your outing,” says Soria. “It’s easy to feel prosperous in the mountains when you are literally able to scale mountains faster than most people do their laundry, but winter is a different animal completely…There needs to be some thought put into the terrain you will encounter. Your life may depend on it.”

Tip #2: Dial in Your Clothing
Figuring out your clothing system for winter running can be a tricky prospect, something marketing guru and long-haul runner Tanya Twerdowsky learned the hard way. “I signed up for a 50k in Alabama in January and only packed shorts and a light jacket—and then it snowed. In Alabama,” she explains. “That’s how I learned to use socks as mittens and never to run in shorts in snow that’s not packed down!”

While my pal Eric Langley, a musician and hospital finance director who calls rural New Jersey his stomping grounds, suggested that to stay warm, I should simply “grow a beard,” he also joined others in preaching the gospel of layering. Pairing a wicking base layer top with fleece or wool-lined leggings seems like a popular cold weather power play, and toting along a wind jacket, hat, and Buff ramps up the protective factor on breezy days.

Denver-based writer and filmmaker Hilary Oliver also recommends paying special attention to your paws. “Don’t skimp on keeping your hands warm,” she says. “You’ve probably seen marathoners or cross country runners in shorts and tank tops but with gloves on, and while it might look silly, I’ve found it’s actually practical. Your core will warm up, but cold fingers can make you feel miserable.” One alternative to gloves and mittens? Hold a pair of hand warmers. If you’re worried about whether you’ll actually want to wear all of this stuff, Kee suggests carrying a light pack or a running vest with cargo capacity.

Tip #3: …But Also: Be Bold, Start Cold
It’s easy to get psyched out once the mercury plummets. “The first few cold runs of the year, I always, always overdress and sweat my ass off,” says Oliver. “Eventually I start dressing properly. Sometimes if I’m feeling wimpy about starting cold, I actually do a few pushups and calisthenics indoors to warm up before heading out the door.”

Heidi Kumm, founder of outdoor travel company Adventure Feet First, says that her hard and fast rule is to dress as though it’s 20 degrees warmer outside, although she’ll break it if conditions are windy. “It usually takes me a week or so of winter running to remind myself just how much heat my body produces when I’m running,” she says. “This usually results in a week of me finishing my run in fashion: with a jacket wrapped around my waist, gloves shoved in my waistband, and a long-sleeve that I’m wearing only on my arms. I look ridiculous and I am sweating buckets, but I got my run in!”

This is why you’ll see many winter runners trotting along in shorts and maybe a lightweight wicking long-sleeve shirt—excessive sweating is a problem in the winter, considering its whole intent is to cool your skin. That’s fine while you’re running at a steady pace so that your motor stays revved, but sweaty clothing (especially non-insulative, non-wicking fabrics like cotton) can cause you to become dangerously chilled once you stop.

“As with any mountain excursion, you need to remind yourself that once you get moving, there will be a huge temperature fluctuation and you’ll probably need to stop to take off your un-breathable jacket within mile one, since all its going to do is make you moist from sweat as opposed to rain [and] wet clothes are going to make you colder than no clothes,” says Soria. “However, if you know you’re going for a long effort and probably climbing 4000 feet up to the top of a mountain ridgeline, then you need to consider what the temperature will be like up at the peak. [Layers] could really come in handy if you decide to take a twenty-minute break after the climb to enjoy a beer.”

photo courtesy Heidi Kumm

Tip #4: Maybe Change Out Your Shoes…Or Don’t
I have very vivid, very shiver-inducing memories of backpacking along the Pacific Crest Trail a few winters back in my trusty trail runners—and as soon as I curved onto north-facing slopes, those same shoes were buried in calf-deep snow. For miles and miles and miles. While I carried a pair of dry socks to change into at camp, my shoes were so thoroughly soaked (and frozen solid each morning) that I couldn’t stop for very long during the day, or I’d risk my feet going numb. I’ve since switched to waterproof trail runners for wet winter excursions (I’m currently floating along in a pair of HOKA One One’s Gore-Tex Speedgoat 4s).

While some folks said they make the same swap once snowfall begins, others keep trucking in non-waterproof kicks. “I’ve run through the Denver winter for the past 13 years, and I don’t ever remember getting cold feet. Even if some slush gets in and feels icy for a few seconds, my feet have never stayed cold,” says Oliver. “I realize everyone is different, but I’d say don’t overthink the shoe thing too much, or let that hold you back. Odds are, your normal running shoes will be fine.”

Tip #5: Stay Hydrated
It’s deceptively easy to become dehydrated during winter activities, since our thirst instincts are subdued in cold weather, but hydration is just important during the frostier months as it is in summer heat. If you’re the type of brave soul who hits the trail in subfreezing temps, carry insulated bottles or at the very least, take frequent sips and remember to blow back into your hydration tube so it doesn’t freeze over.

For the tipplers out there, Twerdowsky has a more…invigorating option: “My number one tip is that I carry a small Stanley flask full of whiskey in my hydration pack,” she says. “It does wonders to take a nip from it while standing on a cold, windy summit.” Of course, water is a far better hydrator than whiskey, but for those who are so inclined, its stoke-boosting wonders are nearly on level with hot chocolate.

Finally, don’t forget that you should deliver that same sweet, sweet hydration straight to your wind-chapped mug. SoCal native René Nguyen Weis, who is currently braving her first winter of marathon training in much slushier Michigan, suggests slathering on a layer of Vaseline to act as a protective barrier during your run, then treating your face to an equally delicious coat of regular moisturizer after a post-run shower.

photo courtesy Ricardo Soria

Tip #6: Get a Grip
I’ll admit that despite having grown up in Wisconsin and despite having plenty of experience hiking, snowshoeing, and even camping in the snowbound alpine, my number one hesitation about launching a winter trail running practice was that I’d spend most of the time falling on my ass. And according to Weis, who had biffed hard on the ice the day before we chatted, my fear is not unwarranted. “My entire right side is bruised and sore,” she says. “Lesson learned—always be prepared.”

Filmmaker and ultrarunner Ryan Van Duzer says that traction is key for logging miles in slippery conditions. “It’s hard to run when you’re slipping around and terrified of eating shit,” he says. “Shoes with grippy soles are great, but I go a step further and use Yaktrax or even microspikes. You run with a lot more confidence when you’re not skating on the trails.”

And when it comes to using these kinds of traction devices, which slip right over your shoes, multimedia storyteller and runner Kriste Peoples offers a reminder that it’s kinda important to, say, make sure they actually fit.

“I’d been excited to share the adventure of running in them mountains on packed snow with my friend. She was a devoted road runner and reluctantly agreed to let me take her on the trail. I lent her a pair of my spikes without paying close attention to the fact that her feet were about half my size. Oh, and there wasn’t a strap across the stop of the spikes, which added to the not-best-idea of it all,” she says. “We got to cruising up the mountain, the cold wind in our faces, spiked with blowing drifts of snow; it was magical. We took the corners fast and confident, gliding over the ice patches, until my friend shouted up ahead of me. She’d run right out of her spikes! Suddenly the adventure turned to panic barely a mile from finishing. Spoiler alert: we lived.”

Tip #7: Stay Humble
And perhaps the most crucial advice, at least in my mind: adjust your expectations to match the messy, slippery, cold, wild experience that is winter running.

“Go easy on yourself and enjoy being out in the weather when most people are staying inside,” says Oliver. “You can let yourself get frustrated with conditions or just settle in and accept them. You’ll probably be a bit slower, and it’s more pleasant, to me, if I just accept that and just try to enjoy being out.”

My own mantra this winter? Smiles over miles.





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