OS GetOutside Champions Jen & Sim Benson are endurance athletes, guidebook authors and passionate explorers of the great British outdoors - here's 5 of their top tips for Winter running.
When the days get darker and the temperature drops it can be tempting to drop your running too. But a solid winter’s training sets you up perfectly for next year’s goals, whether you’re planning a spring marathon, a summer ultra or a tour of the country ticking off some classic routes.
Winter brings with it a different set of challenges but also many new joys, from frosted grass, blue skies and snowy fun to exciting cold weather kit. With just a couple of changes, winter running can be just as enjoyable as any other time of year.
Warm up slowly
Making sure you’re well warmed-up is especially important over the winter months for enjoyable, injury-free running. But there’s no reason to reduce your mileage as colder weather may actually be beneficial to performance over longer distances.
A previous study analysing data from 1,791,972 runners over six major marathon races found that the optimal air temperature for distance running is between 3.8 and 9.9 degrees Celsius – fairly typical winter daytime conditions across much of Britain. Take extra care if you’re thinking of running faster though – another study found the optimal air temperature for sprinting to be 23.23 degrees Celsius.
It’s a good idea to take an extra warm layer if you’re going to be waiting around in the cold before or after your run and, if you like to do stretching exercises, do these indoors.
Dress for the weather
In a recent, unscientific, online poll, 50% of runners said they dress to get through the door and the other half said they dress for the second mile – a statistic that certainly rings true in our household. So, whether you’re a brave soul who can battle through those first, freezing minutes knowing you’re not overdressed, or you’re happy to carry that extra layer for most of your run in return for enjoying your first mile in comfort, make your clothing choice work for you.
On your top half, layers work best for cold weather. Start with a wicking, breathable baselayer that allows warm air to evaporate rather than collecting next to your skin; generally, avoid cotton, which absorbs moisture and cools down rapidly when you stop. On top of this add a warm, breathable midlayer if it’s really cold, and then a lightweight windproof layer over the top. Make full use of vents and zips to keep your temperature comfortable during your run.
In very wet, cold, windy weather, or if you’re heading for exposed or mountainous places, a good waterproof jacket is essential.
Depending on the conditions your legwear could vary from full-length, winter-weight tights for cold, dry days to a pair of shorts for warmer, rainy runs – often more pleasant than having wet fabric against your skin.
The right socks can make or break a winter run; we love Merino for its soft warmth, varying the thickness according to the temperature. If you’re going to be out in wet weather for a while it’s worth considering a waterproof option, such as Sealskinz lightweight socks lined with Merino or bamboo.
Stashable, lightweight hats, gloves, headbands and neckwear all help keep you warm and can be put on or taken off during your run to keep you comfortable.
Shoe choice makes a big difference to running enjoyment and safety in winter, particularly if you’re heading off-road or out in snowy or icy conditions. Look for deep lugs if you’re running in mud, a waterproof lining or outer material for wet grass, and spikes or removable running crampons for snow and ice. A mini gaiter is a great addition to stop snow forcing its way uncomfortably into the top of your shoe.
If you’re heading out for a day or more, or going to remote or exposed areas in winter, you’ll need to carry plenty of warm spare clothing, food, drink and possibly emergency equipment. A comfortable running pack, race vest or waist pack will let you carry all of this and add extra warmth too.
Time to shine
Whether you’re running on roads or trails a good head torch is essential so you can see and be seen. On rough ground a really bright headtorch will allow you to maintain a good speed without worrying about tripping over unseen obstacles.
If you’re running on roads or pavements make sure your kit has plenty of reflective details and consider investing in a high-visibility reflective vest or sash and clip-on lights.
As you’ll probably sweat less during winter than summer you’ll probably need to drink less too, however it’s still important to stay hydrated. If you’re heading out for longer than about 90 minutes take a drink with you, and if you’re running from your car leave a flask of hot drink ready for you on your return.
Regular snacks are essential for long, cold weather runs as you’re using more energy simply to stay warm. Low temperatures cause the body to increase its use of carbohydrate as fuel more than fat so refuel with carbohydrate-based snacks, particularly on longer runs.
In dark or snowy weather route-finding can be a much bigger challenge than on a clear, sunny day so only head into unfamiliar territory if you’re really confident in your navigation skills. If you’re using a phone or other GPS device to navigate bear in mind that batteries run down much more quickly in cold conditions.
If you’re taking a paper map go for a waterproof version if it’s going to be wet and pre-fold it to the area you need so it doesn’t blow away.
Top tips for winter running technique
- When you’re running with a head torch, focus the beam a few steps ahead of your feet rather than directly at them for a smoother running experience.
- On slippery surfaces keep your body weight directly over your feet as much as possible, shorten your stride and avoid sudden changes of direction.
- Start slowly. As with any new technique, running on hard, slippery, muddy or snowy ground will improve with practice. Take it gently to begin with and build up speed and distance as you progress.
How to stay motivated for winter running
When it’s cold and dark it can be hard to motivate yourself to get through the door but, when you’re back in the warm afterwards, you’ll always be glad you did it. Here are some top tips for winter running motivation.
- Make it a date. When the couch is calling, a pre-arranged run with a friend is a powerful motivator, plus running with company can also make those dark winter morning and evening runs feel a little less gloomy.
- Make the most of daylight. If you don’t enjoy running in the dark, run during the day whenever you can. Run in your lunch breaks and schedule longer runs for your days off.
- Join a club. Club runs are a great way to make sure you get some miles in over the winter, and you might pick up some useful tips and learn some good new winter run routes too.
- Book a spring race. Give yourself a great reason to train and reap the benefits for the whole year.
- Find a soundtrack. Whether it’s a thriller on Audible or your favourite singalong, something to listen to always helps with those tricky first steps.
- Go exploring. Winter conditions provide a great opportunity to explore some new routes – beaches, forests and towpaths are all good options. Or relish the new challenges of a familiar route when it’s covered in snow or ice.
- Invest in some new kit. There’s nothing like a brand new, grippy pair of shoes or fancy head torch to get you excited about hitting the trails over the winter months – and it’s still cheaper than the gym!
Jen & Sim Benson have explored a huge number of wild running routes. Their book, Wild Running, is a celebration of off-road running in Britain and details 150 outstanding routes across the country.
Published: Dec 29, 2021 Edited: Dec 24, 2021Sign up to get more content
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