Tips for Running on Snow and Ice

My training for the Boston Marathon is in a funk. No sooner had I signed up, I hurt my ankle. Nothing broken, but sidelined for a couple weeks. “Not running” is tough during marathon training. Give me bone chilling, snot freezing, long runs any day, but please don’t let me nurse an ankle when its Marathon season, the skies are blue and the air is crisp!

If you are training for the Boston Marathon, you need to start training in the dark winter days, when the ground is still frozen and covered with snow or ice. You could squeeze a couple short, mid-week runs on the treadmill, but you need to do the longer weekend runs outdoors – even if there is snow and ice on the ground.

Here are a few pointers (and forms) for running on various snow and ice conditions. These are based on my personal experience of innumerable winter runs; btw, I have had my fair share of slips and fall in the snow, including a nasty head injury and a cracked rib, four weeks before last year’s marathon.

Important: If there is any amount of snow or ice on the roads or trails – RUN SLOW! Speed work can stay for another day. For the long run, just plan on clocking the miles, and making it back without getting hurt! This is not the time for heroics, just go for the distance (not time)!

More than Four Inches of Snow
Try your luck on roads if they are clear. Remember, the plows only clear a narrower lane for vehicles and there may not be enough shoulder for you to run safely on. And if the snow is piled high on the sides, you may not have a safe place to escape if you see a truck barreling close.

Instead, put off running and instead go for a long walk. Or wait to see if the weather will clear by the next day. There is always tomorrow.

One to Three Inches of Fresh Powder:
Tips for running on Snow and Ice by Arun ShanbhagBy far the safest of the snow and ice combination. I particularly love running when the entire field is whited-out. Just me and my heavy breathing plodding through the crunchy stuff.

Running in this snow is very strenuous, akin to running in sand on the beach. With every step, as your foot presses down, it actually pushes the snow (and sand) aside and only a small portion of the energy is used to propel the body forward. That means, you end up with a shorter step and need to take more steps to cover the same distance. Thus you end up more tired.

I also find that since my foot is now buried about an inch or more in the snow, I have to lift it UP and THEN FORWARD – another reason for more energy used and a shorter step. So plan on a slower pace. And swing your arms less, to save energy.

Overall, the safest of snow conditions for running. If you slip in this snow, the softness of fresh snow will absorb the shock. But watch out for buried stones and branches.

While I will not discuss winter running attire, I will make a note on socks. Your shoes are going to be covered in snow and the mesh front of running shoes does nothing to keep the ice cold snow melt from creeping in. Your toes are going to be wet and cold, and hopefully you remembered to ditch your cotton socks for some good dri-fit or other blend of wicking socks. And keep your toes moving. I occasionally carry an extra pair of dry socks in my pocket. But I have never actually had to change into a fresh pair of socks.

An Inch or Two of Packed Snow
This is typical when it has snowed a few days earlier and many runners, walkers and bikers have pounded the fresh powder and compacted it to a solid white cold surface. Seems inviting, but very deceptive and dangerous.

You COULD run on this. Just take short steps and concentrate on the whole running process. And your eyes need to be constantly scanning the surface ahead for slippery spots. Try and land on the mid foot with the heel coming down immediately afterwards. Landing on the heel can be dangerous as the heel may slide out from under you.

Even when you ‘push off’ with the fore-foot don’t torque your foot, it will slide out. Try and push UP and then forward (like jumping through tires) lessening chances of slipping.

Loosen your upper body and don’t swing the shoulders and arms aggressively. When you swing hard, the resulting torque on the opposite foot can cause the ankle to slide away. On normal roads, the force from the shoulder swing can be used successfully to drive forward momentum by pushing the opposite ankle back and getting an energetic toe-off. But on this smooth surface, it can be dangerous. Again, short steps and a slower pace.

Black Ice
Snow may have melted and the low overnight temperatures result in a shiny sheen of ice. Looks like a wet road. The most dangerous kind!

I can’t even walk on this stuff. Find an area with crunchy snow and run on it. If there is black ice all over – my friend, it is time to find a different route or call it a day!

Or simply take a short nap, wait for the sun to melt the ice sheet. Then you can get back to running on a wet, but infinitely safer road.

All you winter warriors, get out there and RUN! Stay warm and may your feet land safely.

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36 thoughts on “Tips for Running on Snow and Ice

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  1. My comment comes a bit late in relation to the others, but as a full time pedestrian who does not run, drive, or bike, I will say that people who run on icy sidewalks scare the HELL out of me and others. Nothing like walking carefully so as not to slip on ice and snow, only to see runners BOUNDING over the ice at high speed. You may have special shoes or cleats (or not) and feel in control, but the thought that goes through the minds of walkers is, “This idiot is going to slip and fall into me!!!” You want motorists and others to be considerate to you, but it goes both ways. Do not run close to people who are walking! Do not run in pairs or threes or fours spread out across the sidewalk so that walkers have to jump out of your way! You do not have a God given right to run at the expense of others. Show people that you care about their safety and well being. Don’t expect them to just “assume” that you do. Slow down, drop back, and consider those who are doing on the sidewalk, what sidewalks were made for: WALKING.

    1. Well said.
      We should all be considerate of others and share our resources. And running (even walking) 3-4 across completely blocking the sidewalks is rude.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Thank you so much for this article! I recently moved to Colorado and am training for my first half-marathon. This past month we have gotten a lot of snow, and I am starting to get antsy on the treadmill. I’m actually starting to like cold weather runs….I never thought I would say that, but it’s all about having the proper gear. Very helpful blog!

    1. Wishing you the best for your first Half-Marathon. it will be quite and accomplishment.

      Treadmill will only work for about 40 minutes for me – then you have to go out. Glad this was helpful.
      btw, am trying to experiment with screws in the soles of the shoes and some have recommended. Will let you know how it turns out.

      Best and Safe running!

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