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. I have run trails with yaxtrax for years and they work great in almost all conditions. Running the woods saves on wear and tear too, no asphalt to destroy the grips.

    Today I did have a malfunction though…one of the grips broke (this on a pair a few years old, the rubber snapped) and one of the spring things was loose…and it ended up springing out from the bottom of my foot and caught the shoelace on my other foot and i went flying through the air. If my dogs could laugh then mine did.

    Moral of the story…you can’t “make do” with a broken yaktrax!
    I do highly recommend them though, they really make running in all conditions (with the shortened stride Arun recommends) possible.

    1. Hi Amy:
      Sorry to hear of your fall. Its always scary, particularly on ice and snow in the winter. Glad you are ok.

      Wishing you good Running in the New Year
      – and no broken yaktrax.
      Arun

  2. A good way to help on snow and ice is to actually studs your running shoes.

    I’ve done that this winter, I bought the smallest screw studs (11mm) … and they worked really great. Will take them out soon and reuse them next winter.

  3. I know that his is an old article, but I just wanted to say “thanks!” – I was about to blow off my run and settle for a treadmill (aka dreadmill) run when I read this. Wow – I had a great run. Little bit slow, but I was outside in the sun and snow. We are about to get hit with another winter storm, and I am looking forward to running in it! Well, maybe after it.

    Thanks again!

    1. Carl –
      Glad, this was useful to you.
      And yes, you HAVE to plan on running slow – it is just NOT worth it to slip and fall and be sidelined for a long time.

      And yes, fresh snow is the best! 🙂
      BTW, I am currently sitting in Mumbai where it is a balmy 80 deg F! Ha ha! WIll be back to the frigid Boston soon 😦

      Arun

  4. This was great! So helpful. I did it. I can’t believe I actually went running 5.4 miles first of all. By myself. In the snow. I thought that was ridiculous. Your blog was encouragement and I made it. Thanks!

    1. Kyla: Awesome!
      Sorry for the delay in approving you comment~ was in transit and just arrived in Mumbai, India where the temperature is a balmy 75 deg F and the snow is the farthest from my mind:-)

      Wishing you the continued joy (am I nuts) of running in the snow! And every run is an accomplishment.
      Take care!

  5. Broke mt darn leg 5 weeks ago slipping on ice. Can’t wait to get runninging again. I don’t know when that will be, but I’m sure it won’t be soon enough.

    1. Darn!
      Sorry to hear about that!

      Hope you get back to running form soon; and in the interim, please try to do some upperbody workouts – so when your legs are ready, YOU are READY!

      Good luck in all you do!
      Arun

  6. Been a distance runner for 53 years, and have always run summer and winter. Your tips, back off on speed, and run mid-foot, are right on! Actually, the most unfortunate injury I have taken running on snow, was running down a steep hill, in a snow storm. The snow piled into me from the front, made my thighs very, very cold, and I strained the grisilus muscle in the groin. That injury stayed with me for eight months!

    1. What an inspiration for all of us to keep on running! kudos to you for your half a century of running!

      And thank you for your kinds words.

      now that it is nearly in the single digits here in Boston, I am wondering if I need to write a piece on dressing up for winter running.

      Glad to hear you are over your injury and wishing you decades of running!
      Best Wishes
      Arun

  7. hmmm, the “blog” (mentioned above; now deleted by Arun Shanbhag) seems to have no content other than a single page advertisement for a packet of 50 screws with instructions on how to insert them into shoes … a similar ad-link comment just appeared on my journal … apologies if it isn’t comment spam (albeit a personalized kinder-gentler variety than usual nowadays)

    see http://www.skyrunner.com/screwshoe.htm for Matt Carpenter’s page with instructions and diagrams — a box of 100 screws that works fine only costs a couple of bucks at the local hardware store … ^z

    From Arun:
    Thanks Mark for the heads up! I edited the comment to remove the link 🙂
    I like the instructions on Matt Carpenter’s page, though I may never consider putting a screw in my shoe! Best!

  8. I would like to respond to the running on snow and ice. I just wanted to share that I found a great, new little blog. this person talks about how she was having trouble running in the snow and ice. She researched it a bit and found that the screws in the bottom of her shoes worked best. She had some trouble finding the right kind of screws. and length and stuff . And so after finding everything she decided to put together this great little pack with everything you need,for screwing your shoes and she is selling it for like a few bucks! The blog is *****

    Arun Says:
    This appears to be a spam comment (see comment from a reader below). I checked it too; The author says,

    … Apparently, putting screws into the bottom of your running shoes,is the way to go. They are effective,affordable,you could just take a trip to the hardware store and your done right?

  9. Put some sheet metal screws in your shoes and run… 3/8th inch works well. ATV ice screws work well too.

    Keep upright.

    CW

    Arun Says:
    Hi Charlie:
    Not sure if you are joking, but I will respond in good faith.
    Long distance runners are kinda finnicky. I for one, would not tolerate any change in my shoe, least of all a screw anywhere near by foot. Even when i buy a pair of running socks, I turn them inside out to see how the seams are and if they would bother me. That’s just me!

    And what do you do when it is NOT snowing? removing the screws would cause all kinds of sand, dirt or water to get in. Perhaps good for a 100 meters run – but not what I had in mind.

    Enjoy your runs!

  10. I realize this is from last year, but this is a great timeless article on tips on running on ice and snow.

    Would it be possible to republish in on Runners’ Lounge website with credit and a link back to you? Runners’ Lounge is a free online social website for runners which is devoted to collecting the best blog posts/articles from everyday runners and sharing it with other runners.

    Please let me know.

    Thanks!

    Amy
    amy@runnerslounge.com
    http://www.runnerslounge.com
    blog.runnerslounge.com

    1. Hi Amy:
      Thank you for your kind words about the usefulness of this article. This was a way for me to remember what I had learnt each running season and not make the same mistakes every year! Please go ahead and use this article with a link back and credit. Or did you want me to actually post it there?
      Also, I could re-edit the post and make it a bit more succinct; noticed it is too wordy. Whatever you think.
      And good luck with Runnerslounge.

  11. Thanks for all the great running tips and advice! I’ve been looking into yaktrax and other related options so I was especially happy to see those comments. Has anyone ever tried STABILicers Sport? These sounds more heavy duty, are still light weight, and okay for asphalt (per the manufacturer!?!).

  12. Hi Dognolegs – Thanks for the tip regarding the yaktrax! Sounds impressive!
    Sounds like an awesome product for ice walking or occasional running; but the price appears steep for a regular runner!
    Thanks again
    Arun

  13. For running on in icy conditions I can recommend Yaktrax, with which I am totally confident even on sheet ice. The only drawback is the tremendous wear rate on tarmac, so while it is completely safe in black ice situations, you won’t get more than a few weeks out of a pair. At $30-40 a pop, that’s not good economics in these straitened times.

    1. Costco in my area sells a similar thing called ‘snowtrax’, 2 pairs for $13.99. Ran with them today almost completely on ice and they worked excellent! I went up and down hills and not a problem. They are easy to fit on your shoe and not to cumbersome.

      I can’t stand being caged up in the winter…these are great invention!

  14. These tips are great Arun! Thanks for the advice, and do tell us about clothes.

    Like you I enjoy winter running, and had a great run today, but faced many of the issues you describe.

    Thanks again,

    Ellen

  15. well, my mom thinks I am crazy. and so does M and most of my friends.
    We are so sick and tired of staying indoors, its wonderful to head outdoors, even if you have to brave knee pain and blisters!

    and really! … after a few miles you don’t notice how cold it is!
    🙂

  16. when I see runners out in the Boston weather I’m never sure if I should be awed, or just consider you crazy (at the end of the day, I settle with a little of both).

    looking forward to your post on appropriate clothing – of interest to us walkers, too!

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