Dangers of Trail Running in Icy Conditions

Don’t let Old Man Winter turn you off from your run schedule. Winter trail running can be both invigorating and relaxing, and unless there’s a major blizzard, there’s no reason you can’t keep the same routine as usual. Of course, you’ll need to take some precautions.

First off, don’t even think about heading out for a trail run if you haven’t already prepped your body. Running in snow or in slippery conditions will quickly tire you out and can easily lead to an accident. Head to the gym and let your trainer know your plans. You’ll need to build some strength in your inner and outer legs for stability. After a week or two in the gym, try a short outdoor run, then head back and repeat. After a few more weeks, you should be good to go.

Next, plan your run out before you leave the house. Try not to go anywhere you didn’t already go in the summer, especially if there has been snowfall; a layer of snow can easily mask a crevice or other foot-trap. Plot out your run, taking into consideration timings for arrivals at GPS waypoints. According to Team Salomon ultra-runner Jeff Pelletier, you need to consider the winter effect when planning your route. “Running in snowy and icy conditions engages muscles differently and can tax the body in different ways, so expect to cover fewer miles in the same time you would on dry ground.” Be sure to share your plan with a friend, and set an expectation for a safety call when you finish.

If you’re already a pro at trail running, you’ve probably already compiled a drop-bag of safety gear just in case the unexpected happens – and if you don’t have one of these, get one. A well-equipped safety pack should contain at the very least, a first aid kit, water purifying tablets, a whistle, fire-starting material, a compass, a knife, a signal mirror, a cellphone with a solar charger, and several energy bars. In winter, you should add a few more items, namely, an extra pair of wool socks, mitts, a toque, a safety blanket, and a lightweight, down jacket with a waterproof shell. All of this can be thrown into a small daysack, and though it may seem overkill right now, if you ever do need it, it can save your life.

When planning your clothing, remember that no matter how cold it is outside, once you get going, your body will quickly heat up. Layers that can be shed and stowed are invaluable, and in the case that you need to rest somewhere, they can be easily thrown back on. Get yourself a pair of Gortex socks to slip on under your woolies – nothing will ruin your run faster than cold, wet feet, and Gortex does a good job of keeping water at bay. If you have the money, splurge too on a pair of slightly oversized Gortex runners to accommodate the extra socks, and opt for shoes that drain quickly.

Speaking of shoes, you’re going to want to make sure you have either tough cleats or crampons, spiked harnesses that slip over normal running shoes. Many runners often opt for a pole too, especially handy for runs up and down sharp inclines. It’s also a good idea to wear leggings with thick socks either over or under to protect your ankles and shins from the sharp edges of frozen snow tops.

You’re well-advised to learn some basic mountaineering skills before heading out into the bush, even if you know the area. Accidents happen, and it’s always best to be prepared. In fact, Hal Koerner, an ultra-marathoner with more than 90 podium finishes, says “being prepared for wildlife encounters, knowing how to purify water, and getting comfortable on challenging terrain such as ice, snow, mud, and technical footing, are crucial tools” for any ultra-runner.

Once you’re out on the trail, maintain constant vigilance of the environment all around. You need to be actively anticipating every footfall, tracking the placement of every step. You could be trotting along in soft powder and suddenly find yourself careening on black ice. As much as you can, be prepared for any situation. Also, don’t forget to hydrate – a lack of liquids with cool your body down, the last thing you want it to do out in the freezing cold.

To maximize traction, you should follow a “minimalist running” strategy, increasing the amount of steps you take, but not increasing speed – this is done by shortening the stride into what is essentially a shuffle. It may seem awkward at first but it’s easy to get used to, and the reasoning is sound – when you take shorter steps, you increase the amount of contact your feet have with the ground, each foot lands at midfoot, directly under your centre of gravity. The combination of these elements add up to max stability and support. Additionally, unless you’re relying on poles, your arms should be hanging out to your sides, increasing your balance quotient.

When you’re running a trail, focus on technique, not on speed. Speed will get you, especially on ice and going around tight bends. Once you have forward momentum, it’s not always easy to stop, so above all, be careful.

Finally, running outside in winter, especially out in the bush, is incredibly peaceful. The snow creates a barrier to sound, and the soft cadence of your feet can be mesmerizing. Just make sure you don’t get lulled into a trance, and always stick to your planned route. And if you aren’t sure about the route ahead, slow down and walk it.

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