Often there’s a clear distinction between the summer and winter seasons. Summers can be warm and delightful. Winters can be cold and ruthless. Where I live in the very northern part of Norway, within the Arctic Circle, the terrain is covered in snow from November to mid-May. This makes running the mountains and trails a real challenge. Even so, in my opinion, many of the winter days are as good, if not better, than those in the summer. The snow and ice underfoot and the fading light in the sky bring new adventure to familiar training routes.
I experienced such winter beauty and adventure one day last week. Knowing that I was set to finish work early, I made plans to run back home over the mountains. This is a route I’ve run many times before, but on this occasion the winter conditions made it that much more magical. It was five degrees below the freezing point, the air was still and the hard-packed snow on the trails led the way up to clear, exposed ridges.
As I reached the highest point I was greeted by the finest of light shows. Looking towards the southern part of Senja, massive mountains rose from the sea as dark silhouettes against the sky. Above the summits a thin strip of sky glowed red. I stood and watched as the sky blended from red into green and finally blue, which got darker and darker until it was sprinkled with bright shining stars.
Be flexible in your approach – run, ski, do both
If you want to keep running through the cold, dark winter period, and still get the most of your training, these tips may help:
The snow brings with it a dilemma for all runners. Do you go out running on the trails, mountains and roads, hit the treadmill or, if you have the gear, go skiing? The answer is… do all three. Finding a balance, however, can be tough. What works best for one person won’t always work for another, while what was right last year may not necessarily be right this year. I let circumstances and motivations determine my training choices during the winter months. If the snow is falling and the wind is blowing hard, I will do shorter, faster sessions on the treadmill and save the long runs or ski adventures for days when the weather is better. Having such flexibility in a training programme is crucial over the winter months.
Dress not to impress but to reduce the risk
Running outside in winter throws up clothing conundrums. In my experience, plummeting temperatures and frozen terrain increase fatigue in the muscles and put greater strain on the tendons, especially the Achilles. To reduce the risk of injury, you must be careful to pick the right clothing for the conditions. These are my top five suggestions:
1. Cut the feet out of a pair of old woollen sock and wear the upper section that remains as extra protection for your ankle and Achilles tendon. If you suffer stiff knees in the cold, find another pair of old woollen socks -you know you’ve got them at the back of your cupboard – and do the same again.
2. When running in the snow, use an ankle gaiter. This will form a barrier, keeping the snow off your ankles and Achilles tendon while also preventing any debris getting into your shoe.
5. Dress in three layers: wool (next to skin); fleece/down/Primaloft (second layer); windproof (top layer).
Avoid being like Bambi on ice
Good footwear is as important in winter as it is in summer. Perfect for snow and ice is a running shoe that has aggressive lugs and metal spikes (see the image below for a look at the ARCTIC TALON 275 shoe which, sits alongside the OROC 280 V2, in the inov-8 range.
This will ensure you get the grip you need, otherwise you will spend more time on your backside rather than your feet! My tip is to buy winter footwear that is slightly bigger in size than your summer running shoes. I tend to find it an advantage to have a winter shoe with a little bit more space in it as the cold temperatures and snowy terrain tend to harden and stiffen shoes, so there is less stretch.
Invest in a good headtorch
Running alone with a headtorch in the forests and mountains is a wonderful experience. Nowadays there’s a lot of great headtorches on the market, many of which are lightweight yet still beam out a light powerful enough so you can run confidently without really having to break stride.
For trail running, I’d recommend a headtorch with between 200-600 lumens of light. For me, the main things I look for in a good headtorch are its weight (must be light) and whether the battery sits alongside the torch itself, both on my head. I’m not keen on having the battery separate in a pack on my back. I find the hanging wire gets in the way when running or skiing.
Crucially, remember to check the batteries before setting out on your run… you don’t want to get caught out on the mountain in the dark! My best tip is to always carry a small spare headtorch in your back pocket, in addition to the main lantern on your head, in case of emergencies. Don’t be tricked into thinking you can trust the battery and light on your mobile phone!
Respect the mountains – especially in winter
It’s vitally important to take precautions when moving in the mountains at all times, especially in winter. The weather can change quickly and you need to be prepared for all eventualities, including the possibility of having to seek shelter.
Never underestimate the mountains, especially in winter. Hazards can also hide underneath the snow! I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve walked through seemingly safe snow only to hit or scrap my tibia bone against a sharp stone. It is only a great deal of luck that has saved me from breaking my leg. My tip is to read the terrain carefully. Take your time, go slower than usual and look ahead at where you’re putting your feet.
I’d also recommend always carrying a backpack containing extra clothing. As a minimum I’d pack: windbreaker with hood, wind pants, extra insulation jacket, wind gloves, headtorch, map and compass, some supplies of food, extra mitts, thick hat and wind bag/emergency blanket. It sounds a lot I know, but it could save your life. And with so much lightweight equipment on the market today there’s every chance your backpack won’t be sitting too heavily on your shoulders.
If you are moving in an area with a risk of avalanches, then you should also add an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe to your backpack. You can just as easily trigger avalanches while running as you can when skiing. The best tip I can give is to study the weather forecast throughout the winter. In Norway we have an online updated avalanche warning. Hopefully you have something like this in your area too.
Tell someone where you’re planing to go
But don’t let this pressure you into thinking you have to complete your intended route, or go to the summit. It’s crucial you make the right decisions, and often these can only be made in the moment. There is no shame whatsoever in not getting to that summit. If you are unsure – turn around!