I grew up in northern Minnesota and I do most of my running on unpaved trails, so you might expect me to be a hardass when it comes to winter training. I wish I could be a hardass about it, but experience has taught me better. I don’t mind the cold, but I don’t run in the snow, for two very important reasons.
- Acute injury
- Repetitive stress injury
Running in the snow greatly increases your chance of both, and unless you’re competing in the snow (and willing to the surface as part of typical race-day risk), there’s no point in putting your training in jeopardy with such a high probability of problems.
Acute injury is the most obvious and immediate risk. Snow itself is slippery, but the ice that comes with it is the biggest risk on paved surfaces. It doesn’t take much of a slip to turn an ankle, tweak a back muscle, or wreck a knee. Over the years, I’ve tried about every traction trick in the universe, and none of them work well. Those rubberized tire-chains-for-shoes things (with or without spikes or other metal biting bits) work OK for walking and shoveling the driveway, but they don’t hold up for running at speed or for long distances. I can’t count how many pairs of these I’ve tried and later thrown away, some because they failed and broke out on the trail during a run, others because they didn’t stay on the bottom of my shoes. Screwing track spikes into an older pair of running shoes that you’re willing to trash might be the best non-skid approach, but they’ll make you less sure on the dry pavement you encounter, and they won’t help with deeper snow and slush. Traction isn’t the only issue. Snow hides a lot of subtle imperfections in the running surface underneath, making it very likely that you’ll twist an ankle when you hit one. I just ran a 50k on leaf-covered trails, and although the surfaces weren’t bad by trail running standards, the fact that I couldn’t see the occasional root or rock made it a lot more challenging. I had to adopt the trail-runner’s shorter, choppier step, butt out, quads flexed. And that brings us to the second potential problem.
Even if you do find a way to keep your footing relatively secure, your risk of repetitive stress injury to muscle or connective tissue will go way up simple because you are going to be running with a compensatory gait no matter what you did to your shoes. As your body tries to compensate for the lack of traction, the uncertain sub-surface, and other irregularities, you’ll naturally begin to move yourself differently. This isn’t a problem when it lasts a few minutes. But do it for a few miles, for a few days, and you can stress muscles, tendons, and ligaments that aren’t used to the load. From there, it’s too easy to injure yourself.
Since running injuries typically require a couple of weeks’ layoff to heal properly, I say it’s just not worth the risk. If you have access to a treadmill, use it. Or hit an indoor track, the elliptical, the stationary bike, or swim. It’s better to use alternate training modalities by choice than to be forced into them because you hurt yourself trying to do something regular on a highly irregular surface.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t say never. If I got snow on the day of a trail race, I’d run, because funky surfaces are part of trail running anyway, and because hey, it’s race day. I’ve made it to the event to which I’ve devoted weeks or months of training. Invert that, and there’s little point in risking those same weeks or months of effort in order to give yourself ego points.