I was bit by the ultra bug last year and after finishing two ultras in blissful San Diego County, I moved back to Wisconsin and naturally became interested in running a winter ultramarathon. Despite growing up in Wisconsin I never embraced winter running when I was younger and by the time I did become I runner I was living in areas where snow was not part of the equation. During pregnancy I had experienced my first flare-ups of Raynaud’s Phenomenon (RP) with a trigger point of 55F and had my doubts about being able to run in the cold. I started researching what it would take to keep warm and quickly became overwhelmed by the aspect of cold weather running (CWR). Run but don’t sweat? Blow in your tube? Screw and duct tape your shoes? Despite being a runner for 7 years I suddenly felt like a noob again. I had a couple months to adapt to cold weather running but only a precious few weeks to train on snow before running the Tuscobia Winter Ultramarathon. After a season of CWR with a young child along for the ride for the majority of training miles and finishing a 35-mile winter ultramarathon, I hope I can impart some of what I have earned to help you get started tackling your own tundra miles.
My preferences for winter running are modified trail shoes and winter hiking boots. For temperatures above freezing I go with trail running shoes that have a more aggressive tread compared to shoes with shallow lugs. For temperatures below freezing I go with boots because of RP so I need something a bit beefier to protect my feet. The boots I run in are Salomon’s Toundra Mid WP which are rated to -40F temperatures and were recommended to me by another gal who has RP. After an initially rough break in period, they are now a dream to run in. There are quite a few shoes and boots marketed specifically for winter running, but an option that is much more family budget friendly is using shoes you already own and tweaking them. More on that in the next section.
Other shoes I’ve seen out and about during cold weather that people recommended consistently are Salomon Speedcross and Hokas. For minimalist lovers, I’ve seen Vibrams used successfully. I tested Vibrams in 50F and had flare-ups. I’ve been assured though that pairing with wool Injinji socks makes them just as warm as a traditional running shoe. Their winter version appears to work well with Yaktrax. For you die-hard barefoot running fans, you have options, too. I wanted to try it once just to see what running barefoot through the snow felt like but suffered an immediate flare-up. Go figure!
Gore Tex trail running shoes for CWR are often complained about. They sound fine for really cold temperatures but if temperatures rise to mild they are not very breathable and cause the feet to sweat (something you want to avoid in CWR).
There is no need to double up socks as you can find socks of varying thicknesses. Synthetic fibers or merino wool will help wick sweat away from your feet which will help keep them warmer. Gaiters can help keep snow from packing in around the ankle. If your toes are feeling chilled, you can be a redneck runner (term used affectionately) and apply duct tape over the mesh zones and under the laces. This is actually quite effective at blocking wind chill. I’ve never tried Toasty Feet Insoles but more than one runner has recommended them to me.
Running on snow
Managing the cold is not necessarily the hardest part about CWR. For those in the snow belt, you may find that running on snow is the hardest obstacle you face (not to mention the snowflakes pelting your face creating a numbing sting you have to grow to tolerate). Running on snow feels similar to sand with both requiring extra effort and taxing your hip flexors and ankles, so you will want to modify your stride and pace accordingly. Shorten your stride and don’t lift your feet as high as you would on snowless terrain to keep propelling yourself forward. “Spinning” happens when you find yourself working increasingly harder and without making very much progress forward. Just like slick tires on a slippery road, your running shoes may not be providing enough traction to ground you. You can increase traction by using Yaktrax, STABILicers, snowshoes, or try making your own screw shoes (don’t forget to carry a dime with you on your run so you remove screws that are starting to place pressure under your foot).
A word on MICROspikes: I’ve read many winter running posts recommending MICROspikes. For the typical über mother runner (if there is such a thing!) this is truly overkill and is not on my list of recommendations. You only need to modify your traction just enough to create it. You’d be surprised how little that really takes.
Clothes for mom
There is nothing wrong with needing to layer up or down mid run, but it’s much more effective to regulate heat instead. When you become to warm, remove gloves and hats mid run and stash them in your pocket until you need them again. Clothing with zippers can be unzipped to allow heat to escape and zipped back up when chill creeps in or when the wind picks up. Some keywords to look for in item descriptions are 100% merino wool, merino wool blend, lightweight, warmth, waterproof, water resistant, wind-blocking, breathable, zipper garage, vents, backdraft cuffs, drop tail, and pull cord waist.
With limited daylight hours, there’s a increased chance that you will be running in the dark so look for reflective details in clothing which can alert drivers of your presence. Using reflectors and blinking lights helps tremendously, too.
For breastfeeding moms, the main concern you will probably have with CWR is keeping warm the tatas warm if you tend to leak (like I did). Nursing right beforehand will decrease the likelihood of leaking while out running. Wearing nursing pads provides an extra layer of comfort against the cold for when you do leak. Don’t forget to apply ointment such as lanolin to keep the nipple from sticking or freezing to the pad. It’s not fun to peel off (trust me…) I have Raynaud’s phenomenon of the nipple (also known as nipple vasospasm) and nursing pads were awesome for managing that as well.
For pregnant moms, the often-heard advice to snag your partner’s clothing or head to Old Navy still applies. If you plan on babywearing, consider purchasing a babywearing coat for use during pregnancy. They often have different wear options for accommodating children that could also accommodate a growing bump. I love our Susie Kindercoat Deluxe because you can separate the fleece shell from the outer shell and wear as two separate coats and also because when fully zipped it simply looks like a baggy coat. There are cheaper options though on the market so look around.
Learning to layer appropriately so that you are just warm enough without sweating (which will chill you to the bone) takes some practice. If you have no idea where to start, check out my typical layering choices.
Dressing your young one
If you plan on running with your little one in the stroller, you will need to monitor carefully. The younger they are the harder it is for them to produce their own adequate heat, and they can’t tell you if they are too cold. For stroller running in winter, I always ran with the weather shield up with my daughter nestled in a zippered blanket, like the JJ Cole Bundle Me. The Bundle Me isn’t designed to work with running strollers, but I can pull the straps through the blanket cutouts and it stays put once my daughter is belted in. Under the blanket I dress my daughter in her usual outdoor winter wear (children should be dressed with an extra layer compared to adults). I’m not aware of an official statement of sorts of how low of temperature is considered safe to run with a child in a stroller. My personal limit, based off cues from my daughter, is 20F. For an interesting culture read, check out this article about babies napping outside during winter in Sweden.
As the temperatures dip you can expect that your pace will too. Stroller running is a bit different when running on snow and in lower temperatures. Since maneuvering the stroller across packed snow, through fresh snow, or over icy sections is a reliable pace killer, I do not set out to hit a certain number of miles and instead aim for a set time.
If you find your runs are feeling harder than usual, don’t fret, it could be your stroller. Check that your tires are properly inflated (cold weather lowers tire pressure) and remember that weather shields are not aerodynamically friendly so they will add extra resistance as you push. Be extra mindful pushing your stroller through fresh snow because you might not see something that can snag your tire creating a bumpy ride for your child. Also be careful for ice under snow and allow ample time to brake.
As the snow keeps piling up, cars are less likely to see you. This is a smart time to use a stroller flag. Blinking taillights and reflectors also help make your stroller more visible. I have attached a headlight made for bikes near the front wheel of our stroller to help light my path (in a pinch when I couldn’t find my clip off bike light, I even used one of my Knuckle Lights strapped on the front).
First of all, don’t forget to hydrate! It’s easy to neglect fluid intake when you aren’t sweating bullets. Whatever your fluid of choice, freezing is a very real possibility when your run stretches on for hours. There are insulated bottles and hydration packs, including insulated tubes, on the market that can help. Blowing back into your tube or water bottle can help prevent freezing in the intake area. Use your body temperature to your advantage by wearing your hydration pack under your outermost layer or running your tube under your clothing. Another method is carrying your water bottle upside. I don’t understand why but it has seemed to buy me some time. Fluid agitatation caused by your running motion will help stop ice from forming until about 20F in which case both my fellow Tuscobia finishing friend, Rachel, and I have had issues. I have heard of runners placing hand warmers around their fluid to keep it from freezing although this I have yet to try.
Apply either Vaseline or Aquaphor Healing Ointment before your run for face protection against blowing snow and wind or post-run to soothe skin irritation. I find my face is generally fine being exposed until single digits when I really start to feel the sting. For sub-zero temps I would highly recommend covering up with a scarf or a balaclava. Don’t forget your child’s cheeks as well!
Winter has some pretty fun cross-training choices. My personal favorite is snowshoeing while wearing my daughter. I never had to worry if she was warm enough because my body heat kept her warm. Last season while out snowshoeing I saw a mom cross-country skiing while pulling her child in a ski pulk. She even taught her child to have fun with it and yell “giddy up” after her.
Final word, coping with Raynaud’s Phenomenon
Suffering from RP doesn’t have to mean an end to winter fun. Prevention is the key which means I’m usually wiggling my fingers as I run in addition to wearing gloves/mittens. Mid run if I feel a flare-up, the best thing I have found to do is strip one hand bare and press the affected areas against my warm belly or wrap my fingers around the back of my neck or even shove it into my armpit. It can take several minutes to feel relief but I’ve always been able to manage to warm them back up.