Winter Running Safety Question

Winter has had us in its nasty grip for almost two months now and probably has a couple of more months to go based on how it has gone so far.

Nastiness on Trafton Road
Nastiness on Trafton Road

While I have continued to run, get my miles in and thankfully I have been able to run outside more than I have on the treadmill (a small miracle – jut a little sarcasm there). In other words I have endured the sub-zero cold, icy road conditions and crappy weather that makes winter running so challenging that I  just love and “want” to be out there running freezing my ass off.

Yeah right, give me a nice 50-60F day with sunshine and a light breeze at my back – now that is what I really, really want.


Now it helps that I do have the appropriate clothing and a positive attitude (well most of the time) towards running outside in the winter, but what do I think about before I decide whether to run outside or not?

After the run 1-22-14
After the run 1-22-14

Disclaimer Alert: What I do works for me, your choices might be different, based on your own experience and abilities, if you decide to use any of the information or strategies that I am sharing, you do so at your own risk.

The biggest thing that I have learned about running during the winter is:  flexibility

  • Just because your training plan calls for a particular workout or you want to run a certain distance or course, it does not mean that you can or should.

During the winter, a runner’s margin for error or screwing up (something we never do – right!!!) while running outside is much less and we really need to think about safety first and worry less about the mileage or meeting a certain pace just to put it in our training logs.

Questions to ask Yourself before heading out the door

Some of these will seem basic or even silly, but sometimes it is the simplest things that we tend to overlook and then find ourselves up shit creek without a paddle. We are outside, wishing that we had done things differently, especially when we are laying on the side of road in an icy puddle trying to crawl out of the way of a plow truck that is barreling down on us, with blade down and we are wearing our black and gray sweats with a black watch cap and black gloves.

Don’t say it never happens.

These are questions that I ask myself before I decide whether to run outside or not.

  • What is the weather outside and what is forecast for where I plan to run? Look at your favorite weather app to see the forecast for where you are planning to run, not where you live – even 30 miles (or less) sometimes often can make a huge difference in what weather an area is getting. Also remember to look out the window and see what the actual weather is before getting ready – sometimes what is actually going on, is completely different from what the little computer screen is saying.
  • What are the temps going to be when you start and yes if you are planning a longer run, when you end. Don’t forget to factor in the wind chill or “feels like” which is something too many runner forget about and then are not ready for how cold it actually is/feels.
  • Speaking of the wind – what speed and direction it is coming from?  If you can run against the wind to start and have it at your back at the end of a run – it does make a difference.
  • What are the Road Conditions? This is the thing that will drive me inside faster than any other reason, especially when it is freezing rain/icy roads. Think about how the road shoulder/sidewalks are, you will be spending time on them, whether you like it or not. Vehicles will force you off that nicely plowed or clear tar and into the wet/sloppy/slippery shit on the side of the road.

Once I figure out the weather

  • What kind of run is planned?  Are you running a speed workout, long run, easy run, etc. the type of run you have planned is affected by what is going on outside.
  • How are far am I supposed to run?  This is a critical consideration when running outside during the winter, it is one thing to run for 2-3 miles in subzero temps and another thing to run 10-15 miles in those conditions.
  • Where do I want to run? That location thing. Is where I am running a rural roads, trails or an urban area?
  • What do I plan to wear? There have been many, many posts about what people are recommending runners wear when they are outside. Most of them focus on the use of technical fabrics during the winter and I agree with those recommendations. Make the colors as bright as you can stand so vehicles can see you.
  • Do I need to bring water or fuel on the run? Remember things freeze quickly in sub-zero temps.
  • Have I let others know where I am running or did I leave a note? I know it is a pain in the butt, but if they need to come looking for you, they need to know where to start. Also if you decide to do something else on the run, give someone a call!

These are all questions I ask myself before I go out for a run during the winter. Do I go through this process formally each time – probably not, but this process is so ingrained that I do it without thinking about it now.

Some other things

Am I running alone or with others? Running with others is better from a safety standpoint but at the same time be aware that you need to speak up if you begin to feel uncomfortable if the other person or groups begin to do things you do not like or agree with.

Who Do You Call? If you get into trouble on a run, who will you call? How long will it take for them to come and pick you up, will you be safe until they get there? Are there places along your route that you can safely stop at to wait for your ride?

What do bring with me on a winter run? I have my phone with me and it is charged, flashlight if it is going to be dark, and on longer runs: identification, insurance card, money and emergency space blanket. This is the minimum I bring for a long run, if I am running close to home, just the phone. I have a RoadID attached to my Garmin 100% of the time.

The reality is

We need to be honest – running in winter does have some personal risk.

That is just the way it is and when we step out the door we tacitly acknowledge that we understand those risks. Things like a bad choice, slip, fall, becoming hypothermic or a myriad of other things that can go wrong outside far too quickly when you are running. We owe it to ourselves and our families to know what the risks versus the benefits are and think about them before we step out of the door.

How you decide to manage those challenges and risks that will make the difference about whether you are safe or not and be running tomorrow.

Running in the winter can be magical, fun and give you lots of bragging rights with other runners, but the important thing is to be able to enjoy those bragging rights and not be a statistic or unable to run again for a while.

So “be safe out there”.

What are your experiences running outside and what are some of the things you think about before you go out the door for your run in the winter?

2 thoughts on “Winter Running Safety Question

  1. Great post – and given the continued Polar Vortex it is really important. I have been reading a bunch of people who are training and want to be outside but the cold and icy conditions in their area makes it hard … and when they get TOO itchy, sometimes people get stupid.

    I think it is like driving in the snow, how some people need annual re-education!

    I definitely have a mental checklist, and my first advice is:
    – Chuck the advice of the experts! I have read SO MANY things that tell me to dress for 20F higher than the thermometer and say nothing about wind. That is nuts and potentially dangerous!

    You really have to find your own scale for what to wear and what you can tolerate – and on trails miles from home in sub-zero temperatures is NOT the time to do a ‘gear check’!

    One thing that people underestimate is how mentally and physically exhausting running in the cold and snow can be – I have found myself much more tired in these really cold conditions, and my body really feels it when I’m running in show or slush or ice.

    Which brings me to another thought – don’t let the first time you run someplace be in conditions where you can’t see the surface and don’t know how it handles snow & ice.

    1. Mike – Thank you 🙂 Yeah that is one of the reasons that I did it, that and to make me really put down my own process, to make sure that I am doing it – just a refresher.

      You are absolutely correct. I had a whole paragraph on the 20 degree thing and deleted it, kind of wish that I had kept it in, the colder or windier it is the more I dress for the colder side of things and then adjust on the road by unzipping, taking off/putting on gloves or my hat, this gives me the flexibility and a little more margin for error, if for some reason I need to walk it home or my destination.

      Running in the cold/snow and icy crap is so much more tiring and people underestimate the difference that there is between running in those conditions and the clear road. In those conditions I don’t worry about time and just go by effort.

      Sometime if you have no choice about running for the first time in a new area in nasty conditions, it is simply better to slow down and see how the road/trail are for running. In some cases if I am unsure of how things are, I will walk gingerly through an area that I don’t feel comfortable in.

      You brought up some really good points Mike and they help clarify what I was attempting to present – Thank you 🙂

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