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5 Things Your Athletes Need to Improve Their Winter Trail Running

BY Phil White

'Tis the season for frosty morning runs and twilight adventures. If your athletes are ready to venture out, arm them with these tips first.

With snow on the ground in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and other states, it looks like Old Man Winter decided to skip fall this year and show up early. While skiers and snowboarders are getting excited to hit the slopes sooner than usual, wintry conditions create some challenges if your athletes want to keep running outside. While it’s tempting to let them give in to the elements and dust off their treadmills, there are some things you can do to keep your training group on the trails, no matter what the weather throws at them. 

1. Seek Out Spikes

It’s easy to think that the only place for spiked shoes is on the track, but in fact, a different kind can help your runners maintain traction and sidestep obstacles without taking a tumble on icy trails as well. Though winter spikes can be somewhat costly, if your athletes make sure to clean them off after each training session (a quick wash in your laundry room sink followed by a spell in front of a heater should do the trick), it will be a worthwhile investment and their spikes should last them for years. 

Buying a pair of spikes that fit over their existing running shoes is the most cost-effective way for your athletes to enhance their grip, as they won’t have to splash out the cash for new footwear and will be able to use this potent grip aid with more than one pair. Kahtoola is one of the most trusted brands, with their EXOspikes offering 12 points of contact made from durable and lightweight tungsten carbide tipping the scales at just 7.3 ounces per pair. Yaktrax’s appropriately named Run model combines steel spikes and chains in a similarly lightweight package. Or if your training group will be heading out on thicker ice or more technical trails, opt for Kahtoola MICROspikes or Yaktrax Traverse

2. Get Season-Specific Shoes

Another option for your runners to upgrade their footwear is to purchase a pair of shoes built specifically for slippery winter trails. Icebug was one of the first brands to plant their flag in this unique category, with the proprietary outsole of their fifth generation Pytho5 (women’s version here and men’s here) offering 17 steel studs on the bottom of a responsive midsole and durable upper. 

As more companies have entered the winter running game over the past couple of years, your athletes might prefer to not only choose a shoe that offers spike-like grip but also keeps snow and slush at bay. The unisex Salomon Snowspike CSWP integrates a high-top gaiter and waterproof booty that should keep your runners’ toes toasty on even the nastiest of days, with the Snowcross Advanced offering similar features in a burlier package. If your athletes will be taking on trails with more vertical gain, they’ll probably enjoy a shoe that’s built more like a hiking boot on top, such as the Salewa Ultra Flex GTX (men’s here and women’s Alpenrose version here), while those who favor the plush cushioning of a maximal midsole will like the bouncy unisex La Sportiva Blizzard GTX Trail

3. Embrace a Longer Warmup

When the mercury drops, it’s going to take your athletes longer to get their muscles, ligaments, and tendons ready for the rigors of a trail run than it would in the spring, summer, or fall. That’s why it’s imperative that they do a dynamic warmup before they head out. No matter how grippy their shoes and/or spikes are, they’ll likely find it harder to navigate obstacles like slick tree roots and slippery rocks than usual too. So be sure to include some exercises that emphasize foot flexion and dorsiflexion and take their ankles through a full range of motion. 

As they’ll be battling the elements to a greater degree than normal, it’s also a good idea to challenge your athletes with more dynamic exercises that will get the blood flowing through their muscles. Adding in bounding, hopping, and jumping movements to the end of their warmup should do the trick. You can also encourage them to run slower for longer than usual once they hit the trail to ensure their body is primed to perform in wintry conditions. 

4. Protect Head, Hands, Neck, and Feet

Though the notion popularized by the old US Army Field Training Manual that we lose 40 to 45 percent of our body heat through our head has been debunked, you still do shed a significant amount if your noggin remains uncovered. Hands and feet are the other common trouble spots for winter runners, as your body is desperately trying to keep your core temperature up and your organs running, and so shuttles heat and oxygenated blood away from your extremities. 

As such, your runners’ heads, hands, and feet will need a little assistance if they’re to stay warm during winter trail excursions. At the other end of the scale, you don’t want your athletes to overheat either if they go too far down the insulation route. So the challenge is to find fibers that insulate and wick sweat simultaneously. As everyone naturally runs warm or cool, this is going to be a largely individualized choice, but you can at least provide a line of best fit to your athletes. 

Gear made from synthetic blends such as Patagonia’s Capilene – like the Air Gaiter – provides protection and breathability. While some include odor-fighting technology, the downside of polyester is that it tends to get funky over time. Merino wool isn’t usually as durable but will help your athletes avoid the stink, and unlike other fabrics, wool still insulates when wet, which will be handy if one of your runners gets dumped on by a snow-covered tree branch when they run underneath it. Colorado brand Voormi’s Precision Blended Beanie has a wicking layer and is machine washable, while from a sock standpoint, it’s hard to beat the snug fit of Smartwool’s venerable Ph.D. winter running option (women’s here and men’s here). 

5. Rehydrate Like a Pro

One of the biggest challenges with trail running when the temperature plummets is that people often don’t drink enough water to stay hydrated. Unless they overdo their layering, it’s unlikely that your athletes will be sweating at anything near the rate they would be during warmer months. On some runs, they might finish without feeling much more than a little clammy. As such, athletes are more likely to think that they’ve hardly exerted themselves, leading them to drink an insufficient amount of fluid. 

While their intake needs might not be as great as they would be in high temperatures, trail running in winter still imposes a significant fluid demand, so make sure you encourage them to sip water or their go-to electrolyte drink regularly throughout their training, with those that struggle to stay hydrated sticking to a timed or distance-based schedule (such as take a gulp every 10 minutes or half-mile). Then ensure they’re topping up their liquid levels once they’re done, which they can augment with watery fruits and vegetables. Check out this article for more winter hydration tips.

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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