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Trail Running Tips for Winter: How to Keep the Magic Alive

trail running tips

This article first appeared in OutdoorsNW, an adventure, event, and recreation magazine for outdoorsy types in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. See my other articles here.


Bundled in almost all of the running tech gear I own, I snuck out the back door into the dark morning. My sleepy neighborhood was tucked in a blanket of snow that stretched down the street and up through the nearby hills. I pulled on my gloves and slipped down the driveway. Powered sugar footprints began to trail behind me as the gauze lens of streetlamp light softened the glow inside my personal snow globe.

When the only tracks in the snow are mine and the tickle of frozen nose hair makes me giggle, winter running feels magical. Occasionally, we’re treated to the snowy wonderland of a Bing Crosby Christmas movie set. But more often, we endure eye-watering wind, icy streets, muddy trails, and the bone-chilling “snain” typical of the Pacific Northwest.

The keys to keeping a sense of wonder while running through winter in our neck of the woods, is grit, grace, and a little retail therapy.

Tapping Into Your Grit

A few years ago I ran a 20-mile race in 20-degree weather. The half-trail, half-road course was a sheet of ice hidden by a dusting of snow. Huddled together at the starting line, our small group of brave souls knew the day was going to be less about speed and more about staying upright.

As we skated along with Bambi legs, testing our footing at a traffic-jam crawl, I could feel my hope for a PR slip down a snowy ravine. No matter how long it took, I knew I would need a hardy dose of perseverance to finish. I decided to give in to caution and, by ditching expectation, was treated to some unexpected gifts; time to focus on my running form and the simple beauty of the winter woods.

By shortening my stride, I kept my weight over my feet for better balance. I relaxed my upper body, checked my arm swing, and concentrated on the metronome rhythm of an even cadence. Determination to keep a steady–albeit slower–pace carried me forward.

I listened to the wind whispering snow crystal secrets between the trees as I inched closer to the horizon where the sharp blue sky kissed the snow. Somehow, unlike many others, I crossed the finish line without a thwacking fall on the ice. Grit got me through that day. On another day, it was grace.

Channeling Your Grace

Halfway through the 25K at Hagg Lake, one of Oregon’s hallmark mud-fest races, I was again reminded that racing isn’t always about the clock. Sometimes it’s about struggling to drink from a hand-held water bottle caked in sludge after taking a face plant (or two!) in the muck. Sometimes it’s about easing up on yourself; giving yourself a little grace, some wiggle room embrace challenge in a new way, permission to play.

Winter running is the time I stop looking at my watch, and start look for adventure. I grab my inner 10 year-old and run like I did down to Wilson’s Pop Shoppe for a raspberry soda on a late July day. I run like I did before I cared about my form, or wiping my nose on my sleeve, before I used words like fartlek, splits, or anaerobic threshold.

The Right Stuff

When grit or grace isn’t quite enough to light that winter running spark, a little shopping usually is. Since Willamette Valley weather changes as often as a toddler’s mood swings, there will be plenty on your list to keep you running in a wide range of temperatures and conditions.

Merino wool socks are the comfort food of trail running gear. They’re non-itchy and retain heat, even when wet. I’ve got a simple cap to keep pouring rain off my face and a wicking, winter hat for sub-freezing temps. My thermasilk glove liners prevent numb fingers with a peel-off option if the day warms up. A lightweight, packable jacket is the key to running long in a steady drizzle. Compression socks double as added warmth under my leggings while a hydration pack filled with warm water keeps me cozy from the inside out.

Bonus tip: when you nail the perfect ensemble for a 40-degree rainy day, or the best layers for a freezing romp in the fog, take a photo of your outfit. There will be less guessing and fewer excuses to skip a cold run!

When my kids were little and we woke up to a rare, magical snowfall, they wanted to run outside in sweatshirts and jammie pants. But it was worth the fuss of finding snow gloves and wool hats because, let’s face it, there’s no magic when your hands hurt from the cold and your earlobes are growing icicles. So grab your holiday gift return credits and outfit yourself for the challenge, adventure, and magic of the winter running season.

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