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Why snow running?

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As Winter Storm Pax blankets the Upstate and most of the South this week, runners may be required to modify their training accordingly. While it is a smart move to avoid driving on the slippery roads, don’t let the snow discourage you from getting in your scheduled run. When done cautiously, snow running can be highly advantageous whether or not you have experienced it in the past or are a first-timer.

Many runners that I have talked to have expressed their apprehension about snow running. One worry is that the surface will be too slippery to maintain balanced footing. Running on snow- even ice- has actually been found to improve running form as it forces runners to run more on the balls of their feet and avoid inefficient heel strikes. By shortening your stride, you are also better able to hit the ground with lighter and quicker strides. Just be careful not to get too overconfident when running on snow like the woman from Portland.

There is a misconception that colder temperatures will lead to harder surface impact. But with a layer of snow on the ground, the impact is actually minimized. Jenny Sugar, a health and fitness blogger, encourages runners “to seek out snow-covered trails” as opposed to unforgiving asphalt.

“The white stuff not only offers a softer, more forgiving running surface similar to sand that your joints will appreciate, but snow also offers more resistance, making your legs work harder, which translates to a better workout in less time,” Sugar writes.

I couldn’t agree more. On my run Wednesday morning as Pax was beginning to intensify, I felt a fluidity in running motion that I rarely experience on regular runs. It was a recovery day and my trot along the fairways of the Furman University Golf Course was markedly less strenuous. I experience a similar feeling even on road surfaces when I am visiting family up in Michigan during the winter months. The snow particles on the road seem to provide a small, yet purposeful cushioning mechanism that makes the coldness less bothersome. Coupled with the wintry stillness that engulfs yourself when you become “one” with the infinite snow becomes very much an out-of-body-experience.

In the article “Running on Different Surfaces,” Dr. Jeffrey Ross expounds on the effect various surfaces have on a runner’s body. With regards to running on soft surfaces like snow, Dr. Ross says that they “give great shock absorption and cut down friction tremendously.” All runners should be seeking opportunities to get off the asphalt anyways, no matter how convenient it is to run on the Swamp Rabbit Trail. Doing so will minimize the likelihood of injuries and allow heavy legs to recover more effectively.

Won’t my lungs freeze when running in the cold? This is a common question I hear from non-runners when I am going out for a run in sub-freezing conditions. Lung freezing has proven to be scientifically unattainable and the sensation is more a byproduct of the dry air entering the body. The reality is that your mouth and nose will warm the air before it enters your lungs. Obviously, runners with asthma or a history of chest pain should error on the side of caution and consult a physician on colder days.

Physical activity in the snow can also be an excellent cross-training opportunity. A growing sport in northern U.S. and Canada is snowshoe racing. Snowshoeing has been compared to “running in slow motion.” This technique of running requires runners to exhibit a higher leg lift which helps activate isolated muscle groups around the hips and core. The cost for a pair of new snowshoes varies between about $50 on the low end to a couple hundred dollars for something top of the line.

A good rule of thumb for running in the snow for the first time is to not get to fixated on pace and a specific workout. Rather, make it an enjoyable activity by taking in sights and feelings that you don’t normally experience on a regular run. It is also advisable, if possible, to run with the wind at your back. Not only will this keep your face from numbing up, but it will help with visibility.

Sam Jongstra of RunAddicts suggests several important tips when running in the snow. Plan on keeping your runs “slow and steady,” he says, while finding ways to conserve energy such as “regulating your breathing and refrain from over-swinging your arms.”

Some other important tips to keep in mind when running in the snow:

  • Avoid running in snow deeper than your ankles.
  • Dress appropriately, but don’t overdress. You will likely feel cold during the initial portion of your run, but should be warmed up after the first mile. Running tights, a long-sleeve technical shirt, a lightweight hat, and running gloves are suggested. You may want to consider a base layer of clothing if it is exceptionally cold and you’ll be glad you wore those waterproof socks. Sun glasses or goggles could also be worn to keep snow particles from entering your eyes.
  • Wear trail shoes or add traction devices like the YakTrax Run to your running shoes.
  • Shorten your stride slightly and keep your foot strikes closer to the ground to help support balance.
  • Maintain good center of mass (COM) in your running form as detailed above.
  • Be aware of surrounding traffic and icy spots (dark patches).
  • Enjoy the serenity!
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