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Cold Weather Running: Keeping Your Feet Warm in Extreme Winter Conditions

Cold Weather Running – Keeping Your Feet Warm in Extreme Winter Conditions

My Running Gear for Extreme Winter Conditions: Proper Running Shoes, Neoprene Socks, Neoprene Shoe Covers, and Hiking Gaiters.

For those of us that do not have the luxury of living where the winters are mild or warm we need a way to keep running through winter.  We also need a way to battle the extreme conditions that make our toes turn to icicles. You can’t let a little cold weather stop you from getting out for a run, but you do need to be safe about it.  For short trail runs less than an hour it is easy to manage with a little discomfort from the cold with your feet.  But when it comes to the long trail runs and trail races where you will be running for hours, it is critical to be able to keep your feet dry and warm.  The most important thing about trail running in extremely cold conditions is to keep your feet dry and warm. So, how do you do this?

Wear the Right Socks

Neoprene Socks

I just purchased two pairs of neoprene socks.  The socks are thin but it is the brands highest for warmth and wicking away moisture.  Moisture is your enemy when running in the cold.  Having wet feet in extremely cold conditions can lead to frostbite.  Cotton is the worst choice of socks that you can make; better are such materials as neoprene, CoolMax, and even wool.

Dress Your Feet in Layers

Just like dressing your core in layers, you can apply this same strategy to your feet.  You can try to wear a real thin synthetic sock and put a wool sock over them.  You will need to experiment to see what combination of double socks will still fit into your running shoes.  Or, you might think about buying a pair of running shoes a half size larger dedicated just for your winter runs.

Feet Warmers

You can also purchase toe warmers that you put into the toe box of your running shoes.  I have never had any luck using them because they tend not to stay in my toe box.  However, I only have tried them in long endurance events.

Wear Proper Head Gear

There is an old saying, “If your feet are cold put a hat on.”  Lately the debate on how much heat you actually lose though your head has been a “hot” topic.  Even though the debate is out on the actual percent of heat lost though your head, I can speak from experience that I can regulate my body’s temperature in extremely cold trail running conditions by taking my hat on and off.

Run Smart

Don’t go running through water or slush and then complain about having cold feet.  Do you really want to win a Darwin Award?

Neoprene Shoe Covers

The Neoprene Shoe Covers and my Hiking Gaitors are only good for snowpacked trails.

Recently I purchased a pair of neoprene cycling booties.  I did a little modification to them to fit over my trail running shoes.  The other day I went trail running with Simon and we were out for just under two hours.  The temperatures were only in the single digits (which Simon loves!) and my feet and toes were warm and dry the entire time.  This method is best when the trails are completely covered in snow.  Otherwise the neoprene cover will be ripped apart.

Running and Hiking Gaiters

During my winter runs I still wear my summer trail running gaiters.  I find that even if they get wet they keep the snow from going into my trail running shoes. When I did the run with Simon in the single digits I wore my hiking gaiters. I will also use my hiking gaiters when I know that I will be post-holing in the snow during my run.

The Proper Running Shoe

For my shorter winter runs I will still use my trail running shoes that I use during my summer ultra racing season.  My summer trail running shoes are very ventilated and airy.  But for runs longer than an hour I will break out my old tried and true friends, my vintage Montrail Hardrocks.  These classic running shoes are pretty much bomb-proof and they do not have the ventilation of my lighter summer trail running shoes.  These shoes combined with the neoprene socks are great for temperatures in the upper teens and above.  Below that I like to add the neoprene bootie for that extra protection and warmth.

Stay Hydrated

For distance runners, dehydration can complicate and accelerate the onset of hypothermia. Remember, that when the temperature outdoors is lower than you body temperature, you will give up heat to the environment.  Your natural metabolism is usually enough to maintain your core body temperature.  However, when conditions become extreme your body’s metabolism may not be able to protect you from heat lose.  The result is hypothermia.  Staying hydrated helps your natural metabolism to regulate your body’s temperature.

To Sum Up

Just because it gets cold out, even extremely cold out is not an excuse for you not to get out and run.  With the proper gear and being smart you can enjoy running all year round not matter what the conditions are like outside.  So go and get the gear you need and I’ll see you on the trails!

Even Simon needs proper paw protection.

2 comments to Cold Weather Running: Keeping Your Feet Warm in Extreme Winter Conditions

  • josh

    I have an authentic question: Wouldn’t the neoprene socks, and neoprene shoe covers prevent your feet from breathing? I have found that my feet sweat in 2hr+ winter trail races/treks. I would fear that the sweat being stuck in my socks would excelerate frostbite. I currently use technical running socks under smartwool in single digits or below and it works but it would be nice if I could keep my feet a touch warmer, maybe w/ neoprene? Your thoughts?

  • Hawaiian Shirt Ray

    Hello Josh,
    I like to use this method when it is really cold (in the teens and lower). I had an unfortunate experience at the Twin Mountain Trudge last Saturday where I was in the back country for over 14 hours with temperatures in the 20s. I did suffer minor frostbite, but suffered no dead tissue and with only slight nerve damage that should clear up. My system seemed to help save my toes. The neoprene socks that I wear are DryMax which claim that they are breathable to keep your feet dry and warm. For shorter runs around 3-4 hours I have never had anything but warm feet with my system. Your fears about sweaty feet and frostbite are well founded. The goal for us is to keep our feet warm and dry.