Barefoot Running in the Snow: Lessons From Storm Emma

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Just when I thought I’d made it through winter, the “Beast From the East” struck the UK, bringing sub-zero temperatures, howling winds, and several days of snow. I assumed barefoot running would be a no-go in these conditions, but it’s amazing what feet can handle. Some observations from my first winter as a barefoot runner:

1. Packed-down, firm snow is an excellent barefoot running surface. It’s stable, smooth, and doesn’t even feel particularly cold. Feet don’t sink into it, which means they stay mostly dry and warm.

2. Fresh powdery snow is fun to run in, but colder and hard work if it’s deep. However, you get the satisfaction of leaving human footprints in the snow.

3. Slush/half melted snow is awful. It’s freezing cold. In fact, if the snow has been salted, the liquid water may even be below 0C/27F, as salt lowers the melting point of water. Every step soaks your feet, and the soft lumps of melting snow are unstable underfoot. I can cope with slush for very short distances, but it is so much colder than running on actual snow.

4. Skinners slipped into the back of my running tights make good emergency footwear. With no laces, straps, or fastenings to deal with, it takes less than a minute to pull them out and slip them on. I don’t like running long distances in Skinners because they’re very narrow and my feet start cramping after a couple of miles, but they’re better than frostbite. Even if my feet are wet and cold when I put them on, heat quickly builds up once I start running in them.

5. Emergency footwear is a really, really good idea. I’ve only had to stop and put my Skinners on once, but on that occasion I was very glad to have them with me. Realizing your feet are going numb when you’re miles from home is not a good situation to be in.

6. Warming up makes a big difference to how cold the first steps on snow feel. Running up and down stairs for ten minutes works well, as does wearing footwear for the first few minutes of the run.

7. A nice, soft snow blanket presents a great opportunity to explore irregular gravel paths that are usually too uncomfortable to run barefoot on. If there are parts of town or trails you avoid because they hurt too much, now’s your chance to run there.

8. Lack of grip has not been an issue. I feel safer and more stable running barefoot than in shoes with thick tread. If my foot slips, I can feel it happening right away and correct my footing long before I’m in danger of falling over.

9. Running barefoot on snow/ice is a good way to check your running form. To reduce strain on your joints, your foot should land under your center of mass and lift off cleanly, without scuffing or scraping along the ground. With this form, you shouldn’t have any problems running barefoot, but if your feet are landing out in front of you, they may slide on the ice. Since running on snow, I’ve realized I sometimes rely on friction to speed around corners, which is probably why my skin feels slightly sore after fast runs. Slowing down and taking more steps is a gentler way to handle corners — and running on snow forces me to practice that.

10. Bodies are capable of more than we think. I assumed that barefoot running in sub-freezing conditions would be impossibly cold — especially as I’m always the one wearing three layers while my friends are comfortable in one. But it’s surprising how much heat muscles generate when you use them. If you’re a barefoot runner who has been avoiding snow, tuck some emergency footwear into your pants and give it a try before the snow melts.

Hannah Whiteoak is a barefoot runner, blues dancer, and bibliophile from the UK. She writes fiction and poetry, sometimes about running, which you can check out on her profile.

Writer — follow on Twitter @hannahwhiteoak - website hannahwhiteoak.me

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