Depending on where you live in the world, running on ice or snow may be an inevitable part of year-round running if you don’t have access to a treadmill.
When you’re running on icy roads or trails, you’re not only forced to contend with freezing temperatures, but you also have to worry about slipping, siding, and losing traction.
As Billy Joel so clearly stated in “Running On Ice,” “I’m slipping and sliding, cause I’m running on ice,” and “I get no traction ‘cause I’m running on ice.”
Running on ice or snow can be dangerous, especially if you don’t have the right gear and don’t know how to adjust your technique and running form for running on a slippery surface.
In this article, we will discuss how to run on ice or snow and ways to make running on ice safer.
We will cover:
- Can You Run On Ice?
- Why Is Running On Ice Hard?
- How to Adjust Your Running Form for Running On Ice
- 12 Tips for Running On Ice and Snow
Let’s get started!
Can You Run On Ice?
The first thing that’s important to establish is that running on ice is not ideal.
Ice is extremely slippery because there’s very little friction between ice and your running shoes, especially relative to regular dry roads or trails.
Running on snow is usually somewhat safer because snow does provide more friction than sheer ice, but running presents its own set of challenges as well.
Plus, there’s always the risk that snow is just concealing patches of ice, and if you’re not expecting to encounter super slippery ice, or you become even momentarily complacent and zone out, you can find yourself butt down on the frozen ground faster than you can blink.
With all of this said, in most cases, you can safely run on snow—potentially on ice—provided you have the right gear and ice running technique.
Why Is Running On Ice Hard?
Running on ice is hard because you have to be vigilant about not slipping.
Ice has an extremely low coefficient of friction, especially just below the freezing point since there might be water on top of the ice that has yet to freeze or has melted.
This is why running on icy roads exposed to the sun is particularly risky.
Research suggests that ice around 0 °C has an insanely low coefficient of friction (about 0.05 for static friction and 0.04–0.02 for dynamic friction).
For the sake of contrast, research suggests that the coefficients of friction between asphalt roads and rubber tires (which is a similar material to the outsole of your running shoes) are about 0.7 for dry roads and 0.4 for wet roads.
Since running involves dynamic friction, this means that running on icy roads can be about 35 times slipperier than running on dry pavement.
How to Adjust Your Running Form for Running On Ice
It’s usually necessary to adjust your running form and technique somewhat when running on ice and snow.
You need to maximize stability and minimize the risk of slipping and falling.
Here are a few adjustments you should make to your running technique when running on ice:
#1: Shorten Your Stride
Keeping your strides short and firm is the single best thing you can do to run safely on the ice.
A quick cadence and a short stride ensures your feet are almost directly under your body rather than far in front of you.
This minimizes the horizontal velocity and acceleration components of your stride, and makes more of the motion perpendicular to the ice.
Horizontal motion poses a much higher risk of slipping and falling because it minimizes your traction and maximizes the shearing force between your foot and the icy road.
Instead, imagine yourself trying to prance like a baby deer, lifting your feet and placing them straight underneath you as much as possible with firm, short steps.
#2: Stay On Your Toes
Landing on your toes and midfoot by increasing your cadence and shortening your stride will make you more agile and keep you safer on the ice.
#3: Plant Your Feet With Conviction
Especially if you’re wearing ice spikes, you want to plant your feet aggressively and land firmly to put your force into the spikes.
However, if you’re running spikeless, a light step can be safer.
#4: Use Your Arms
Think about how you would walk on a balance beam. You would carry your arms straight out to the sides perpendicular to your body in order to widen your support.
This same principle can be applied when you’re running on the ice, although in a less exaggerated manner.
Instead of keeping your elbows in towards your sides, flare them out nice and wide to augment your balance and stability.
Now that you’ve got the adjusted running form down, let’s take a look at some general tips for when running on ice and snow.
12 Tips for Running On Ice and Snow
The following tips can be instrumental in helping you safely run on ice and snow:
#1: Slow Down
This should go without saying. You should always slow down when you are running on icy or snowy roads.
A slower pace not only increases your ground contact time, and improves stability, but it also gives you more of a working buffer to spot slippery patches of ice, choose the safest foot placement, adjust and react if you do start to slip and fall.
#2: Increase Your Traction
The primary adjustment you need to make when running on ice or snow is to increase your traction. As discussed, snow and ice are slippery surfaces that offer little friction to help you stay upright. There are various ways to increase your stability and traction when running on icy roads or trails.
The first step up from regular running shoes is to wear trail running shoes.
Trail running shoes generally have a more aggressive lug pattern on the sole of the shoe to enhance your grip and prevent slipping on wet trails.
Although this difference can be somewhat subtle, depending on the texture and depth of the snow you are running in, some runners find that simply swapping out their regular training shoes for a pair of good trail running shoes provides enough of a boost in traction to safely run on the snow.
This is especially true if the snowfall is fresh, powdery, and not particularly deep. As the snow becomes hard-packed, such as after the roads are plowed, the surface becomes slicker and it becomes harder to run without slipping.
Wearing trail running shoes is not enough of an adjustment for running on ice or slippery or snow.
The next step up would be to consider YakTrax, which are overlays for the sole of your shoe that contain spring-like coils that dig into the snow to increase your traction.
There are other great options for detachable crampons for running shoes like the FreeSteps6.
A more robust option for running safely on ice is to wear nano spikes on your shoes.
You can either buy a commercial product, a specialized ice running shoe, or make your own ice running spikes.
For example, IceBugs are running shoes designed to be worn when running on icy or snowy roads. They have microspikes in the sole to claw the ice and keep you from falling when you run.
Another great option is the Inov-8 Arctic Talon 275 Trail Running Shoes.
You can make your own ice running shoes by taking an old pair or running shoes and studding the sole with microspikes or small screws.
Generally speaking, using 3/8-inch or 1/4-inch hex screws works well. The head of the screw acts as a spike to dig into the ice.
Map out where you want to place the screws, taking a pen or marker to actually mark the spots to ensure the screws are well spaced. Think about the areas where you want to maximize your grip.
Usually placing 8-10 screws in the forefoot and 6-8 in the heel is ideal.
Use an electric screwdriver to insert the screws into the sole of your shoe until the head is flush with the sole. Don’t tighten the screws all the way because they will poke through the insole.
#3: Take the Road Less Traveled
Although trudging through deep snow is completely exhausting because you have to lift your feet so high with each step, the traction is much better when you are forging your own path in fresh snow rather than running on well-trodden icy roads.
#4: Use the Tire Tracks
Running in areas of flattened snow is certainly easier in terms of the resistance you have to battle to make forward progress.
You don’t have to lift your feet as high with every single step when the snow is plowed.
In areas where it’s safe to be choosy about where in the road you run (this is usually not the case when running anywhere where they might be cars), you can run in the tire tracks from plows, snowmobiles, or vehicles.
These tracks usually have the imprints of grip patterns from the tire treads, which can give your feet something to bite into when running.
#5: Avoid Corners
If possible, choose routes that involve long, straight roads without any sharp turns or corners. Changing direction increases the risk of falling on the ice substantially.
#6: Stick With Flat Routes
Running on ice over hilly terrain will also increase your risk of slipping because there’s a greater horizontal component to your stride and you have more acceleration when running downhill.
If you have to run on icy roads, choose the flattest route in your area.
#7: Head to the Trails
Running on snow-covered trails can be a nearly transcendent, majestical experience. It’s also often safer than trying to run on snowy or icy roads.
Trails inherently have more traction underneath the snow than asphalt or cement roads and sidewalks.
Moreover, in most cases, you don’t have to worry as much about a thin layer of water developing on the surface of the icy trail the way you do on roads because the tree cover on a trail prevents the sun from melting the top layer of snow.
Ultimately, this thin layer of water is what makes running on icy roads so dangerous, so the shadier your path, the better.
#8: Wear Polarized Sunglasses
Sunglasses with polarized lenses can increase the contrast and provide better visual clarity when running on snowy roads.
This can help you spot problematic areas of ice and choose the best footing available.
#9: Adjust Your Form
Make the aforementioned adjustments to your running form to enhance your stability.
#10: Wear Snowshoes
If the snow is super deep, why not embrace it and strap on some snowshoes?
Snowshoes will help prevent you from sinking all the way down into the snow, allowing you to run a little more naturally and less laboriously.
However, we still have to call a spade a spade: snowshoe running is no walk in the park. You’ll get a great workout but be prepared to feel exhausted!
#11: Use Gaiters
Wearing gaiters over your running shoes is one of the best ways to shield your ankles and feet from getting wet and frozen when running in the snow.
Gaiters are waterproof garments that attach around the ankle or lower leg at the top and then cover your ankle and top of your footwear where they attach below.
The deeper the snow, the more important it becomes to wear gaiters.
Snow that sneaks its way into your running shoe will not only be uncomfortable, but can also cause frostbite and damage to your skin.
#12: Run On the Treadmill
Okay, so this isn’t really a tip for how to run on ice or snow, but the truth is, most of the time, avoiding the risk of running on the ice is the best way to go.
If the roads are really icy, or there’s a risk of black ice on a snowy road, it’s really safest to run indoors on a treadmill or swap your run for a different cross training exercise, such as indoor cycling, swimming, or cross-country skiing.
If you are looking for some alternatives for those cold, icy days, check out our cardio alternatives guide for runners.