Winterizing your footwear, or purchasing winterized shoes and accessories, are key to running comfortably and safely in winter conditions. Don’t miss out on the exhilaration of winter running, get your gear prepared now so you can get out there when the snow begins to fall.
You can winterize shoes by resolving three problems: waterproofing, warmth, and traction. Keeping your feet dry is not solved simply by purchasing “waterproof” shoes. Retaining warmth requires insulation beyond what running shoes can provide, usually in the form of wool socks. Traction in ice and snow has special requirements as well.
Read on to find out how to keep your feet happy and cozy in whatever conditions this winter blows your way. We will describe what you can do to keep the rain, snow, and ice on the outside of your shoes, and the warmth on the inside.
Do you need to winterize your running shoes?
Winter conditions present problems and dangers that most running shoes are not designed to handle. Snow, ice, and bitter cold can lead to challenging road conditions, discomfort, and the potential for injuries.
Winter running-related knee and hip injuries were nearly double those for summer running according to a Northern Michigan University study, and these were related to inadequate traction. The good news is that these are avoidable.
For your safety and comfort, do not wear shoes meant for summer running when the snow is falling outside. You can buy winter-ready running shoes, or there are modifications you can make to get your shoes ready for the cold, slushy weather.
In addition to waterproofing your shoes either with a spray treatment or by wearing gaiters, you should also wear warm wool socks or sock liners to keep your feet warm while running. If you’ll be running in snow or slush, you should also invest in shoes or shoe covers that are specifically designed to improve traction.
Should you even wear running shoes in the winter?
Running in the winter can be fun and exhilarating if you do it right. Taking care to have proper footwear is required.
Depending on the extremity of your winter and the weather when you’re lacing up, you may be able to get away with wearing your regular running shoes with the addition of a warm pair of socks and maybe a gaiter.
If, however, you live in an area where snow or slush is common, you’ll probably want to invest in a pair of weatherproofed running shoes. Weatherproof shoes are waterproof and typically have lugs – basically deep studs on the tread – to improve traction and road grip.
If you have ever run with icy, wet feet, you don’t need to be sold on the importance of trying to keep your feet dry and warm. If that is not enough to convince you, consider the injuries that can result from slipping and falling on hard-packed snow or ice.
Can snow ruin shoes?
While you can run in just about any half-decent pair of sneakers, serious runners – aka the ones who are likely to get out in the snow – usually spend about $110 on a good pair of running shoes. Given that these shoes will need to be replaced every 400-500 miles, you want to get the most out of your shoes. Will running in the snow ruin them?
Snow itself will not ruin your running shoes. However, salt and the deicing chemicals used to melt the snow on roads will reduce their lifespan.
Unfortunately, waterproofing your regular running shoes is not an effective countermeasure against these chemicals.
Does snow salt ruin shoes?
Although the white salty caking makes your shoes look like you dropped them in a sack of flour, it will not harm your shoes if you give them a good rinse under running water to remove it.
If you live in an area where the cold is more severe, other deicing chemicals, such as magnesium chloride and potassium acetate, may be in place or mixed with the salt, which can be more corrosive than salt. If you are not sure what is being spread on the roads, assume the worst and clean the residue off your shoes.
Pull out the insoles, rinse the shoes and insoles with a mild detergent and let them dry, or dry them on a shoe dryer. If you do not have a shoe dryer, consider getting one.
Few experiences rival the discomfort of putting on shoes that are still cold and wet from the previous day. The Manledio Portable Electric Shoe Dryer is inexpensive, effective, and folds up for traveling.
Is it better to just buy running shoes made for winter weather?
According to Vince Rucci, founder of Vertical Runner (a chain of running specialty stores), getting shoes that are designed for winter running is the smart start to enjoyable and safe winter running.
Specialized running shoes are worth the investment if you do major winter weather running. Shoe companies typically start with base trail model shoes which are already ruggedized and have more aggressive lugs. The winterized versions generally add a waterproof layer inside the shoe and a gusseted tongue to prevent water from entering.
The Hoka Challenger ATR 6 GTX is an excellent example of a shoe with a trail running base model (ATR 6), but with the Gore-Tex layer and gusseted tongue.
4 Potentially dangerous winter conditions to prepare for
Winter brings a variety of weather: cold rain, sleet, snow, ice, and the occasional day with crystal-clear skies with frigid, arctic cold.
These come with different challenging road conditions:
- Snow and ice
- Bitter cold
Let’s take a look at how each of these can affect your running.
Often the most difficult weather to run in comfortably is not the frigid cold or snow, but rain and slightly above-freezing temperatures.
Keeping yourself, and, specifically, your feet, dry in the cold rain is key but it is not as easy as it sounds. Rain running down your pants can drain into your shoes. Puddles will send water seeping in through the fabric, or deeper puddles will pour water in over the collar of your shoes.
Cold water can get into your shoes and freeze your feet and toes, making running dangerous and difficult.
Slush is a slurry of water, ice crystals, dirt, and salt or deicing chemicals. It forms when it is not cold enough to freeze this mixture.
Depending on the salt or deicers used on the road, slush may not freeze solid until 15°F or lower. It can act like a soft solid until pressure (your foot, for example) is applied, and then it behaves like a liquid, often sloshing over the shoe collar and soaking your feet.
It probably goes without saying that the road moving underneath your foot can be dangerous and lead to injuries if you lose traction.
Snow and ice
Running in snow, especially freshly fallen snow, can be great fun. If the snowfall is light or moderate, running through it is not difficult, but it does come with the potential for surprises.
Even light snow can hide cracks and holes in the road, or worse, ice. Unseen ice presents one of the worst dangers and most common causes of falls in winter.
Winter in many parts of the country brings arctic temperatures for days or weeks, making it challenging for runners to maintain their core temperatures and protect exposed skin.
Frozen toes and frostbite are real concerns.
How to keep your feet dry when running in the winter
When running in the winter, one of the most important considerations is keeping your feet dry and insulated.
Waterproof shoes may keep your feet dry, or at least less wet, but don’t count on your shoes for warmth. They have little or no insulation. Fortunately, socks can provide the insulation value you need.
Let’s break down the two most important tools for keeping your feet dry: shoes and socks.
There are options to keep water out of your shoes, although none of them are 100% effective.
Your waterproof shoe options for winter running are:
- Waterproof shoes – These are designed to form a water shielding compartment for your foot and are made using waterproof treated fabrics.
- Spray waterproof treatment – You can purchase waterproof treatment sprays that will improve your shoes’ ability to shed water. This will work much better at restoring shoes that were originally made to be waterproof.
- Gaiters – Gaiters can redirect water from the collar of your shoe to roll off rather than seep into your shoe
In cold, wet weather, nothing beats a pair of wool socks.
Wool has great insulation value and moisture-wicking properties. Further, while other materials like cotton, nylon, and acrylic lose most or all their insulation value when wet, wool retains more insulation value.
Waterproof socks are available to provide an additional layer of protection for those times when water finds its way into your shoes. Many, but not all, waterproof socks force you to give up insulation value for that extra protection against water. A few, like Wetsox T3 Hike, include a wool inner liner and a waterproof layer, so you get extra protection against water and warmth.
Overall, there are three types of socks available (cotton and cotton blends, wool, and waterproof and hybrid socks), or you can choose to use a sock liner. Keep reading to find out which one of these is best for winter-weather running.
Avoid cotton or cotton blend socks
Cotton and cotton blend socks are common and popular in warm weather because they are breathable. However, they also hold water and can lead to blisters.
Cotton loses its insulation value when wet. It absorbs and holds water.
All in all, cotton socks will not keep your feet warm in cold weather and may actually make them colder.
Wool is a better option
Wool socks can be worn year-round, but they are especially popular in the winter.
Wool is always a good choice for cold and wet running because of its great moisture-wicking, breathability, and insulation value. Even when wet, wool still helps you retain warmth.
Because of these qualities, wool is an excellent choice for running in winter weather.
Waterproof and hybrid socks – the best option
Waterproof socks were originally developed for hiking and mountaineering but can also be used for running.
They can be used as your waterproof strategy or combined with a waterproof shoe for an extra layer of protection.
The SealSkinz Waterproof Extreme Cold Weather sock incorporates a Merino wool layer for added warmth as well.
One negative is that waterproof socks reduce your foot’s ability to breathe; therefore, sweat can collect inside the socks. For this reason, waterproof socks may be better for shorter or less aggressive runs.
Sock liners are a thin polyester or wool sock that is worn inside a thicker waterproof sock to wick moisture and reduce the likelihood of blisters.
These liners provide additional wicking and insulation value. Also, they can be a barrier layer for those who are sensitive to wool.
See Fox River Outdoor Wick-Dry Alturas.
How to keep traction with your running shoes in the winter
Winter-specific or trail running shoes provide more aggressive lugs, which are effective in snow and slush but less so on icy roads.
Fortunately, there are other very effective options that allow you to keep traction when running in the winter:
- Over-shoe cleats
- Steel-studded running shoes
- DIY ‘screw shoes’
Keep reading for an explanation of each of these so you can decide which option is best for you.
Over-shoe cleats are removable cleats that you can wear over your existing shoes.
Over-shoe cleats make your normal shoes very grippy on compressed snow and ice. They do add some bulk and weight to your shoes, and some runners find the straps uncomfortable.
See Kahtoola NANO spikes or Yaktrax Run Traction Cleats for good examples of these cleats.
Steel-studded running shoes
There are shoes made with steel spikes (see the Pytho6 Women’s BUGrip) which are very effective when used on ice for the entire run.
However, it’s unlikely that you’ll be running exclusively on ice since that seldom happens as ice mostly occurs in patches – unless you plan to run across a frozen lake. On pavement or asphalt, these can be unwieldy, and the steel studs can be damaged or lost.
Also, these shoes come with a higher price tag. If you like the idea of steel studs, but don’t want to pay a lot for shoes with limited use, keep reading.
DIY “Screw Shoes”
The least expensive way to add great traction on ice is to add screws to your running shoes.
These running shoes are simple and inexpensive to make and they’re just what they sound like. Basically, you drive small sheet-metal screws into the lugs of your running shoes.
Stick with the specified screw size, and screw them into the lugs carefully so you don’t have points penetrating the interior of the shoe.
How to waterproof your shoes for the winter
There are things you can do to help keep water out of your shoes, but keep in mind that ‘waterproof’ doesn’t mean ‘foolproof.’
To waterproof your shoes for winter, you should:
- Purchase waterproof shoes
- Refresh your waterproofing
- Waterproof socks with wool
These recommendations will certainly help and can be used in combination to improve effectiveness. For example, you can add gaiters over your waterproofed shoes.
Purchase waterproof shoes
The best (or at least the easiest) way to get your hands on waterproof shoes is simply to buy them that way.
Most running shoe companies offer waterproof shoes, usually with Gore-Tex or other fabric treated with DWR (durable water repellent). Just remember that no matter how good the waterproofing is, you still need to avoid deep puddles or slush which can breach the collar of the shoe and effectively out-flank your water defenses.
Also, even good quality waterproof shoes may allow some water to penetrate after prolonged exposure.
The Saucony Peregrine 12 GTX is a good example of a waterproof running shoe.
Refresh your waterproofing
If you have waterproof shoes but have noticed the effectiveness is wearing off, you can recharge the waterproofing. Remember to clear and dry the shoes before applying waterproof spray to maximize the effectiveness.
Gear Aid ReviveX or Nikwax T.X.Direct are waterproof restorers in spray form, appropriate for shoes.
Note that using a waterproofing spray on a shoe that was not designed to be waterproofed usually does not work. For the DWR to be effective, the fabric must be a specifically selected material with a tight-knit.
Most all-weather running shoes use a mesh or porous fabric upper that simply will not be closed off to water by applying a DWR treatment. Also, the tongue must be gusseted to keep water from flowing through the laces, which is typically not the case unless the shoe was made to be waterproof.
Gaiters fit over the tops of your shoes and wrap around your ankles and calves.
They can redirect the water rolling down your leg so that it does not enter your shoe through the collar. Also, they can prevent snow from building up on your laces and eventually making its way into your shoe.
The REI Co-op Lightweight Gaiters are waterproof and light enough to be comfortable for running.
Waterproof socks with wool
Instead of (or in addition to) waterproofing your shoes, you may want to consider waterproof socks.
Waterproof socks will keep water out, at least more than regular socks. However, they may also capture moisture from your feet because they do not breathe like normal socks.
The SealSkinz Waterproof Extreme Cold Weather sock incorporates a Merino wool layer for added warmth.
- About the Author
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Frank Duchossois is a distance runner, endurance athlete, and USA Track and Field Certified Coach.
He has run hundreds of races, with distances ranging from 400 meters to 100 miles. He has run 40 marathons and ultra-marathons, including 12 Boston Marathons and the Grand Canyon Double Crossing. He is a five-time recipient of the USATF Phidippides Award for outstanding performance and endurance in long distance running, and has run multiple sub 3-hour marathons after age 50.
Frank lives in Cleveland with his wife, and when he is not running, he works as a Business Systems Analyst.