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Winter Running – Ice, Ice, Baby!

Most runners avoid winter running as much as possible. Little do they realise that running on ice is one of the best running form tools available.

After a fairly balmy winter, I checked the weather forecast and saw the temperatures in Vancouver set to plummet and a snowfall warning.  It’s clear that winter isn’t really done with us quite yet. We are in for a period of ice, snow, sleet and pretty much everything else that is not conducive to barefoot running.

Most people would think that during winter, anything relating to barefoot running has to be scrapped; put away, like a summer top in the closet.

Wrong.

Winter is the best time to work on your running form and the beauty is that you don’t have to go barefoot to do it.  You can still practice your form, foot landing and wear shoes – minimal of course.

Why is this the best time to work on your form?  Ice.

When you talk to most runners, the mention of ice fills them with terror.  They have a valid point.  If you are a heel striker, then you should avoid ice at all costs. Ice added to heel-striking leads to a quick trip to the emergency room.

However, if you are a mid-foot or a fore-foot lander and you can brave the temperatures, a winter of ice running will mean your form will be perfect by the time spring comes around and you have temperatures allowing you to shed the shoes.

It’s all to do with physics.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a physicist. In fact I never went past basic high-school physics.  The following theory has been vetted by my super-smart husband, (who codes AI for games) and my super-smart-arse seven year old, who sadly knows more than me.  An evening of me running up and down our hallway and Google was also involved.  If the physics is wrong please correct me.

Ice as we all know, usually has a thin layer of water residing over the top of it. This is due to the thermal conduction properties of water. The thin layer of water produces a significant reduction in friction. When a moving object is placed on this thin later of water, you will find it’s kinetic energy isn’t easily transferred into friction, therefore the object keeps moving. When you heel-strike you land in front of your centre of gravity. The force and mass of your body moving forward is placed on this small area of the heel. That’s a lot of potential energy focusing on a small area. You are relying on the friction of the shoe vs. the ground to allow the rest of your body to catch up with your foot placement.  This doesn’t happen because there is very little friction from a very small area.

In English?  You heel-strike on ice and you will land on your ass!

If you are a fore-foot or a mid-foot lander, then you are in a better situation. When you land on your fore or mid-foot, your landing usually occurs underneath your hips. Your centre of gravity is directly underneath you. The mass of your body is forced into the ground, not on a small piece of rubber in front of you. Your feet are less involved in pushing you forward or being used as a break; your feet land so that your body does not collapse on the ground. When your feet touch the ground, you have the maximum amount of surface area with the greatest amount of downward force with the minimum amount of linear momentum.

In English?  You land on your forefoot or mid-foot on ice and you will be okay.

But this works only if your landing is spot on. If you land with your foot in front of you (regardless of how your foot is positioned), you are on your ass. Push off with your feet instead of picking up, you land on your face. If you land with your centre of gravity not directly underneath you, then your landing could be anywhere – probably in the next consulting room of your Orthopedic surgeon.

Add an easy trail into the mix and not only are you going on one of the scariest runs of your life. You will find that your whole body instinctively reacts to every false move you make. You learn how to land perfectly because the fear of spending the next eight weeks on crutches is a very real possibility.

The beauty is, that tweaking your running form via ice can be done wearing shoes. Heck, you can wear your conventional runners if you want — although I wouldn’t recommend it. You may find a winter in minimalist shoes may leave you with almost perfect running form, but only if you are brave and embrace running on ice.

A guide to basic running form can be found in my previous post — “Re-learning your A, B, C’s”