Three Tips for Better Traction
Last fall I had a conversation with a few fellow runners about winter traction devices and how each option has drawbacks. For those of us living in winter environs, screwing shoes is definitely the best option, but when you hit dry pavement, even if only a few minutes, it's fairly uncomfortable and annoyingly “clicky”. Then, we pondered if we need to use traction at all with proper running technique? Later that night I thought more about it and set my challenge. I had 1/4 inch and 3/8 inch screws ready to drill into my shoes at any time, but decided to see how long I could go without them. Now it’s April, and I went the entire winter running 4-5 days/week without slipping once. Yes, I was intentional with every step, but with my background with chronic injury, that was nothing new for me. I’ll tell ya, there’s something about accomplishing a challenge, no matter how arbitrary (actually the more arbitrary the better, usually) that feels so satisfying: that’s why we run right?! Now the snow is almost gone and I’m excitedly back to running trails and going up steeper stuff, but thought I would share a few thoughts and techniques that helped me get through unscathed. While the following cues will help you with the remaining snowy trails, each of the tips can be practiced year-round for better traction on muddy or technical terrain as well.
Don’t over stride
This is fairly common knowledge for general running form and helps with preventing myriad of issues but for running on snow and ice specifically, it is key. The farther your foot lands in front of you, the more of your body weight is behind it. If you are running on a slippery surface and your foot strikes far out in front of you, what do you suspect might happen? Your foot that is in front of your center of mass will slide forward against the weight of your body and the pull of gravity, and you will fall onto your butt. In addition, the farther away from your body your foot lands, the more strength you need to pull it back in to your center (or bring your body up to your foot), and this need for strength is accentuated on a slippery surface. So how do you not over stride? Take smaller steps, more often. The number of steps you take per minute is known as cadence and for most people an ideal cadence is 170-180. If you are picking your way across a sheet of ice it might even be a little higher than that, but in general getting close to 180-three per second-is a good goal. Keep your stride short, quick, and close to your body, and you will stay more upright.
Extend through your hips
Hip extension is another very important concept to consider and falls into a similar category as over striding. If you are over striding, chances are you aren’t extending your hips enough either. In running biomechanics, you can compare a runner’s stride with the pendulum swing of a grandfather clock. The point where your foot strikes the ground in front of you is the right swing of the pendulum and the point where your foot leaves the ground behind you is the left pendulum swing. If your swing is too far in front and not far enough behind you, you might be more injury-prone. Taking quicker strides will help keep your leg from swinging too far in front of your center of mass, but hip extension is what allows it to swing enough behind you. We all sit a lot-at work, driving a car, at the dinner table, on the couch before you hit the sack, you name it-all of which leads to overly tight and shortened hip flexors, which makes it hard to then extend our hips. Incorporating a good hip flexor stretch into your daily routine is, in my opinion, the most vital stretch for runners looking to prevent injury. Routinely stretching the hip flexors will help enable hip extension during each stride. The more you do it, the more you'll be able to feel length in the front of your hips while running, help keep your center of mass more directly over your stride, and give you more control over slippery terrain.
Scrape the gum off the ground behind you
This cue also directly relates to the above, as it helps with hip extension. Ideally, right before your foot contacts the ground for another stride, the gluteus and hamstring muscles engage to pull your foot back toward you. As your center of mass moves from behind to ahead of your foot, the goal is to “scrape” your foot off the ground behind you, as if you are scraping gum off of the ground with your stride. There are two important notes about this: the power should come from your glutes and hamstrings, not your calves; and try to have a whole foot land and whole foot take-off, to further recruit the upper posterior muscles. It’s not necessary to “push off” with your toes (doing so would engage the calf muscle and could lead to overuse). On snow and ice, this motion of pulling in then scraping behind you will help keep your foot more in control and from sliding out from underneath you.
As mentioned above, these cues are great to practice year-round in the never ending search for better running technique. In spending many hours thinking about my movement on snow and ice this past winter, I returned to these over and over to stay upright. While I am not advising every person ditch their winter traction altogether, I hope this provides some insight to help you feel confident running throughout the winter. Start with what feels comfortable, gradually give it a go, and let me know how it went. Happy running!