The Scientific Way to Keep From Slipping When You Run

By Brent Rose on at

Winter is breathing its nasty breath all over your best intentions. You want to keep up your running routine, but the pavements are getting slippery with rain, or worse, ice. With just a few adjustments, we'll teach you how to laugh in Old Man Winter's hoary face.

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Cadence

This one adjustment you may have not considered will likely make the biggest difference between an unscathed run and an uncomfortable face-plant: Increase your cadence. That's not your speed, it's the number of steps you're taking per minute. This is a huge component of the "minimalist running" movement, but it especially applies on slippery terrain. By taking more, smaller steps you are accomplishing a bunch of different things.

1. When you take big steps, you are over-striding. In other words, your heel lands in front of the rest of your body and take most of the impact. Should your heel land on something slipper, it is going to rocket out in front of you and you'll be on your ass before you can blink. Not ideal. When you take small steps, your mid-foot lands directly underneath your center of gravity, minimising slippage.

2. Running is jumping. Or leaping, rather, from one foot to another, over and over. Taking longer steps increases your hangtime by giving you a more vertical trajectory. That up/down movement translates to wasted energy, and it increases the impact of every stride. Increased impact on an off-center foot is just begging for it to slide out from under you. A rapid cadence spreads your weight out, creating lighter footfalls as you go.

3. Because a quick cadence encourages mid-foot striking, you have increased traction. Unlike the heel, the mid-foot is flexible and can make micro-adjustment in changing terrain. It also engages your lower-calves like a spring, helping you absorb impact.

Beginning runners generally have a cadence of less than 160 steps per minute. More advanced runnings aim for 180 steps per minute, which sounds like a lot, but once you get the hang of it, it's not so weird. Professional mathoners may have an average cadence upwards of 200 steps per minute. If you want a little help getting your cadence up, we suggest running to these mathematically perfect playlists.

 

Speed

This one may seem obvious, but it bears mentioning: If it's slippery out there, slow down! When you are running, you are generating a significant amount of inertia. In order to change direction or speed you must impart an opposing force into the ground, and that requires friction. Think of wet or icy ground as lubricated, and lube is the enemy of friction. The faster you are going, the more friction it takes to change your direction or speed. Going slower minimizes the amount of friction you need to react to hazards or changes in terrain.

 

Wide Turns

You can't run in a straight line forever (probably). Eventually you've got to turn. Unfortunately, city streets couldn't be set up worse for this with their 90-degree corners. Again, when you're carrying inertia, changing direction requires friction. The steeper the change in direction, the more friction is required. So, if you're running straight and then suddenly turn on a right corner, your momentum is going to try keep you moving along your original trajectory, despite your best intentions. To counteract this, when you have to turn take as broad of an arc as possible. This spreads the change of direction out over a larger surface area, reducing the amount of friction required for each step. Also, slow down.

 

Shoes

You may love your flat-bottomed running shoes. All that contact the soles make with the ground makes them feel nice and sticky, right? Unfortunately, this doesn't carry over to wet conditions. At speed, when a flat, smooth surface (your sole) comes into contact with a wet, flat, smooth surface (the pavement) that water doesn't have anywhere to go. You literally end up hydroplaning. This is one of the reasons why car tires have grooves in them—to channel water away from the contact surfaces, thus increasing friction.

You're going to want shoes with some real teeth in them. For this reason you're probably better off looking at trail runners, which feature soles designed for maximum traction. While you're at it, you may consider going waterproof. If your feet get wet, then cold, then numb, you're almost guaranteed to eat it. Check out something like the Montrail Mountain Masochist II Outdry.

 

Don't Be a Jackass

Above all, be alert and use your brain. If it's been cold enough for there to be ice on the ground, keep a keen eye out for it. If a surface is shiny, it's probably slippery. Use your brain, know your limits, and be safe.

Image credit: Shutterstock/Stefan Schurr