LocationIn a continuing collaboration with Scott over at Straight to the Bar, we will be writing about taking advantage of your location for the month of December. This week, I’ll answer some common questions about running over the surface of a local lake.

First, the warnings. Before you go out on the surface of a lake, make sure that the ice is more than thick enough to support your weight. Breaking through the ice is an easy way to lose some toes if not your life.
A frozen lake covered in snowmobile trails by ezioman
Photo by ezioman

If you don’t know a lake, then it would be in your best interest to get some advice from someone that has spent some time on the lake during the winter. That could be a fellow runner, but if there aren’t any other hardy souls out there then you can ask the ice fisherman that you are bound to pass. They’ll be able to tell you where the inlets are or if there are areas where there is already some melt going on and you will be in danger of breaking through.

Why should you run on a frozen lake?

Your first question that you may want to ask yourself is why are you out there in the first place. There are a few advantages to being on the ice.

  • There is no traffic. First, there is no traffic other than the occasional fisherman, a random pickup truck, and snowmobiles. Wear dark clothing during the day and you should stand out just fine so that they can avoid you. On a road, a car does not have very far that it can go to avoid hitting you, and there are far more distractions making it easy for a driver to not even see you. If the car slips on the ice, it will probably be a lot closer to you than it would be on the lake.
  • It’s a tough workout. Running on ice is not the easiest surface, although if there is a good layer of snow packed down by snowmobiles it will be a lot easier. You will still have to contend with the wind, and lakes rarely have anything to block its access to you. Its like built-in speed work!
  • There are no hills. Sometimes you just don’t want to go up or down. It is very difficult to find a completely level surface on which to run, but 90% (or more) of the frozen lakes that you find will be.
  • Nothing can fall on you. If you are in a wide open space, then there is little chance that something is going to fall on you and injure you when you are out running.
  • It is a lot of fun. The most important reason is that you can get hooked on lake running. It can be a lot of fun to be running on a completely flat, unbroken terrain. It is also interesting to run by people sitting around a hole waiting for their fish trap to spring, freezing themselves silly, while you are going by with short sleeves or even no shirt at all.

What makes a good lake to run on?

  • A good lake has a lot of ice. This is the most important part about lake running. Without thick ice, you can not be out there in the first place.
  • There are a lot of fishermen out. The presence of ice fishermen tells you two things. First, the ice is safe. Second, there’s a chance somebody will see you if you break through and can help get you back out.
  • The water is not too deep. A deep lake, especially if there are huge discrepancies in the depth in a small area, can lead to a continental divide. The ice becomes stressed as part of it flows in one direction and another part goes in a different direction, acting much the same as tectonic plates do in the land. Where they meet, the ice will be broken up and is far more dangerous to run near. A shallow lake tends not to have as much of this type of activity.
  • There are snowmobile trails on the ice. Snowmobilers provide the same function as ice fisherman. They let you know that the ice is thick enough to support you, and they serve as a safety net. The other advantage of snowmobilers are that they also beat the snow into a path in places where the ice is not bare, which provides an easier running surface and gives you a road across the lake that is going to be safe to run on.

What do I need to be able to run on a lake?

Anything that allows you to run on the roads will work just as well on the lakes. There are a few things I recommend above and beyond what you might want on the road.

  • Layers of Clothing. The temperature on a lake can be hard to predict. It can easily be 10 or 20 degrees colder than on the roads because you have no protection from the wind. You also have no shade, so it can feel warm enough to run barechested at times. Wear layers to keep warm that you can easily wrap around your waist or leave behind and retrieve on your way back.
  • Spikes make it easier to run. If there is any snow, then spikes are not necessary. If you are running on bare ice and have a solid mid-foot strike on each step, you will be fine with normal shoes. Most people will benefit from some sort of crampon or spike, though. You could wear track spikes, but a better solution is to get some stabilicers or just drill some screws into the bottom of your shoes. (I recommend 8-12 ½ sheet metal screws, drill from the soles up towards your foot.)
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses. If the sun even has a chance to come out, then you will certainly need sunscreen on your face. I usually put it on my back, chest and arms as well unless I know for certain that I will be keeping them covered. The sun beats down from above but can also reflect off of the snow or ice at you. Sunglasses can cut down on the glare and help protect your eyes.
  • Screwdrivers. I’ve never run with screwdrivers, but a friend mentioned to me last week that he runs with two screwdrivers tied together and around his neck so that he has some way to crawl back out if he breaks through. I’ve never been in a situation where I would need them, but that strikes me as a really good idea so I am going to try it out this winter.

Have you ever broken through the ice?

I have never broken through at any point when it might be dangerous. The only times that I have broken through ice have been in ankle- or shin-deep water, and most of those times were when I knew I should not be on the ice anyway and was just fooling around near the shore.

I am paranoid, though, so I always assume that the worst can happen and then am happy that it doesn’t. Simple precautions means that you will not have anything to worry about, and ice running can be perfectly safe. Just always make sure that the ice is thick enough before you head out onto it.

Why should I run on the ice when I can do X, Y or Z?

There are as many Winter lake activities as there are Summer lake activities. Running is just one more option. If you prefer some other form of exercise or play, then you should by all means go out and do it. Most of the same rules still apply. Some other activities that can be fun on a frozen lake include:

  • Ice Skating
  • Skiing
  • Snowshoeing
  • Tossing balls for your dog

Your dog will probably get more exercise out of that last one than you will, but they can get just as much exercise out of any of the others (including running) if they go with you.

How often do you run on the lakes in the Winter? Do you plan on heading out there this Winter?