Running In a Winter Wonderland

Posted: December 16, 2010 in In Transition, Run, Training

If there’s one thing I hate more than running, its winter running.  There’s the whole sweat freezing to your head thing, and the wet numb feeling you get in your feet after the first 10k, the chapped lips and wind burned face, not to mention the ‘snotsicles’ hanging from your nose and stuck to your cheek.  Pretty sexy, huh?  I can deal with the heat and humidity at the worst of times, but wind and snow – not so much.  This doesn’t excuse me from my workouts though as I also can’t stand running on a treadmill (okay, so that makes two things I hate more than running).  So deal with it I must.

I am not alone though.  The popular talk amongst runners around the ‘ol water cooler right now usually revolves around winter clothing and harsh weather equipment for outdoor running; particularly since Christmas is almost upon us and, more importantly, those haloed Boxing Day Blowouts.  I am asked on a nearly regular basis then what I wear when I run outside, particularly in subzero weather.  So in an attempt to provide a detailed answer for everyone, as well as offer up some other informational nuggets (you know me) for cold weather training I have drafted up this handy-dandy easy reference guide.  Hopefully, my warmer weather runner friends (love you Carolyn) will find this useful.  You know, because things must get rough running along the beach.

But first, let’s define ‘cold’.  I’m not talking about those “unusually overcast” days when the “easterly wind is blowing in off the lake”, I’m talking about the kind of weather that would freeze the balls off a brass monkey here.  Weather where you need to slip into a hot bath to thaw out your body when you get home, or at least dress the wounds where the wind has literally burned your skin through your clothes; weather that would make an Eskimo pack it in altogether and move to Florida.

Here are the basics:

First, there is the Base layer.  This is by far the most important layer. If it’s doing its job properly, this layer should keep you both warm and dry, and keeping warm in the winter translates as ‘staying dry’. I prefer form-fitting long-sleeve shirts made of technical fabrics that wick moisture and allow for evaporation. Cotton is definitely out for this layer as it holds in moisture and will ultimately freeze the shirt to your tits and nothing is more disheartening than gingerly peeling away your shirt away from your frozen nipples. On my legs I wear a pair on insulated tights made of the same technical fabric, because if peeling frozen sweat from your chest is difficult, imagine peeling frozen leotard away from your frank and beans.  But I digress…

Next is the Thermal layer.  Not everyone will feel they need the added warmth, so this layer is optional, but this reluctant hippie likes his body heat and keeping warm. I like to think of myself as a sustained heating unit when I run.  With the recent development of Polar Fleece and Arctic Fleece, these additional layers are more for warmth and not weight, which may be a problem when wearing thick cottons and wools. Try not to defeat the purpose of your base layer by using non-wicking material. Arctic Fleece is a great example of the triple-layer fabrics that can act as your base and thermal layers in one.

Lastly, there is the Outer Shell. This layer is probably not a necessity every day, but definitely an asset on colder, windier days; and being a Canadian situated geographically between two Great Lakes, is pretty freaking often.  A proper shell should prevent the winter wind from reaching your damp base layer as well as allowing moisture and some heat to escape from inside. A windproof, breathable shell is your best bet. Waterproof fabric is an added feature that will allow you to utilize your investment throughout the entire year.

Of course, the big question is what do you wear on your feet?  Personally I don’t use anything special at all.  I know there are special YakTrax and other add-on crampon products you can simply cinch on over your ordinary runners, but I’m not confident that these are effective or comfortable and I have received some rather negative reports from other users.  Instead, I purchased a pair of special trail runners that I will use through the winter and again later in the springtime when I hit the trails.  These trail runners are water resistant and have special grips on the soles to provide an improved traction on slippery icy surfaces.  They’re not exactly warm, per se, but I find that running with numb feet simulates the feeling I have when transitioning from the bike to the run in a race, so this prior conditioning can’t be all bad.

What’s really important to get started is that because you are cold when you first begin, it takes the body a bit longer to warm up but, when it does, you will warm up quickly so don’t overdress.  The rule of thumb is to dress like it’s about 20 ° warmer outside.  Likewise, spend a little more time walking as a prelude to your run, or take a little more time at a slow trot until your body feels good to go.

So now that you’re adequately prepared, now what?  Running in the cold is still not fun.  Ice and snow are best enjoyed through a chalet window while sitting in front of a roaring fireplace with a hot toddy in my opinion.  The thing to remember to make it all bearable is to cover the extremities. I will carry a runners toque and gloves made of the same wicking material with me should I need them, and I will take them off and put them on again depending on which way the wind blows. About 40% of your body heat is lost through your head (and similarly, 30% through your hands and feet). Wearing a hat and gloves (or mittens) will help prevent heat loss, so your circulatory system will have more heat to distribute to the rest of the body. When it’s really cold, wear a face mask or a scarf over your mouth to warm the air you breathe and protect your face.  I like to pretend I’m a bank robber making my big getaway.  There are also special “wind shields” for men to protect our future generations from the wind with but, since I’m currently pushing into my forties and still single, the need to protect my boys just doesn’t seem important enough to warrant wearing anything that looks like a girdle.

I also hear talk sometimes about using petroleum jelly to protect you from the wind and prevent chafing, but I say that real men don’t moisturize.  First you’re moisturizing with jelly or a skin cream, then you’re using chapstick or a medicated balm of some sort, and, before you know it, you’re engaged in a slap fight with Rupaul over the last stick of Revlon.  I say just suck it up, Nanook, and take your dry skin and wind burn like a man.

  1. I think I’d have to take up a new sport if I lived where you lived. There is no way in hell I could get out of bed, get dressed in all those layers and hit the pavement only to have my nose hairs and eye lashes freeze off.

  2. Good “mental toughness” conditioning.

  3. Mike says:

    Well written entry on a topic i’ve been looking into given the time of year. I really enjoy being outside despite the cold and would rather not do the treadmill, thanx for the tips!

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