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Running Cold

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I live in a four-season climate, but it is a bit too heavy on the winter. In January, an outlier temperature above 15F feels absolutely balmy because you haven’t had a temp in the positive range for over two weeks and you can actually go outside without your face being covered, and perhaps just a covering for your ears to let your hair down and your head soaks up a bit of sun… but spring is not exactly around the corner.

That I have Raynaud’s phenomenon also complicates the cold issue. It is a disorder in which blood vessels of the extremities abnormally constrict as a reaction to cold or stress. I’ll try to explain what this feels like. My hands become frozen and numb which causes my fingers to have the strength and dexterity of an 8 month old baby. When the numbness wears off and the blood starts recalculating, there is an intense pain! So there is even more reason for me to hate the cold.

This place is cold, but it still isn’t as cold as Fairbanks, AL where they get a few hours of daylight in the winter, but the sun may not rise too far above the horizon. Runners there are truly hard core! When Dean Karnazes starts training there and running all night (it is still “night” there during daytime hours) then that will be something truly heroic. My morning run average temperature is not above zero degrees F, and that is hard core enough for me.

In search of some advice and encouragement in cold-weather running I started looking online for resources but I’ve been disappointed in how little there is, so I thought I’d add my two cents. I do have some experience, learning as I go about how to stay safe and sane in the lower temps. Probably there isn’t so much because not so many people who will brave the cold, or have other options for indoor exercise. So this if for all you die-hard outdoor runners, or wanna-be die-hards who need some advice and encouragement to get out there because you really CAN do it! I’ve got a couple of beginner running friends here who are keeping it up through the winter as well! JIA YOU!

A lot is discussed regarding running in the heat, but not as much about running in the cold. Still, there are some resources on the web for those looking for specific information. Running in the cold is similar to running in the heat in that it does take some thought and planning, can be dangerous, and it does take some acclimatization. There is no set temperature at which one can suffer hypothermia or frostbite, so these problems must be considered. Since this is not an adventure medicine lecture, I’ll just leave it at that. A lot of what it takes to run in the cold is grit and determination, with some experimentation with clothing, gear, and building up an endurance and tolerance level.

The first thing people can know is that the cold won’t kill them – if they dress well. I hate the cold, and although I wouldn’t say that I like running in in the cold, I love running more than I hate the cold, so I’ve worked out a system that works for me. The January 2011 issue of Runner’s World gave a very namby-pamby version of running in the cold and wasn’t particularly applicable to runners around the world (they didn’t even have Alaska represented).

It is hard to give exact guidelines as to exactly at what temperature I wear certain gear. Every individual, with some helpful guidelines, needs to experiment with their own system related to cold, sweat production, length of run, and even purpose of the run. For example, I’ll adjust my clothes based on the intensity of the workout. For a given temperature, if I am doing a recovery run, I’ll wear something a bit heavier so that I can run more warm and more relaxed; whereas if I’m doing a harder run, I’ll wear less, feeling a bit colder (particularly on top) so that I don’t overheat during the run. One thing I will say is true across the board – stay away from cotton on any part of your body. It does not keep you warm, it does not wick moisture and will only result in more rapid heat loss because of this.

Some basic guidelines (but I could write so much more…):

1.       Dress in layers! Start with a sweat-wicking base layer, to avoid overheating. Knowing just what works for you will require some experimentation. Generally, if you are comfortable at the beginning of your run, it is possible that you have dressed too warmly. My outer layer is always a wind jacket, and usually wind pants. I can layer fewer layers underneath (improving stride and flexibility) by protecting myself from the wind. Note: one thing the market won’t tell you is that in the winter, you can actually go quite a few runs between washing your gear, which will really save on the wear and tear of your expensive clothes.

2.       Cover your head! Up to 50% of heat is dissipated through the head. This also means one has to be smart so as not to overheat and start sweating your head off, as this will lead to an increase loss of heat. I like my thick hoodie with a polartec hat or my polartec cap with a wind liner (Helly Hansen). I also wear a neoprene face mask that is shaped with a nose. I had to punch extra holes so I could inhale more air. I tried the masks that are more tight-fitting around the face, but the condensation freezes on top, which then freezes my face. Also, I couldn’t inhale enough without inhaling the mask as well. Due to the freezing condensation of sweat and breathing moisture, my whole head looks like a snow cone at the end of a run (wish I had a photo of that)!

3.       Protect your feet! I still wear my Saucony Kinvaras (“minimalist” trainers) out in -18F temps. The key is to wear the proper socks. I like Mizuno’s Breathe Thermo socks – the fibers give off heat when exposed to moisture. Bueno! When my feet start sweating, they get warmer, not colder! These socks are fairly thin, so I wear another thick pair over them, and these are usually a little bit longer crew-style to cover more of my lower calf. If you are going to be wet, make sure you have some water-proof liners in your shoes.

4.       Care for your hands! For my hands, which are very sensitive, I LOVE my Brooks two-layer system. I even have room for a third pair of thin lycra gloves underneath. During a run, I’ll sometimes adjust the layers, switching them out. I don’t want my hands to sweat too much because the moisture will cool them down towards the end of the run. Then there are days when my hands will never get warm even with all three layers.

5.       Stay upright! I don’t wear snowshoes, as there are (usually) cleared paths where I run. However, there is quite a bit of ice. Some people use slip-on gear such as YakTrax or Stabilicers, but I like my DIY screw shoes. See this article for the how-to.

6.       Mind your hydration and fuel! In the cold, we won’t feel as thirsty as when it is hot out, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t losing water. We still sweat, and we lose a lot of moisture through our breath. However, I find it inconvenient to carry water and running fuel with me on a long run in these temps because it freezes! My handheld bottle (even a Polar Bottle with a neoprene sleeve) turns into an ice cube which is inconvenient for several reasons. So lately, I’ve been going out 10 miles, coming home grabbing a snack and water that I’ve placed by the door and going back out for another 8 or so. I try not to stay too long because I really start to sweat inside which makes the second part of my run so much colder. There is more to say about hydration and fuel, but there are more places to look for specifics.

7.       Adjust your expectations! I’ve had to adjust and experiment with my training to account for what I can and cannot do in the cold temps. I just cannot get my legs to work fast enough to do decent speed work, and I don’t think it is safe to push at the highest intensity when it is cold. If the working tissues aren’t properly warmed up and stay warm, an injury could result. This year I’m doing longer weekday runs (10 miles is about all I can handle at a time) and pushing the pace as I can, for a sort of tempo run. Other days may find me doing an hour of stairs with ankle weights (I live in a 30-story building). My long runs are described as above, or I’ll run first then finish up with an hours of stairs.

A very obvious question may nagging you: why do I bother to run outside? Can’t I do anything else? Why not just NOT run? To the first, there isn’t anything else to do. Running in the cold is still easier than cycling in the cold – especially when there is snow and ice. Aren’t there any gyms? Sure, but the decent ones (where they have functional equipment and a non-smoking environment is enforced) are quite outside of my budget. As for the latter, those who know me know that not running is simply NOT an option. Besides, I’ve got the Boston Marathon coming up in April so there is no winter slacking for me! So I suck it up and go for it! I’ve learned a few things, and if this I-hate-to-be-cold-wanna-be snow-bird can run in the cold, just about anyone can!

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3 thoughts on “Running Cold

  1. Hey, Katherine, I am just back from Bangladesh where it was “wintry” (I was totally underdressed for January there!), but not like China – I watch the weather channels when overseas and always think about you in frigid China, running. You have a lot of discipline, and I admire you for keeping up the running – and sharing lots of good tips on keeping warm and keeping up the miles. Thanks!

  2. great article Katherine. i too read the january article in runners world, but since i live in michigan, didn’t think too much about it. you should see if they will publish this. the tips were awesome. our temps when i run aren’t below zero…usually 20’s or so. the biggest problem i have is no sidewalks and unplowed, icy roads. that is probably the biggest thing that keeps me from running outside. plus…i’m a wimp too, especially now after i have read your article. i am spoiling myself with my awesome treadmill, but as you know, it simply is not the same. much love to you:)

  3. Katherine,

    You are a trooper. In weather that cold, I will only take Bella outside for a short walk. I am thankful for my aerobics DVDs that I can do indoors. Hopefully, there is warmer weather around the corner for you soon!

    Gina

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