Running In The Cold

Although not everyone agrees, at least at first, running is a year round activity. You can always run on a treadmill to avoid inclement weather, but most runners I know find treadmills a bit boring. And especially if you’re training for a Spring race, like the Credit Union Cherry Blossom, you’ll want to be prepared for unpredictable conditions on race day. So go ahead and hit the road – but remember cold weather – just like hot – requires preparation to be both comfortable and safe.

In this post, I’ll focus on just a few areas that can be complicated or confusing for new runners.

Visibility

Although we’ve turned the bend on Winter and days are slowly getting longer, you can expect to spend the next couple of months running in the dark mornings and evenings. There are two challenges — seeing where you’re going and avoiding trips and falls from uneven surfaces, and making sure others can see you. The latter is especially critical when running on streets and through intersections, where drivers may not notice a fast moving runner crossing the street. (As a rule, even if you’re brightly illuminated, just assume they haven’t seen you.)

I wear a small headlamp while running in the morning or evening. My particular model is a Petzl, supporting multiple illumination levels, a filter that switches white light to a greenish hue, and an adjustable lamp that tilts up and down. I adjust the beam so it lights up several feet in front of the path I’m running (and which makes it more visible to motorists). I personally prefer the green light — it’s not as visible to others as a white light would be, but I find the green tint helps with retaining my night vision, so I end up with better situational awareness.

A lamp is helpful for anyone approaching from the front to see you, but won’t help anyone coming up from behind. Try to stay on paths or sidewalks. If you have to run in the streets (not everyone is clear on the need to shovel snow and ice from sidewalks), stay on the opposite side of the road so traffic is approaching you. It’s also useful to invest in reflective materials and lights. After my last encounter with a less than attentive driver, I invested in a reflective singlet that slips over my shoulders, along with a small clip-on lamp that I can slip into a waistband on the back of my pants.

Clothing

There’s a lot that’s been written about cold-weather running clothes. Some of the main points:

  • Most runners invest in so-called technical clothing, which primarily means it’s made from synthetic materials. They absorb moisture from sweat and keep it away from skin (staying dry helps you stay warm). If you prefer natural fabrics, look to wool (especially merino, which tends to be softer and not scratchy) and silk. Avoid cotton – it absorbs moisture, but doesn’t disperse it, so you end up running in wet clothes. That’s both uncomfortable and unsafe since it’s an invitation to hypothermia.
  • Dress in layers, starting with a base layer. These are often quite thin and lightweight, and should fit close to the skin. Follow up with an outer layer, usually long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Covering your skin, especially in windy weather, helps prevent frostbite. I tend to feel the cold, so I generally add a quarter- or half-zip top and perhaps a lightweight insulated windbreaker jacket. Dressing in layers helps keep you comfortable in a couple of ways. Air between the layers will help insulate your body and keep you warmer. And you can add or remove layers as you heat up or cool down during a run.
  • Don’t forget extremities. Your body tends to react to cold by shunting blood toward your core. You might want a thicker pair of socks (here’s where wool can pay off nicely), gloves or mittens, and something for your head. On cool days, I make do with a pair of earmuffs that clip on from the back. Colder days call for adding a knit cap (most people lose a lot of heat through their scalp — if you’re cold, start by adding a hat). And for really cold days, I have a wrap around face mask that covers chin, mouth, and nose. It protects exposed skin, and helps warm the air you’re breathing. (Cold air can constrict your bronchial tubes, leading to an asthma-like condition, as well as the veins in your lungs and heart. At best, you won’t get enough oxygen to run well, and at worst you can precipitate chest pains or a heart attack. Which is why hospital emergency rooms tend to fill up with middle-aged men after a heavy snowfall — exertion plus a lack of oxygen (perhaps on top of already clogged veins) is a recipe for problems.)
Shoes and Traction

Some people wear special shoes during Winter, sealed to keep out moisture. I prefer to train in what I’m going to run my race with, so I stick with regular shoes. Many running shoes have mesh tops that do a poor job of keeping out moisture — and you’re likely going to be running through snow and slush. That can be uncomfortable, but unless it’s particularly cold or you’re running a long distance, it’s likely not a problem. Pay attention to how you feel — which is good all around advice, not just for your feet. Tingling sensations, pain, or numbness are danger signs in the cold. You need to get inside, get warm, and seek medical attention.

The bigger risk, in my experience, is slips and falls from ice or packed snow. There is nothing quite like running flat out in a sprint or interval and hitting a patch of ice. Bruises, broken bones, and concussions are a real risk from falls. The problem is particularly a challenge for older runners, especially if they’re inexperienced.

I speak from experience — older runners are somewhat more likely to have lower bone density and balance can be a challenge. I suggest all runners wear slip-on traction aids on their shoes (mine are from Yaktrax — make sure you get the style designed for running as it is heavier duty and incorporates spikes) that fit over running shoes. They help a lot in providing sure footing and avoiding falls. Just remember to take them off when you come in the house…spikes and most forms of flooring don’t mix.

With a little preparation, running in the Winter can be a delight. Enjoy your training, and make sure you arrive at the start line for this Spring’s races well-trained and un-injured.

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