The thrill of the chill
Winter running need not be scary or uncomfortable
by Dave Foley
Here we go again. The first snows have arrived, but I don’t have to see the white stuff to know that winter is here to stay. Punxsutawney Phil comes up in February to see if we have six more weeks of winter, but here in the upper Midwest, it doesn’t take a groundhog to tell us the cold season’s going to be around for at least five months.
With that much winter in store, the treadmill might start looking pretty good. But before you make the commitment to run inside, hear me out.
You can run outside, even in sub-zero windchills and blizzard conditions without suffering frostbite, frozen lungs or more than the occasional slip and fall. The hardest part of winter running is finding the willpower to take those first steps out the door.
Running comfortably outside begins with making the right clothing choices. There are a multitude of polypropylene-type fabrics designed to be worn as base layers to transport sweat away from skin, and most who run have these on in the winter. I, however, wear cotton T-shirts next to my skin on most runs.
This would not be a good choice if I had to stand around after I had been sweating, as I would soon be uncomfortably chilled. However, for almost every run my house is both the starting and ending point, so I can immediately strip off the sweat soaked cotton shirt at the end of a run. I might add that when I’m hiking, cross-country skiing, cycling or camping I wear polypro or merino wool undergarments since, during these activities, I often stop and need the wicking properties of these fabrics to keep me from getting chilled.
Overdressing. That’s the No. 1 mistake we runners make. Intimidated by how cold it looks outside, we pile on the layers. Then, a mile into the run, we’re soaked in sweat. Having had this scenario play out too many times, I now wear a bit less. I may be cold for a few minutes as I get going. But the body’s heating capabilities are impressive, and soon I’m comfortable. If I start to get too warm, I remove my hat and/or my gloves, which usually helps.
Protect the head & face
For head covering, most of the time a stocking hat is sufficient. But if the temperature or windchill brings it down to about 15 degrees, I’ll go to a balaclava which covers the neck, chin and forehead. If that’s not enough, I’ll pull on a full facemask, the style favored by bank robbers with only holes for the eyes and mouth. If you haven’t got a facemask handy, a layer of Vaseline smeared on your face will provide good protection against frostbite.
Cover those digits
As conditions worsen, I’ll keep making changes in how I cover my hands as well. Gloves work well most of the time, but wool mittens are better choice as the temperature falls. On those sub-zero days, I’ll pull on nylon windshell mitts over the wool mittens. Because wind and air can seep through wool, the windproof nylon shells keep your body heat close to your hands. That combo works for me even when the conditions go to minus 30. If your hands inside gloves or mittens start to get cold, ball your fists up to reduce the area exposed to the chill.
Keep your feet heat
For footwear, on the coldest days I’m wearing a heavier sock, but never two pair. If your feet are crammed tight into your shoes, they’ll get cold. There needs to be some air circulating within the shoe. Since your feet are moving more than any other part of your body, there’s almost no chance they will get cold.
Unless there is a smooth layer of ice on the roads, I do not attach Yaktrax or ice cleats to my shoes. I hate the sensation when metal cleats hit pavement. Last winter I never missed a day of running. Only twice was it icy enough to warrant adding grippers. Usually there’s snow, broken ice or sand on the road surface which offers enough traction to run safely.
Three bottom layers
The most I’ll wear is two layers of long pants over my running shorts. An outer nylon shell pants works well until it gets in the low 20s. Then I’ll add an underlayer of polypro. Men need to be sure to wear cotton underwear next to their skin on those super cold days to minimize the chance of frostbite in the nether region.
For the top layer, I start with a cotton T-shirt, long or short sleeve depending on conditions, and then a windbreaker for temperatures in the 30s. As it gets colder, I’ll add a sweatshirt under the windbreaker.
Be sure your windbreaker is reflective. The shorter hours of daylight in winter increases the likelihood you’ll be out running after dark. Slick surfaces and snow piles along the road shoulders force runners to share the lanes with automobiles. Driving conditions in winter are already difficult, so don’t make it harder for motorists to avoid you by blending into the surroundings.
The winter before last was the coldest I’ve experienced as a runner. Yet even when the icy bite of the Polar Vortex arrived, I was still able to run comfortably. Although a warmer El Nino winter is predicted, I’ll still have my face mask and wool mittens ready.
Dave Foley sets out from his home in Cadillac, Michigan, to run, bike, paddle, hunt and fish.