Because of the climate I live in, running when it’s cold out is pretty much inevitable, especially if you’re like me and hate running on treadmills. Occasionally, I’ll find an indoor track to run on, but even 10-to-a-mile tracks can get old and boring for a run longer than a couple of miles. Therefore, I usually find myself bundling up in the cold and hitting the streets.
This is my fifth winter of running in the cold, and since this morning was a -9 (F) degree run, it seemed appropriate to talk about how to survive the cold, yet still get your training plan done.
Running in the cold has three main things that you need to keep in mind.
1. Plan – When going out for a run in cold weather, and even more importantly in extreme cold, you want to have a plan. Make sure that you know the route you’re running, and know it well. When the temperature is double digits below zero, it’s not the time to go exploring new paths and trails.
You may also want to stay closer to home. Break out a well known 1-2 mile loop and repeat it if it helps keep you closer to your base of support. The last thing you want to do is find yourself a solid 4 miles away from home, injured and covered in sweat in an extreme cold.
All of this advice about planning goes double if you’re running in the early morning hours in the dark. Stick to paths you know and can run with your eyes closed.
2. Gear – It should go without saying that the proper gear is key to surviving running in the cold. Running tights under some track pants create a great base of warmth, and protection against the wind. On your upper body make sure to layer up your core with some running shirts (remember, you’re still going to sweat) and a good winter running jacket. The better you can protect your core, the easier it is for your body to pump blood to the extremities, which is where you’re going to feel the cold the most.
For protecting my fingers I like gloves that also have a mitten pull-over. Keeping all of your fingers close together helps keep them warmer, but if you need dexterity you can slide the glove pull-over off and have full use of your independent digits.
I usually wear a balaclava to protect my face, and because I shave my head, I usually layer it with a hat to keep my head warmer. I love the ice beard look, but I usually won’t try for it when the temps get below zero (F). It’s just too harsh for the skin on your face at those lower temps.
I actually don’t use anything special for socks, just my normal running socks. I know some people like some of the thermal type of socks, but I’ve never tried them myself. Perhaps one of these winters I’ll give them a go. As for shoes, if you’re worried about traction, the screw shoes I talked about earlier are a great option.
Finally, in the winter make sure you’re wearing visible clothing. Flashing lights, such as clip on blinkers or armband straps, are a no-brainer in the winter or even the summer. Also consider a reflective vest, even if you’re not running in pitch blackness. Often in the winter you’ll be running further out into the street, and depending on how much snow is around, you might be partially obscured when coming around corners. Simple reflective vests are cheap and light and a great addition to the runner wardrobe.
Last night, before bed, I told myself that I was running 4 miles this morning. I laid out my wardrobe, and planned layers of clothes. When I awoke, I got up, got dressed, went outside and started running. I didn’t question the temperature or my sanity. I mentally had committed to getting the run done, and as soon as I mentally gave in to that thought, the cold became a non-issue.
Because I had prepared myself mentally I was able to very quickly enjoy the experience. Running in extreme cold is very different than running in the summer. The air seems more still, and you can hear the smallest sounds. The crunch of your feet on the snow becomes a crisp soundtrack for your experience. On extreme cold days the sky is usually crystal clear, and this morning the view of the moon and a few planets and stars was brilliant and bright.
After a couple tenths of a mile my body was getting up to temperature; I was sweating and generating heat. My extremities took slightly longer to warm, but eventually settled into a comfortable feeling. The heat of my breath as the balaclava pushed it up my face, and over my eyes, kept my skin from any type of tingling. Long before I reached the first mile it was just another run, no different than any others I do in warmer weather.
Running in extreme cold can seem daunting, but it can be done, and most importantly, it can be enjoyed.