Cold Weather Running

21 Nov

The Alaska-stache at rest.

As a newly re-born cold-weather runner, I thought I’d share some advice and thoughts on running through the winter. Okay, check it out:

Alaska.

Quick – what was the first thing that came to mind? Bullwinkle the moose? Frozen, barren wasteland? Endless winters and months within literally no sun? The answer is that all responses are correct. Alaska is the size of about 30% of CONUS, and with it come the widest variety of climates you will find anywhere in this great nation (Author’s Note: non-scientific response, of course, but feel free to wiki or Google it at will.) Here in Anchorage, we sit next to a rather large body of water known as the Pacific. Technically, we’re on the Cook Inlet, which is an extension of the Pacific, but you get the idea. That large body of H2O likes to warm up slowly, and cool down slowly as well. As a result, it moderates the affected climate significantly. For example, average temps here in the winter are actually much warmer than where I grew up in northern Minnesota. More snow, but warmer for sure.

Daylight – yep, head up to Barrow and you will indeed lose the sun for a bit. But here in Anchorage, the shortest amount of daylight is about 6 hours, not including dawn/dusk, on 21 December.

The point of all this useless trivia is this: winter does in fact come to Alaska, but what it is largely depends on your location. Which brings us back to Anchorage, and the attempts of yours truly to continue to train through the colder months. And yes, it’s cold. Last week, when the above pic was taken, daily lows were in the negative 10s-20s F with the windchill. So, to make it through runs without ending up a frostbite victim, you have to equip yourself for the cold. The key here is layering. Try and head out in a something that looks like what your mom sent you out the door in when you were a kid, and you will quickly find yourself overheated and soaked with sweat under that sweet, neon-striped moon suit. Here’s how to break it down:

1) Base Layer. Your base layer should be tight, and next to the skin. Depending on temps, you can wear something very thin and light, or thick and warm. I prefer to keep it as thin as possible. The purpose of the base layer isn’t to keep you warm per se – it’s to transport moisture away from the surface of your body. Dry skin is warm skin – wet skin, not so much, and your body is constantly evaporating moisture as a part of its metabolic processes, whether it’s 50 below or 120 above. So, for example, last week I wore a Patagonia Capilene top and bottom, very light weight. On my hands were some tight-fitting polypro fleec gloves, and just the usual running socks on my feet. Oh, and before I forget…fellas. Invest in some windproof undies. So very worth the pain they prevent.

2) Middle Layer: This is where insulation starts to happen. Remember that warm clothes aren’t warm because they magically generate heat. They’re warm because they trap and reflect the heat generated by the 98.6 degree furnace beneath it. It still needs to breathe and wick, because the moisture your base layer transported needs to go somewhere, right? And that somewhere needs to be away from your body. For me, and this is all a matter of preference and body style, I actually wore a middle layer. I usually won’t until temps get to around zero, just because I prefer to err on the side of being cold as opposed to overheating. I should specify, however, that I did so only up top, not on my legs. My middle layers last week were technical running tops, half zips. A little thicker than the base layer, and a little more loose, but still wicking and still fitted enough not to be all baggy.

3) Outer layer. Your outer layer serves two purposes: keep what’s outside on the the outside, and move what’s inside, to the outside. Ideally, the outer layer should counter the environmental threat you face. If it’s raining, it should shed water. If it’s windy, it should block the wind. If it’s snowing, it should be water-resistant enough to shed the snow as it melts from the body heat escaping your layering system. Last week, my hat was a windproof North Face beanie, and my top was either a light softshell or an extremely light hardshell wind jacket. Over my fleece gloves I wore hard shell gloves to block the wind and trap heat. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention glasses – I wear Rudy Projects with clear lenses, which are absolutely indispensable to keeping cold wind and snow out of my eyes. Also, I like to wear a gaiter around my neck when the wind is really bad and cold since breathing with a frostbitten neck can be problematic. My shoes are the same shoes I wear year-round, with Yaktrax to buy traction on the the snow and ice. I experimented with the pants – one day I wore some loose tights, the other day I wore the Saucony ones that highlight my curves. Both worked well, but the looser ones are the smart choice when it gets really cold since they keep the wind off your skin.

Okay, so that’s how I deal with the cold. Layer up, layer smart. The best rule of thumb is that you should always start the run feeling cold, and let the exercise-generated heat warm you as you progress. Now, let’s talk about how light (or lack thereof) affects how I train up here.

It’s dark here, boys and gals. Daylight is short, and doesn’t align well with prime running time (early morn/early evening). There are tangible effects and intangibles to short days…Tangibles: when it’s dark, you need to be able to see, and be seen. In order to see, I wear a headlamp to ensure I don’t run smack into a lightpole, errant moose, or another runner. Unfortunately, what I’m using right now is not putting out enough light for my comfort level, so I need to fix that. It also helps me to be seen, whether I’m on the trail or the roads. But while some manufacturers have gone to endless lengths to ensure their outerwear is easily visible (neon colors, reflective piping, and even battery-powered lighting), the cheap remedy is simply to drop about $3.50 on some adhesive reflective safety tape. Cut it up into some small pieces that you can stick/sew on your back, front, sleeves, whatever, and you achieve the same effect.

Intangible effects of the evil dark: who the hell wants to get up at oh-dark-thirty and crush a run in the cold? Nobody – that’s who. The human body is solar-powered and sun-timed. When days get short, bodies get lethargic and prefer to exercise jaws through the ingestion of peppermint bon-bons and frosty refreshments. There’s even a disease called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD, get it?) that has to do with folks in norther climes getting so bummed by lack of sunlight that they get uber-depressed. While I’m not planning on offing myself anytime soon, I have noticed the lethargy. I want to sleep longer, later, and just generally have a hard time waking up. Even a cup of inky French-Pressed Ethiopian Go-Juice can’t seem to get me going. So, I bought a full spectrum lamp (known colloquially as a “Happy Lamp”) that essentially puts out sunlight. When I get up, I make my coffee, then sit in front of that bad boy while I enjoy my drank. Within 20 minutes, I feel like noticeably more energetic and motivated to get out the door.

So, that’s it. I’m happy to report that my worst fears moving from the Dirty Durty regarding running in the winter have proven unfounded. It’s true I won’t be on the track too much until spring, but maintaining a good base should be no problem. I’ve started running to and from work in the mornings and afternoons, and that gets me about 13-14 miles a day. For speed, I just hop on a treadmill. The conditions outside are a challenge – sometimes I’m on hard-packed trail, sometimes road, and sometimes, I’m struggling to hold 10 minute mile pace because I’m on soft snow or crust. But I like the challenge, and the variety. After two years of pounding nothing but pavement, it’s nice to get the same benefits on a multitude of surfaces.

Look, you can get super nerdy with this stuff. It’s not like summer: shoes/shorts/tee? Simple Check. And it’s all individual, and sometimes gender-driven. You’ll ge

4 Responses to “Cold Weather Running”

  1. Megs Lederer November 21, 2011 at 10:02 am #

    Great post!! At the beginning of every winter, I endlessly overdress and peal off layers throughout my runs, so this provides a great reminder of how to layer properly!

    Also, Eric woke me up this morning by saying he wanted to move to Alaska so he could buy awesome gear!! Haha!! Great post!!

  2. Eric November 23, 2011 at 7:25 am #

    Off to the store to get some windproof undies and form fitting pants that highlight my curves… going to be the perfect Thanksgiving outfit.

  3. Anne Marie December 22, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

    Do you honestly find that your “Full Spectrum Lamp” helps with energy and mood? I have spent many Northern WI winters with low energy and a, shall we say, “less than positive” mood and have always wondered if those bad boys really made a lick of difference. I’m getting one if you honestly think it’s helped you!

    Also, question… I’ve started running for the first time this fall (in any sort of seriousness that is) and am going to start training for a 10K or half marathon (like i said, a VERY brand new little baby runner here! Nothing like yourself! I started barely being able to run a MILE.) So, my problem is, I prefer running outside to plotting along on the treadmill down the street at our little apartment complex gym, but I find that my lungs freeze and burn so terrible in the winter when I breathe hard that I can’t! I then end up coughing and hacking up a great deal of undesirable “gunk” for a week or so afterwards. Not cool. Thoughts?

    • indiesummit December 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

      Anne Marie, I’m no doc, but it does make a huge difference, and they’ve been used as prescriptions for SAD treatment for a long time going now. I can’t recommend the idea enough…another option is to find ways get full spectrum bulbs into every day light fixture. Be advised, through, the light is very bright and white, so not the most feng shui of ideas…

      As far as the coughing/congestion issue, I’m no doc, so take anything I say with a grain of salt. What’s happening is that you are irritating your air passages with the dry/cold air, and the mucus is the body’s defensive response. All I can say is to stick with it, check with your doc in case you have a predisposition to bronchitis or other types of respiratory infections. Eventually, your body will adapt, but it takes time and consistency.

      One final option is to strictly breathe through your nose, which allows the maximal amount of air warming and moisturization before it hits your resp. passages. It’s hard, but if you’re just starting, a great habit to learn early.

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