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Winter running brings many challenges that can easily be overcome to bring a tremendous sense of enjoyment. The days are shorter now, and for many of us that means running in the dark. Winter brings with it cold cheeks and icy roads. It means that motorists may not see us because they didn't scrape off their windshield. Narrower roads due to snow packed shoulders. It means under-dressing and being cold at the start of a run or over-dressing and being soaked in sweat by the end.
But it also means a beautiful pre-dawn or evening moonlight reflecting off the snow. It means watching the sunset at the end of a long run. It means quiet, meditative runs down the middle of a dark, rarely used street; the only noise being that of your breath and the sound of your crunching in the snow. Yes, winter running can be a challenge, but it can also be its own reward.
The key to enjoying wintertime running is in the preparation. You need to understand what to wear on your feet, legs, torso, hands, and head; you need to make sure you can be seen and are prepared to take evasive action when you are not seen; and you need to know when you should find some other form of exercise.
Cold Weather Aerobic Attire
The winter runners wardrobe...
The amount of winter running clothes you own depends on how cold it gets, how frequently you run, how frequently you do your wash, and your (or your family's) tolerance for smelly running clothes. If you run six days a week and don't mind wearing tights and pants a couple of days between washing but change your shirt daily, your winter running gear might look something like this:
Whenever you can, wear clothes that unbutton or unzip. That way you can zip up at the beginning or end of runs or when running into the wind, but unzip a couple layers after you warm up or when your back is to the wind. Keep in mind that the wind has a greater influence on your comfort than the actual temperature. I’ve been on runs on 40 degree days with a stiff Iowa wind and absolutely froze while wearing the same attire on a 10 degree, sunny, windless day have been very comfortable.
Starting from the ground up, your socks should be longer than anklet or mini-crews. Go for a full-length crew so there is no gap between the bottom of your tights and the top of your socks. This would be a good time to try out the amazing Oxysox. If you are self-conscious about making a fashion statement with the extra long socks they can be hid under your pants. There is absolutely no place for cotton in the winter runner's wardrobe (including on your feet): it absorbs water and will cause you to get chilled if you slow down or if the wind picks up. Your toes will rarely get cold while running as long as you are wearing decent socks.
For covering your legs I recommend tights or pants. Yes, real men do wear tights. These come in a variety of weights and on the coldest of days I have even doubled up. Wind pants are also an option to wear over the tights on extremely cold or windy days. Generally only a single layer is all that is needed. For men I also recommend a wind brief for extra protection from the cold.
For your upper body the layering of winter running apparel becomes your best line of defense against cold weather conditions. There are three basic levels of layering. The first or base layer should absorb perspiration and transport it away from your skin to the outside where it evaporates into the air. This layer should be lightweight and fit snugly to keep your skin dry and be made of a technical fabric such as CoolMax or DriTec. The second or middle layer serves as a heat insulator by trapping some air to keep you warm, yet releasing enough vapor or heat to avoid overheating. A fleece vest or pullover works well here. The third or outer layer performs triple-duty by being breathable, visible, and weather-resistant. This layer, usually in the form of a jacket, should protect you from wind, rain and snow. Depending on the wind chill temperature, you may not always need all three layers. Usually, two of the three layers are sufficient but this becomes a personal decision.
Since your hands and head act like a chimney for your body, a high percentage of heat escapes through them. Therefore it is also important to wear running gloves or mittens (mittens help keep your hands warmer since your fingers warm each other); hat or headband.
Avoid the most common mistake...Don’t overdress. It is a natural mistake and one that we all make. If it is cold and blustery outside, who wants to start out a run cold and shivering? But take care not to overdress: although you will be comfortable at the beginning, you will soon start to overheat. An overdressed winter runner can sweat just as profusely and dehydrate just as quickly as the summer runner. Moisture is your enemy in the cold. The sweat drenched winter runner has to worry about the very real danger of hypothermia. If you are out for a long run, get soaked in sweat early on, and then have to slow down because you are dehydrated or have to turn back into a head wind, you can easily get chilled or worse. So monitor your body temperature. If you find you are starting to sweat heavily, stop, take off a layer, and tie it around your waist, or ditch it somewhere you can pick it up on the way back. You can always put it back on if you get cold.
How much should you wear? That depends on how hard you are planning to run, how prone you are to getting cold (some people never seem to get cold), and whether you are recovering from an injury. You will have to experiment some before you find out the perfect mix. But you will learn quicker if you make a note in your log of the temperature, wind speed, what you wore, and whether your winter running attire was appropriate.
Until you have some experience, try this: think about what you would wear if you were just going out for a brisk walk and then exclude a layer. If you are going to be running hard and the wind is calm, you may also want to leave the wind shell at home. Or better yet, keep the wind shell with you. Take it off after you have warmed up, and put it back on when you start to cool down. Many wind shells will also roll-up pretty small, allowing you to stuff it in a pocket or small fanny pack.
You can also follow these guidelines when getting dressed for that cold winter run (temperatures are in Fahrenheit):
Use this as a starting point, adjusting it to your own personal preference and wind chill factors. And don't forget to lighten up on your attire if you are running hard, but add a layer if the wind is blowing hard.
Seeing and Being Seen
For many runners, winter running also means running in the dark or on dreary days. If you are not fortunate enough to be able to run during the day but are forced to run before or after work, then you need to make sure you are seen by motorists. Be wary of that sleepy-eyed morning commuter who didn't scrape off his windshield, is adjusting the radio with one hand, and holding a coffee in the other.
To be seen you need to wear reflective gear. A good reflective top should be your first purchase. Your next purchase should be reflective tights. You can also add a reflective hat and gloves. In many cases it is also advisable to carry a flashlight or other light. There are some new lightweight LCD headlights or red taillights that are great for running. When a car is coming towards you it is best to keep as far to the left as possible. But that can be difficult, since the glare from the car's headlights often make it difficult to see where the edge of the road is. A flashlight can help you do that and a hat with a bill will help to cut the direct glare.
So you've adorned yourself with reflective gear and lights. You can relax and be assured that drivers will see you right? Well, no! It is amazing how many drivers will come straight at you even though you light up like a Christmas tree. Many veteran runners have had to dive into ditches or snow banks in order to avoid oncoming vehicles. Consequently, you should always run facing traffic and be prepared to get out of the way if necessary.
When You Shouldn't Go Out for that Run
Depending on where you live and when you run, there may be days when you shouldn't run. When temperatures are below zero and the wind is blowing, or when the roads are slippery with ice or snow. Folks with a history of heart disease should consider exercising indoors when it is less than 30 degrees F.
Extreme cold presents the obvious risk of frostbite. Slippery roads can lead to falls and subsequent injuries unless your are using something such as Yaktrax. Yaktrax are compact and lightweight traction device that makes this a user-friendly solution to ice and snow. You will feel the same solid predictable grip you are accustomed to feeling on dry surfaces.
Even if you can't run, you may be able to exercise. If you can cross train put on a pair of cross-country skis or show shoes. If you are forced to stay inside, consider a bicycle trainer, rowing machine, or treadmill.
Here are some final precautions:
Don't let winter interrupt your training. It is always a good idea to cycle on your training during some part of the year by changing the intensity, but winter is no excuse to stop training altogether. Don’t miss out on some great runs. Enjoy the peace and quiet that winter running can bring. When conditions permit, winter is an excellent time to cross train on snowshoes or cross-country skis.
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About the Author
Perry Dau is the owner of Revel Sports, a specialty, on-line running store. Perry has been a runner and "silent sports" enthusiast for nearly 30 years.
Perry Dau can be reached at: perry[at]RevelSports.com
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