some tips for winter running!

20 01 2012

Ever have that crazy nightmare where you’re trying to run away from some nasty monster and it feels like you’re treading through Jell-o, not making any headway?  Winter running, particularly in snowy conditions, can certainly have the same effect.  That is, if you’re even able to muster up the courage to head outdoors when the mercury falls below the freezing mark.  Luckily, you don’t have to be trapped inside or resort completely to “dreadmill” training during the long, cold winter months.  With the right planning and the right “gear,” it is possible to train for ultras even in snowy conditions.

I have to admit, I’m a bit of a newbie to extreme winter running myself.  While I grew up in Ohio and lived for several years in Michigan, I haven’t run through an ENTIRE winter in about fifteen years, since I first moved to southern California.  That said, I’m rediscovering a lot of old tips and tricks about cold weather running this winter – my first entire winter in western Massachusetts.  Here are some things that have been working for me so far, and that have worked for me in the past as well!

1. Dress appropriately and make the investment in the right gear.
Winter is not the time to go out for a jog in your favorite cotton t-shirt, sweatshirt, and other layers.  Why?  When cotton gets wet, it stays wet.  And, if you’re wet when it’s freezing cold outside…well, that’s just a recipe for disaster.  Think about it…do you want your clothing itself to freeze???!!!

Wicking fabrics are key in the winter, as is layering.  Here’s an example of what I typically wear, if the temperatures are in the teens to 20s:
long sleeved base layer
wind breaker or “weather proof” running jacket (I own three)
a pair of running tights
thicker socks – I recently bought several pairs of Drymax “trail running” socks and they have kept my feet very toasty even in incredibly snowy conditions…almost TOO toasty!
light skull cap
wicking gloves (I have a pair by Injinji plus a thicker pair by Nike)

Once the temperature gets to…oh, 10-ish…things really start to feel uncomfortable.  In this case, I tend to add:
some kind of tighter sleeveless layer around my core, occasionally with my fleece-lined Moeben sleeves under the long sleeved base layer
a “Buff” – coolest running product ever! – around my neck
a Smartwool balaclava.  If you don’t know what a balaclava is, it’s basically a ski mask that keeps everything except for your eyes covered up, and makes you look like a bank robber (which is always kind of amusing).  The Smartwool option is nice and light!  This helps keep water droplets from freezing inside your trachea and lungs.
a fleece hat on top of the balaclava
if cold enough (sub-zero), a pair of clear glasses or goggles (so my eyes/contacts don’t freeze)
an extra pair of socks – usually Thorlos meant for hiking – on top of the Drymax
a pair of wind pants over my tights
And if it’s snowing and really windy, sometimes I add a waterproof jacket by Marmot on top.  It’s actually my husband’s, and is ten sizes too big consequently, but it covers me to my mid-thighs and keeps me very comfortable in extreme conditions.  I’ve worn it in a hailstorm in the San Juans of Colorado, for example, and had no issues.

To summarize, put on layers (and strip some off if you get too warm) and keep the fabrics breathable.  Can’t emphasize that one enough!

2. TRACTION.
Snow isn’t so bad, but ice can be a killer, especially if you slip and fall on it unwittingly.  I did this on an icy run a few years back and really hurt my knee in a bad fall!  (I ended up having to take almost a month off to heal.)  Using some sort of traction system for your running shoes is key in extreme weather conditions.  Two companies I know of make great options that simply slip over your shoes.  These options are Yaktrax and Katoohla microspikes.  I personally own the Yaktrax (be sure to buy them in a size larger than you think you need…got that tip from the helpful folks at Northampton Running Company and they were right!).  They only cost something like 25-30 bucks and will save your neck.

If you don’t want to spend that amount, look into making your own traction system by creating “screw shoes.”  All this involves is putting a bunch of shorter sheet metal screws into the treads of your running shoes…takes a little bit of effort, but is by far and above the most economical method.  You can find a nice, detailed article of instructions on how to make your own screw shoes here.

3. Stay hydrated!
Cold winter air has less humidity than you’d expect.  Also, you seem to sweat less in the cold, and so you don’t really drink as much as on a warmer or more humid run.  This can be a recipe for disaster, particularly in long runs.  Always remember to keep up with your hydration – in the cold, DO drink before thirst (within reason).

A particular challenge in winter weather is keeping your water from freezing.  I’ve read some things from folks on the ultralist about additives for water that lowers the freezing point, but I’ve never personally experimented with those methods.  Instead, I use a hydration backpack, and keep the tube/straw feature INSIDE of my clothing, close to my core.  The bite valve still seems to freeze shut on occasion, but thaws out after chewing on it for a few seconds.  I really like the hydration packs by Ultimate Direction, personally.  The bladders are a pain to deal with – they have a funky roll top – but they include a really cool INSULATED tube/straw that keeps your water cold in summer, and relatively unfrozen in the winter.

4. Don’t be afraid to slow down.
Cold will slow you down in a parallel manner to heat, even though you think it may not.  Check your ego at the door before you leave the house!  For me, my most comfortable long run pace on roads is something like 9:30-9:45 miles, but in cold, snowy conditions that pace could easily become 11:30-12:00 miles.  Or even slower, depending on the terrain.  I recently did a hilly trail run in 20 degree weather where 15:00 miles felt like a sprint, uphill in several inches of snow.  Ouch.  Lower your expectations of your speed performance as the temperature lowers.

5. Consider running for “time” rather than “miles.”
Because you’re going to slow down inevitably, getting in “x” number of miles on your training schedule might not be practical, taking too long.  Try going out for the same duration of time that it would typically take you to complete that mileage goal in better weather.  You’ll still get the training benefit of being on your feet for an extended period of time, plus running in cold/snow is MUCH more strenuous than running on flat roads in 50 degree weather.  Trust me.

6. Be flexible in your training schedule to accommodate extreme weather changes.
I can’t stress this one enough.  If you know a severe weather pattern is rolling in, get your workout completed before the weather hits (and always carry some emergency supplies in your pack in case it hits while you’re out!).  No one is holding a gun to your head, saying that you must run your speed workout on Tuesday and your long run on Saturday.  Just get the workouts in when you can!  And if you miss a long run because of inclement weather…well, the world won’t come to an end.  Go to the gym and cross-train.  Or stay home and practice “recovery.”  That’s not such a bad thing.

7. Consider splitting up your long runs into multiple parts by taking a short break in the middle.
This really works great when you have to get in a 20+ mile run in very cold weather.  Go out for the first ten or so…come inside, rehydrate and eat, warm up and go back outside after a half hour.  This is also a good method for practicing eating meals during ultras, I’ve found!  Plus, it helps to train the mind.  You’ll find you want to stay inside, in the wonderful warm air…you’ll have a similar experience at mile 80 of a 100-miler…actually, one that is MUCH more challenging to overcome.  Practice the mental resolve you need for an ultra finish in your training.

8. Run with the wind at your back whenever possible.
A good running friend, Paul Schmidt, gave me this tip when I first told him I was moving to Massachusetts.  And believe me, when someone with an ultrarunning resume like multiple grand-slammer Paul tells you to do something, you listen!  Simply have a friend drive you “x” number of miles out on the road, first taking note of the wind direction.  Then run home with the wind at your back the entire way.  This way, you’ll avoid getting chilled; running INTO the wind often will have this time of debilitating effect.

9. You can do a decent workout indoors, believe it or not. 
Join a gym…try some of the other aerobic machines, like the elliptical trainer or the rowing machine.  Lift weights.  Run on the treadmill, but vary the pace and incline…you can even mimic a “mountain run” by setting the incline to something relatively steep and running/walking on that for several miles.  I do this, actually, to practice for mountain descents; I set the incline to a negative number and practice downhill running for several miles at a faster pace than usual…we don’t have the long grades here in New England that I used to run back in the mountains of California (or Colorado).

10. And if none of the above work for you…
How about taking an off-season during the worst winter months to hibernate?  Just schedule your racing season at the opposite time of the year for the worst months for weather.  After all, we always could use a break now and then to recover.

Do you have any tips you’d like to add?  Let me know!  And happy winter running…it really can be fun!

don't forget to enjoy yourself...take the time to be a kid again and make some good snow angels!!!

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