In 1981 when I started running and racing in local 5K and 10K races, I took the winters off. It was cold in Omaha after Thanksgiving and no sane people ran outside on the snowy streets during the winter. Most people thought you were a bit off back then running in nice weather let alone temps with a wind chill!
We were content to get fat on the couch for three months each winter and then struggling through March trying to get back in race shape. But the pursuit of excellence (and a PR) can be a powerful aphrodisiac. My Omaha running buddies and I read somewhere where training year-round would be the key to lowering our race times.
Running outdoors through the winter here in the Midwest can be a challenge. But it is also incredibly rewarding and a great way to learn to appreciate those gorgeous spring and fall days that scream for a ten-miler. Here are some tips to help all cold-weather runners get through Polar Vortex II this week and what’s left of the Groundhog’s winter.
1) There is always the treadmill. But I shun the treadmill like I do fat-free donuts. My main problem with the big rat-wheel is that the time conversion rate for indoor running compared to outdoor running is 2:1. (I am not a scientist but I slept in a hotel once.) I am constantly amazed that it feels like it takes 60 minutes to run 30 on a treadmill — no matter how good the scenery at the health club. If you are a treadmill guy/gal, more power to you. I just have to be outside where time seems to move at least as fast as I do.
2) Tolerance levels. How cold is too cold? Depends on you and your experience with running in the winter. I also find that the younger you are the better you are able to tolerate the cooler temps – and just about everything else that runners have to endure. A friend of mine has a buddy in Alaska that bikes – yes BIKES – in 40-below wind chills. I think of this guy and his frozen package every time I contemplate riding the couch because of the weather instead of riding my Sauconys. The wind is the most important variable in my winter-running equation. If the wind is less than 10 mph, I can go in about anything above zero. Not go gladly mind you, but it’s doable. Any wind in double digits has me contemplating taking up bowling.
3) What to wear. Back in the ‘80s we were running in cotton sweatpants, cotton long-sleeved shirts, hooded sweatshirts, wool stocking caps and ski gloves/mittens. In other words we were soaked with sweat from mile two on. By the time we finished a sub-freezing run we had frost on our entire wardrobe and resembled snowmen. Today we have a plethora of sexy sweat-wicking winter running togs with which to defeat winter. The problem is a couple of outfits of this stuff cost more than I made in 1983. Nike came out with a highly-reflective running jacket this winter that was priced at $495! If I see you running in this jacket (and if I can catch you), you are going down!
My rule of dumb when it comes to what to wear is if it’s 30 degrees or above I am wearing shorts, a long-sleeved shirt and a headband. Under 30 degrees and I don my running tights and a very thin jacket over my shirt. It is my belief that almost every runner overdresses for cold runs – especially morning cold runs. We are all more sensitive to the cold after a night under the covers. Resist the urge to throw on half your closet and instead try running “lean.” What you lose in warmth out the door you more than make up the second half of your run. BTW, my wife ignores this advice from me almost every morning.
4) Gloves make the woman…or man. Your extremities are more susceptible to the cold than your core. Piling on sweatshirts isn’t the best way to combat the Winter Warlock when it’s your fingers, toes and ear lobes that are most likely to freeze and fall off. I prefer mittens to gloves for weather under 35 degrees. I also double up with a pair of those cheap acrylic stretchy gloves as a base and then add an expensive pair of running mittens over them. Expensive to me is $50 for a pair of running mittens. Robbery if you ask me but I buy new mittens every winter and then rotate them with last year’s pair. Warm hands are a must for winter running. Multiple washings weaken mittens – and you will want to wash your stuff after EVERY winter run. Please do not try to skirt this rule of the winter road. Those who do deserve to run alone. In the dark. Preferably with a strong wind blowing their stench to the heavens.
5) A hat or a headband? I run hot so I stay away from wearing a hat unless it’s 28 degrees or colder. A quality winter-running headband keeps my ears warm and allows my head to release the heat that builds during my run. Spend $20 or more and get a good running stocking hat. There are some really cool ones and let’s face it, winter running is as much about style as anything else. Your pace is going to be crappy in the winter but that doesn’t mean you can’t look good. A sharp lid with a pair of fly tights makes for some nice scenery for interested passing motorists…and those runners who might be following your caboose.
6) Trade in your minimalist summer shoes for some winter snowshoes. I know, you got all excited reading about Caballo Blanco and how he and his High Sierra tribe mates ran through the Mexican mountains wearing nothing more than sandals. Well, leave those zero-drop pieces of cardboard for summer fun runs. You need to wear some weight in the winter when it comes to shoes. I like the winter Nike Zoom Gortex or something specifically built for the cold. Think F-150 rather than Miata. I get three winters out of most of my winter shoes because I rotate them so they’re only going out no more than twice a week.
7) Socks are not just the name of your cat. I double up wearing thick Balega socks for every run under 40 degrees. Balega socks are about $10 a pair but they are worth the indulgence. I used to buy my running socks in those bulk bags for a buck apiece but trust me, good running socks are one of your best investments next to good shoes. I read where one runner once said if he was rich enough, he’d wear a new pair of Balega socks for every run. We all have our own ideas of rich.
8) HotHands hand warmers might be the best invention known to those who work or play outdoors in the winter. Wal-Mart sells these little miracle packets in bulk for less than $1 apiece. I slip them between my mitten and stretchy glove for runs where the temp is below 32 degrees. I don’t know how people run more than an hour outside in the winter without these gems. I have no idea of the chemistry behind how they work, just that they do.
9) The wind. Nothing cuts my winter runs short faster than a face-freezing north or west wind – except ice. I don’t run in icy weather and you shouldn’t either. I also don’t run against the wind when it’s cold. My best advice is to talk your spouse, family member or neighbor into driving you up north so that you can run back WITH the wind. I have put in some enjoyable 10-mile runs on wicked-windy days because my sweet wife chauffeured me up north. Thanks, honey.
10) How far is far enough? I think almost everybody cuts back their mileage in the winter months. And I think that’s a good thing. The bod needs a break now and then just like it occasionally needs pizza. (May I suggest a couple slices of the combo from Original Pizza on College & Antioch in Overland Park? You can’t get much closer to NYC pie here in flyover country.) Anyway, a decent run has to be three miles or more if you are even a semi-serious runner. If the weather is good, I try and get in at least seven. If it’s really good and I have the time I go long, 10 to 20.
But winter isn’t for racing it’s for maintaining. Think summer thoughts and try and get off that treadmill two or three times a week.
/ Twitter @greghall24