When I started running in the fall of 2008, it was exclusively on the treadmill at the local YMCA. The only time I ventured out on the roads was to run a race. As I went through early 2009, I was still shy about going outside but once the weather turned nice, I got some cabin fever and went out for some fresh air. Add to the nice weather a comment I read where a runner said something to the tune of "there are very few races on a treadmill so you might as well train for the road conditions you may have on race day" and I never looked back. In fact, I'm doing my best to avoid the treadmill at all costs. I've run faster on the treadmill and enjoy watching TV while I run. There are no cars to worry about, the temperature is always the same, but I swear I get sick when I get on that evil hamster wheel.
So this winter (2009/2010) I made a very conscious decision to tough it out and go hardcore by running outside no matter the conditions. I think I did okay, but had a few relapses where the wind was just too cold or there was too much rain or too much snow and I wimped out. Those were the runs where I felt lousy when I was done and swore I'd never go back to the treadmill.
My final tipping point was a year ago (almost exactly) when I ran a 5k race in mid-December. This was before our heavy double-blizzard of 2010. Any snow in eastern Virginia is bad. A few inches in the forecast can result in closed schools. So you can imagine what two storms with 14+ inches each did to us. Anyway, my 5k was in mid-December and it was cold and wet. As in just above freezing and raining. Sometimes just a mist, sometimes a downpour. The event also had a half-marathon that started just before us, so those runners were even more hardcore than me. I had no idea how to dress, so I made due with what I had. An old rain jacket, some winter clothes, and a pair of bamboo socks I got at the last minute. By the time I finished I was soaked to my underwear, cold, and wanting to do more. I changed into dry clothes, ate breakfast, and came back in time to see some friends finish the half. They were shivering, soaked, and had an awesome glow. I wanted to be just like them next year (I'm already signed-up for the half in two weeks). So I knew it was time to commit to running outside to not only capture that "hardcore runner" high, but to also prepare for any race-day condition I may have to endure.
While I did take time off during the blizzards (kind of hard to run in 14 inches of snow), I've stuck to my guns and avoided the treadmill. So where does that leave me during the upcoming winter season and running outside? Much more prepared. I've had more time to run outside, adapt to the changing weather, and learn what equipment to use. So from here, I'll finally get into what I've learned about running in the winter. The overall idea here is broken down into a few, simple areas that you'll need to be aware of; weather, equipment, your body, and adaptation.
I've mentioned it before when I talked about running in the rain, but weather has never been important to me. I worked in an office for years and now work at home, so other than the quick dash between the house and my car, I didn't care. Now that I'm running outside, weather is important. And the forecast for the week can often times dictate when I run and how long I run. For example, they're calling for rain Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Tuesday and Thursday are usually my heavy running days, so now I know I may need to run in the rain or maybe make it a short day instead of a long day on Tuesday and run longer on Friday. This is a big part of adaptation, but more on that later. The big thing with weather though, is to just pay attention. I can't read the clouds and tell you when it'll rain, but I can tell you running down the road where the wind will pick up because I'm next to an open field. Or where I'll have mud on the trail because it rained last night. Or that it may start out at 40 degrees on my long run and warm up to 60 degrees by the time I'm finished. So pay attention to the forecast and plan accordingly.
The weather can make your run wonderful or miserable. But it's something that you can't control. Your equipment on the other hand, you only have yourself to blame if you don't come dressed for the occasion. In other words, this can make or break your run. It can keep you going for miles on end or it can turn you into a hypothermic ball of whimpering blubber. And everything matters here. From your shoes to your hat, what you choose needs to be the right thing.
For winter runs, I would keep two key points in mind. First, from Les Stroud, if you sweat, you die. Simply put, dress in layers and remember to strip one off as you warm up. You shouldn't be in danger of death when you run, but the idea is to not sweat if at all possible. Second, the 20 degrees rule. As in you need to dress as if it were 20 degrees warmer out. So if it's 40 degrees out, dress as it were 60 degrees. Obviously everyone is different, so it may be 15 degrees for you. But I'll get into knowing your body in a minute.
The key point is that you'll warm up during your run, so dress with less than you think you'll need. If you're cold when you start, that's good. If you're still cold after a mile or two, maybe you need to add another layer or run a little faster.
For me, I choose from an array of hats and gloves to stay warm. But it's more than that. So I'll just give you an example of what I wore during a recent run. Weather was clear and sunny. Time was between 9am and 11am (2 hour run over 10 miles). Temperatures ranged from 40 to 45 degrees. Wind was light at 5 to 10 miles per hour so wind chill temps were around 35 degrees or so. All of this means that it was cold out and a little windy here and there. From head to toe I wore:
- a winter hat (Saucony DryLete Skull Cap)
- sunglasses (Oakley)
- TRI top (Saucony)
- arm sleeves (Saucony)
- long sleeve shirt (Saucony)
- underwear (Reebok)
- calf sleeves (Saucony AmpPro2)
- pants (Brooks)
- socks (Saucony)
- shoes (Saucony Exodus 2)
Other than the obvious love of Saucony products, what you'll see is a layering system that works for me. While I could have worn a long sleeve shirt under a light jacket, I chose to wear a triathlon top with arm sleeves under a long sleeve shirt. The big reason for this was to have pockets available on the TRI top to carry my e-Gel, but also because it had a long zipper down the front. I knew this would give me plenty of ventilation so I could adjust it up or down as I got warm or cold. So when I started, it was zipped up tight but when I was finished it was unzipped to the bottom. The arm sleeves are another great method for me to control my temperature. They can easily be pulled up or pushed down but they're also easy to manage during a race. pushing them down doesn't really cause a problem, so you don't have to worry about stashing them in a pocket along the way. Plus it gives my body room to sweat and lose heat in my armpits where a long sleeve shirt would seal things up a bit warmer than I'd prefer.
The pants are also a big deal for winter running. I used to be very self-conscious about my body (I still am, just not so much when I run) so I avoided the dreaded tight pants at all costs. Between my big butt and bigger gut, I didn't want to show off all the wrong things. And with cold weather brings shrinkage, so I feared even more sidelong glances. While my body hasn't changed much, my attitude about it has. I'd rather wear something that works and looks horrible than something that looks cool and makes things shrink even more. I'll take function over fashion any day. Which means I wear pants now and I'm not afraid. I'll even wear tight pants. As long as I'm warm, I'm good. But remember that your legs will be doing a lot of the work when you run, so they'll be warm. So even though it was cold out during my run, my legs were never cold.
As usual when it comes to my opinions and reviews, your mileage and pace may vary. So what works for me, may not work for you. This is because everyone is different. So part of learning what to wear during winter runs is learning what your body needs. I know I need gloves before a hat. When temps drop into the 50s, I need gloves. For some reason my hands always get cold. But when temps drop into the 50s I can get away with a regular hat or maybe a headband. But when the temps drop to the 40s, I know I need to think about wearing a winter hat. And if it's going to rain when it's, I need to wear something that will retain heat on my head when it's wet. Same goes for socks. I have bamboo socks that keep my feet warm even when they're soaked through. But if I wore them on a summer day I'd end up with baked and blistered feet from all the heat and sweat. So learn what your body needs. This goes hand-in-hand with the weather part. When you see your breath, learn how many layers you'll need. When the car window is coated in a heavy frost, learn what gloves to wear. When the flag on the pole is snapping in the heavy wind, learn what windbreaker to wear. Your body may need more or less, you just need to know what works best.
Adaptation is a huge part of running. HUGE. If your training schedule is so strict that you can't switch your long run with your cross-training or you can't miss a day because you need an extra rest day, then it doesn't sound like you're much having fun. And even if it's something small, like my favorite shirt is dirty, I'll need to pick a different one, the key is to learn how to adapt. This can make or break your run or your race. I recently had to deal with some GI issues during a trail run and I had to deal with them in a more graphic way than I'd prefer. But I adapted to the situation, dealt with it, and kept on going. Just like those layers help during winter runs, you need to plan for the worst, hope for the best, and deal with whatever comes your way. Just like knowing your body, you may realize 3 miles into a 10 mile run that you didn't wear enough layers and need to call it quits before your toes fall off. Literally. Be prepared to do that and not feel bad about it. Things can always be worse, right?
Learn your body's needs, adapt to changing conditions, wear the right gear (in layers), and watch the weather.