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Your Survival Guide to Cold Weather Running: As told by a winter warrior

 
To ring in the New Year, I decided to commit to running a quarter marathon on the first weekend of the year. The catch? Defeat freezing temperatures, not just the pavement. Having just moved to Rochester, NY a year ago from Savannah, GA (the land of permanent summer) I felt it necessary to conquer this insanity. What can a little snow and 28 degrees possibly do to a person? Surely with the right gear and training, anyone can do this, right? So I marked my calendar, did the work, froze my ass off and even attended a winter running seminar at the local Fleet Feet. We discussed what to wear, frostbite on your ankles and even the record breaking, negative temperatures recorded in previous years of the Winter Warrior race. I was freaked out to say the least…what exactly does negative 20 degrees feel like with a wind chill? That guy’s gator froze? Wait, that man has a gator?! At this point in the conversation I was regretting my decision to do this. Mostly because I’m just a girl from the south and I can honestly say that I don’t even know how to build a proper snowman much less run through snow, ice and wind. But it’s Monday, January 6th, and I can proudly say I completed the Winter Warrior Saturday afternoon. I even had icicles dangling from my eyebrows as I crossed the finish line. So bundle up, it’s time to get out there and quit making excuses. I promise you might regret this.

 

  1. Wear proper gear: probably the most important thing you’ll learn is that having the proper gear for winter running is what makes or breaks a winter run. The number one, most important, must have gear I recommend is: sweat wicking wool or active wool. I swear by it on cold days, ski days, hiking days and of course, on run days. Unlike cotton, it dries quick, keeps you warm even if it gets a little wet and it’s breathable.
Here is a list of brands I recommend:
    • Smartwool
    • Kari Traa
    • Icebreaker

 

Now let’s chat about the specifics:

  • Shoes: say goodbye to that breathable mesh you’ve been wearing all summer. The last thing you need on a run is freezing wind blowing through your shoes or your socks getting wet from snow. Most popular running brands have partnered with Gore-Tex for a tougher shoe designed for rugged terrain (or ice in this case). Gore-Tex is known for better traction, breathability and is typically waterproof. I ran in Salomons, which also have Ortholite insoles giving them a lighter, more cushioned feel than the standard trail shoe.
*Note: If you visit the Gore-Tex website, you can scroll through products that have partnered with them. If you like what you see, you’ll be sent directly to the product in one click.
*Tip: if a shoe has “GTX” in the title, you’re on the right path! For example: Salomon Sense Ride 2 GTX

 

  • Snow cleats: in addition to buying tough grip shoes, attaching additional grip is a good idea if you’re going to be running on icy surfaces. The great thing about cleats is that you don’t actually have to buy a new fancy shoe for them to work. Just slip the cleats on to your favorite running shoes and viola! Check out these cleats designed specifically for winter by Yaktrax.
*Note: cleats work when they have something to sink into (such as ice or mud), avoid wearing them on concrete/ hard surfaces because it can cause them to break easily. Check out this guide to help decide which cleats are best for you.

 

  • Socks: I’ve been told that ankles are the most common body part where runners get frostbite. A great way to avoid this is to select socks that cover your ankles. It’s also important to remember that your feet sweat, especially in shoes that are not designed to be super breathable but instead keep your feet dry and warm. With that in mind, make sure to choose something that dries quickly such as active wool. Here are a list of brands that carry wool socks for an active lifestyle:

 

I also like to wear compression socks during winter runs to keep the blood flowing. These are great if you have poor circulation or if you’re looking for a faster recovery time. Check out my article, Half Marathon Toolkit for Beginners to learn more about compression socks.

 

  • Gloves: gloves are a must for me during the first and second mile of a run, then it’s time to take them off and stuff them into a pocket. For others, gloves are necessary for the entire run and that is a-ok. Here are a few things to consider when shopping around for gloves:
    • Raynaud’s Disease: if you have Raynaud’s, mittens are the best option because it allows for your fingers to stay in contact, permitting the exchange of body heat. Check out these mittens by Kari Traa. They’re as stylish as they are practical!
    • Wind defense: if you live somewhere that is both cold and windy, you know that the standard glove just isn’t going to cut it. I recommend Gore-Tex gloves, which are also great for cycling and skiing.
    • Quick drying: I personally like gloves that are minimalistic, fit in a pocket and dry pretty quick. My hands are the first thing to get hot on a wintery run so if you’re like me, you’ll want to consider something such as these The North Face gloves or Smartwool

 

  • Gaiter: So that guy doesn’t actually have a gator. What he was actually talking about was his gaiter, an extremely nifty item to own for cold weather. Gaiters are great because they can be worn a variety of ways: as a headband, around the neck or covering the face. You might even have a gaiter already from the summer. One of the most common brands is Buff. Gaiters, which can be made to keep you cool, can also be made to keep you warm. Brands such as Buff and Smartwool have mastered this technology making your winter runs both warmer and dryer.
*Another reason to consider wearing a gaiter is to keep sweat out of your eyes, especially if you wear contacts like I do.

 

  • Wind breaking material: as I mentioned earlier, wind blows on a winter run. It’s what makes freezing temperatures, ten degrees colder, bumping those numbers into the negatives. If we were chatting about this in person, you’d quickly learn that there’s nothing I despise more than the wind on a freezing cold day, which is why I highly recommend wearing wind-defense materials. The only downside to windbreakers is that they often hold in the heat because they were designed to break wind, not sweat. Gore-Tex on the other hand has mastered this. I highly recommend checking out their site for outerwear options that work with the wind, not against it.

 

  • Let’s get to the core of this: we need our lungs to breathe, our stomach for nourishment and our heart to supply blood. Where can we find all three of these vital organs? That’s right, in our core. With that being said, it’s crucial that we keep our core warm. Besides wearing a base layer, I like to wear a vest. Vests allow your arms to move, they don’t trap all of the heat in and they have great pockets. Depending on how warm you like to be, or not be, will help you decide what style vest best suits you. For a thicker vest, I prefer a The North Face puffer but for something a little bit thinner that still packs the heat, my go-to is this Columbia

 

  1. Dress in layers:
    • Underwear: when I learned that the fatty areas of the body freeze the quickest and that women should consider wearing specific underwear while running, I laughed. Well jokes on me, because guess who’s butt was frozen even after running in thermal leggings? Lesson learned, so here’s what I suggest… Kari Traa makes wool underwear for women, buy them, wear them, thank me later.
*For the guys: I believe Smartwool makes options for you guys…just keep in mind that the average male tends to hold more fat in the midsection and not the hips/butt area, so check out the vests mentioned above!

 

    • Base layer: base layers are designed to be fitted, thin and worn under other clothing. For some people, a base layer and one outer layer (vest or jacket) is enough to get through a run. Regardless, it’s a good layer to love just make sure you choose sweat-wicking material. Because it’s the layer with the most amount of material and closest to your body, it’s highly likely to be the wettest layer of the four after a run.

 

    • Mid layer: a mid layer is often still fairly light like a jacket or vest and is worn over the base layer. For me, the mid layer is the last layer that I need for a run. On windy or rainy days, the mid layer I turn to is a windbreaker but for all other winter days, I’m in a vest. If you need a little more protection, consider a jacket like this one by Arc’teryx. 
    • Outer layer: the outermost layer is for those of you who never seem to warm up on those cold runs. Outer layers tend to be heavy duty, resembling a coat. Here are some things to consider when looking for an outer layer:
      • Does it limit movement?
      • Is there a good ventilation system?
      • Is it too heavy for a run?
      • Can I tie it around my waste if I get too hot?
      • Will it keep my warm but also dry?
  1. Run in the afternoon: if you can, I highly recommend running in the afternoon when it’s still light outside. This might not be manageable during the week, but definitely doable on the weekend. Another thing to consider is that they afternoon is the warmest part of the day. Despite how cold it is, it’s most likely going to be warmer at noon than at 6 A.M.

 

  1. Keep your gels close: I once made the mistake of keeping my gel by GU in the pocket of one of those handheld water bottles you see people carrying for longer runs. When I got to the halfway point of my run and grabbed the gel to help fuel the second half of my run, I found it almost frozen solid. Yikes! I had to stop running, knead the packet in my hand and chew the hardened gel before continuing my run. Luckily it was in the 30’s that day so it wasn’t completely frozen but that might not be the case on the next wintery 13.1. The solution? Keep the gel close to your body and behind one or two protective layers. Your body heat should keep it at a desired temperature.

 

  1. Wear flashy gear: winter means shorter days and less sunlight which also means your outdoor runs will most likely be done in the dark. Make sure drivers see you by wearing flashy gear such as reflector material or a light. Most shoes have reflector elements but it also helps to wear tops like this one and or bottoms that can be seen in the dark. Not only does wearing a light help others to see you, it also helps you to see where you’re going. For a headlamp that’s sure to stay and guide the way, check out the headlamps by Nathan. Prefer not to wear something on your head? Nathan also offers clip-on lights and hand-held

 

  1. Take a hot bath: to help warm yourself up after battling the cold, opt for a warm salt bath. Not only does taking a hot bath help bring your body temperature back to normal, it can help soothe your muscles after all of the hard work you put them through. A great way to elevate your bath time as a runner is to use Epsom salts, a mineral remedy that’s high in Magnesium and has many health benefits. According to Mindbodygreen, taking an Epsom salt bath can help with stress, anxiety, sleep, pain relief, damaged skin and detoxification.

 

  1. Consider snowshoe running: if you’re like me, you’re always up for a new adventure. Snowshoes are great for hiking in the snow but did you know that there are also snowshoes designed for running?! I have yet to strap in to snowshoes for a run myself but you better believe it’s on my bucket list. Here is a list of snowshoes designed for running and if you’re actually considering it check out these winter races where you can test your limits in the powder.

 

 

 

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