Saturday, February 2, 2013

Winter Running: More than just wardrobe

It seems like there are endless lists of what to wear while running in winter (assuming you live in a climate that experiences a change of seasons more dramatic than "hey, I'm not quite as drenched in sweat this month"), but I've been thinking recently about some of the tricks I've learned for surviving our annual ice age. I've had a fair bit of time to do so; despite January 2013 being the absolute most ass-tastic month out of the last 14 or so in Southern Ontario, I've just put in my third ever 200+km month of running, and the last time I did so was December of 2011. I came close a couple of months in between, and I know many of you will scoff at my piddling mileage, but we're not here to dick measure about training - the fact is I've spent a bundle of hours lurching around in the dark on uncertain footing while saner folk retreated indoors. Treadmills make me want to stick forks in my eyes, so I manage to get out there six times a week even in the worst weather - hell, my first run after making the decision I was going to try to do so regularly happened on November the 10th of 2008, so I spent the first few months of my running "career" dealing with miserable conditions. Here's how I survive them.

Doesn't that beat the view on a treadmill?

Don't get wet. This is a point that can't be over-emphasized. The Inuit have a saying - "wet is dead." They know a thing or two about winter, what with it lasting most of the year in their native lands. Take all possible precautions to keep yourself dry; especially your extremities. Walk around or jump over slush and puddles if you can; if you can't, either walk through it or try to run as lightly as possible to minimize splashing. Even the spots where salt has melted the snow on the road or sidewalk can get you wet, so I try to avoid them unless it's the only way I'll get traction. Be especially wary after dark - the surface of a slush puddle can look just like pavement with a thin layer of slurry on it. Speaking of puddles, you never know how deep they'll end up being; potholes can turn up literally overnight, and you don't want to soak a foot and possibly turn an ankle in a hole that turns out to be several inches deeper than you expected.

Since you're going to get wet anyway, know how to manage it. This comes down to apparel and smart choices. Cotton is your worst enemy, but wool can be your best friend. I have come out of runs in sub-freezing temperatures in which my feet got wet in relative comfort (and with all my toes) by relying exclusively on Merino wool socks in winter - I prefer SmartWool and Icebreaker, but if you can't stand the thought of even non-itchy wool on your feet try Wrightsock's model with Merino wool on the outside and wicking fabric on the inside. My next-to-skin layer is always Merino wool or a synthetic moisture wicking fabric (polyester or polypropylene); I refuse to use any clothing that doesn't breathe to allow moisture to escape, which means excellent fabrics and thoughtfully designed vents. If it's mild enough to rain I can generally keep my legs, arms and head happy with a permeable layer like standard running tights and a long-sleeve shirt - I don't feel the raindrops actually hitting my skin, and for some reason that makes a difference. I do, however, require some additional protection for my core.

I'm wet and it's windy, but I'm ok.

Windproofing trumps insulation. Especially for your chest and extremities. I have a pair of non-insulated gloves that keep my (always cold) hands happy down to about -6c/21f simply because they provide an environment in which my body heat can build without cold air getting in to strip it away - similar to the principle on which wetsuits function. Keeping a windproof layer on your chest will help to keep you warm even in that worst possible circumstance: wind combined with moisture. Even though it tends to soak through in any sustained rain, my vest has saved me from hypothermia in innumerable situations by trapping heat against my core. When windchills get below -15c/5f, I really prefer to have wind protection for my legs as well - I've run happily in a pair of microfleece pants I picked up at a local discount store, but for maximum protection I love Craft's nordic ski tights with windproof panels.

Screw "waterproof" shoes. They probably aren't, and won't drain any water that gets inside them even if they are. I've found that Merino wool socks will only make your feet feel really wet for a few seconds (even after stepping in a slush puddle up to your ankle; shit happens) - when combined with a shoe with a mesh upper that allows the water to exit, you won't end up sloshing, and the wool will keep your feet warm while able to breathe. You can buy a pair of wool socks for every day of the week for less than the cost of one set of waterproof running shoes, and you can continue to rotate through your regular footwear as usual (I won't run in the same shoes two days in a row, so this is a big one for me). You can use trail shoes, road shoes, screw shoes, whatever you want.

Not even any leaves to stuff in a jacket for insulation.

It is better to overdress than under-dress. Most of the advice I've seen says to dress as though it's 20 degrees Fahrenheit/11 degrees Celsius warmer than the thermometer says, and that's reasonable as long as you take wind chill and precipitation into account. You may also want to consider the intensity of run you have planned; if I'm dressed lightly for the conditions, I'll tend to push harder trying to warm myself up in the first few minutes than I intended for an easy run. Traction (or lack thereof) may leave you unable to work hard enough to keep yourself warm - this happened in the slippery mud at Horror Hill last year. You may get wet. Weather can change fast in winter, with a cold wind blowing up out of nowhere. It's better to have to zip down a layer (or remove it entirely) than to be caught at your furthest point from help & home under-dressed. Watch weather reports and be aware of any systems that may develop while you're out, then dress according to the worst possible conditions you may encounter and zip down or shed a layer if you need to.

Accessories are key. I've badly frostbitten my cheeks and earlobes in the past. Feeling ice crystals crunching inside your flesh is bloody disturbing, so I take precautions. I use either an earband or a seamless tube of fabric (commonly known as a buff) - the latter can be folded to make a multi-layer covering for my ears, pulled down to make a neck gaiter, pulled up to form a hood, or used in conjunction with a hat to make a balaclava. This last function makes a huge difference when the temperature drops below -10c/14f, especially with wind; I pull the tube up over my mouth and nose so only my eyes are exposed (Tanker calls me a ninja) and get to breathe in warm air while preventing frostbite on my cheeks. A pair of simple gaiters can keep snow out of your shoes and seal the gap between socks and tights or pants with a slightly-too-short inseam, minimizing your skin's exposure to the cold and wind. I've already discussed socks, but your upper extremities need love too - good gloves are essential. I have a bunch of pairs for different conditions, from a little stretchy pair of Mizuno Breath Thermo ones up through an old pair of snowboard mittens that I use when it gets Hoth cold out. These gloves are probably the closest thing I have to an all-rounder with decent wind protection, a bit of insulation, and good ventilation.

Eyelashes iced up at -15c/5f, but I'm good.

A hat with a brim is better than glasses. During the precious few hours of daylight it will keep the sun out of your eyes. In rain or snow it will cut a swath just big enough that you can see, and when conditions get really bad you can tilt your head down a bit for extra protection. Ice crystals in the eyes suck, but so does not being able to see because your glasses fogged up. In extreme cold, there is no known way to keep lenses clear, particularly if it's chilly enough that you need to pull your tube up over your mouth (the air you exhale will fog your glasses with each breath). The bows from sunglasses, depending on style, can also create a gap between your hat and/or earband/tube and your head allowing cold air to enter. Not good. For general cold or wet weather I use a baseball-type cap made of a water resistant and breathable material, but for extreme conditions I use the hat pictured above. The brim is smaller, but it still works and provides some insulation while still expelling moisture (as seen by the frozen condensation on the top of my head).

Use lights and reflective. There's a lot more dark than light in wintertime, and people are not expecting to see runners. Make them see you, because a car may not have the traction to brake or swerve to avoid hitting you at the last moment. Light yourself up like a Christmas tree, wear the most obnoxious colours you can, and even go so far as to wave your arms around and yell if you aren't sure a driver has seen you. Blinking lights get more attention than steady ones - I like the RoadID Supernova, which is blinding when it strobes and can be used with either a clip or a reflective hook-and-loop arm/ankle band. Go with overkill, and make eye contact. Help them see you by running facing oncoming traffic and stay aware, ready to jump out of the way if need be. Beware of the car turning right off a side street that crosses your path, though; they tend to look to their left only, so may not see you approaching. I've nearly become a hood ornament a few times, so if I can't make eye contact even by waving my light-bedecked arms around and yelling, I'll run around the back of the vehicle instead.

Typical winter gear: reflective-brimmed cap, wind-resistant earband with reflective logo and reflective, wind- and water-resistant jacket.

Traction may be hard to come by. Everyone knows that ice is slippery, but when conditions suddenly turn mild for a day things can get even worse. Beware the melt and rain! The ice that was slippery but runnable at  -5c/23f becomes impassable at 5c/41f when it develops a layer of water on top that might as well be teflon. Beware that thin skiff of snow overtop of ice in colder weather - it behaves almost the same as the water does, robbing you of your grip. While good running technique in the form of landing with your foot under your centre of gravity makes many surfaces that would be treacherous to walk reasonable for running, there's precious little that will help you on these kinds of ice. Beware also of metal maintenance hole covers, hatches and grates in the sidewalk - when wet or snow-covered, they're as slippery as ice. Learn to shuffle, even making your way across this stuff like you're trying to skate. You'll probably have to change to a more upright bearing than you're used to, and you won't be able to get much power from toe-off. Don't worry about it, as your natural stride will come back when the roads clear up in spring. Walk the corners, and realise it will take you extra distance to come to a stop. Crawl if you have to, because falling on ice is like falling on cement - a great way to get injured. In an extreme case I've actually had to use a railing to slide myself sideways, hand over hand, down a switchback covered in wet, lumpy ice.

Non-level surfaces make traction even worse. This goes for both hills and slanting surfaces like crowned roads or sidewalks that are contoured for driveways. Making forward progress is tough enough when you're in slippery snow on level ground, but adding a sideways slip or your feet sliding down an incline can make it difficult just to stay upright. Poor footing is not the time to put in speedwork - do what you need to in order to be safe, even if it means hands and knees. You don't want to injure yourself taking an unnecessary chance - I managed to roll an ankle trying to leap over a snowbank at the end of a sidewalk in 2009 and do something ill defined to my groin last January on a snowy run. The former only took a couple of days to recover fully, but the latter was a source of pain and anguish for over a month. You don't want to end up kicking yourself later, so be careful!

Hill repeats, anyone?

Do some strength work to deal with your feet sliding sideways from under you. Your adductors and abductors can take a beating when dealing with uneven, slippery surfaces. Hip hikes, clamshells and "fire hydrants" will strengthen your gluteus medius, while pliĆ© squats, squeezing a Swiss ball between your knees and side-lying adductor lifts will help your inner thighs keep your feet under you. Had I been more diligent about this last winter, my idiot injury might not have happened. Your ankles can take a beating running on  lumpy, tracked ice and snow, not to mention soft, untracked sections. Trying to trace the alphabet in the air with each foot daily can help build strength and mobility in your ankles to prevent tendon damage.

Warm up those muscles and connective tissues. The first few blasts of cold air when you head out the door can tighten things up and leave you open for injury. Get some blood flowing to your legs with some ankle circles, calf raises, leg swings, jumping jacks - whatever you like. If your heart is pumping a bit, you'll also feel the cold a little less when you do get outside.

Choose your route. Bus routes tend to get plowed first, have more street lights and usually have sidewalks - if you're lucky, they'll even be plowed and/or salted. Running a familiar route is the best idea in really nasty weather - I once nearly got lost in my sister-in-law's neighbourhood (which I was visiting for the first time) because it was -34c/-29f and my eyelashes iced up badly enough that I couldn't read the street signs. It's also a good idea to have the area pre-scouted for bailout points (I'm sure a well-placed Tim Hortons has saved at least one winter runner's life) or potential hazards (like narrow, heavily traveled roads with tall snowbanks and no sidewalks). Don't trust that trail conditions will be anything like road conditions nearby; the surface and traffic type/level is almost certain to be different, and will have a huge impact on the traction. Clear, salted sidewalks could mean anything from deep, untracked snow through lumpy ice or even shoe-sucking mud under the trees. You may find shelter from the wind, but lack of sun penetration may keep the air several degrees colder than out on the street - I've encountered ice and snow along trails after a week of mild weather that completely cleared the rest of town. Your safest bet is probably running the main drag through town - the combination of street lights, (hopefully maintained) sidewalks, businesses that can provide shelter if you need to warm up (or wait for a bailout ride) and other people around means you're less likely to get yourself into the sort of trouble that ends really badly.

A sign of going nowhere fast.

Forget about pace. No, really. You may have to walk, or you may just not be able to get sufficient grip to open up your stride. Beware "mashed potatoes" snow as pictured above - almost half of the energy you expect to drive you forward gets eaten by it mushing underfoot. I call running through snow "Canadian beach running", since the sensation really is like trying to hoof it through sand. Because of this, you may be unable to  predict the time a particular distance will take you to run unless you've done so in very similar conditions. You also won't be able to determine the intensity of your run until you're out and doing it on the day - you may be walking or shuffling at very low intensity due to poor footing, or you may find yourself in ankle-deep snow through which it takes redline effort to maintain even a basic running stride.

Be ready for early sunsets. Intellectually, we all know there is less daylight time in winter. For a couple of months out of the year the sun has already set by the time I get off work (at 5pm), but I will occasionally get suckered into thinking that I can eke out a trail run that's a little too ambitious for the time of day on a Saturday afternoon. Add in the above points about not being able to predict trail conditions or how long a given distance will take and you've got a pretty solid recipe for ending up in the dark a long way from street lights. The safe approach is to carry a headlamp with you if there's a possibility you may lose the sunset race - in a pinch, I've managed to use a clip-on single LED visibility light to navigate a bit of trail, but I wouldn't want to try it with just a blinky light. If you've got nothing else, pull up the lightest-coloured screen you can on your cellphone and use that to light your wary. Really though, a small headlamp would fit in even the tiny pockets provided on most running apparel and doesn't add much weight if you don't end up needing it, but can be a lifesaver even if it's just helping you find the car key you stashed in the fuel door. Buy an economical one and tuck it in a carrier belt if you've no other choice. You may want to try running with your light after dark on a dry, smooth surface before relying on it to get you off the trail in winter - terrain and snowpack can be tough to judge (and puddles hard to spot) in the bouncing light from a handheld torch or headlamp, so some training with it is never a bad idea before push comes to shove. Be aware as well that sunset can bring about heart-stopping drops in temperature; if you may be caught out late, ensure that you're either wearing or carrying an extra layer to ward off an extra 10c/18f degrees of cold.

What do you mean I have another 8km to go?

You still need to drink water. It may be cold and you might not feel thirsty, but you're still losing hydration through both sweat and breath. If you're running over an hour you should probably be drinking. If you're bringing the water with you, experimenting with shorter runs may save you from finding out that your bottle (or its spout) ice up in sub-freezing temperatures. You can either elect to stop along your route for water (but keep in mind municipal fountains tend to be turned off in winter), or find a hydration product that doesn't freeze - I can recommend both a handheld and a hydration vest that I've used successfully.

Contingency plans are good. Bring more water than you think you'll need, an emergency gel, some cash and a phone. Tell someone where you plan to run and approximately when you plan to return - it could mean the difference between rescue and dying of exposure if the worst happens. Nutrition such as gummies, bars and gels should be kept in a pocket close to your body (or even tucked into your mitts) to keep them from hardening to the point of uselessness, and an extra pair of dry gloves can save you a lot of anguish if you happen to get soaked. Tucking a multi-function fabric tube in a pocket to cover your head, face and neck can help keep you warm if the sun disappears and the temperature drops like a brick off a balcony. A simple whistle can be heard a lot further than a voice, is easier to use than hollering for help (three blasts of a whistle is a universal distress signal), and can be kept up much longer than yelling when you're tired. A headlamp or flashlight can help you find your way to safety, and if this sounds like an awful lot of gear a hydration vest can help you sport it around with ease and comfort.

Winter on the trails is a beautiful thing.

Beware of the dumb! The combination of energy expenditure and cold can rob you of good sense faster than you would think possible. If you're getting tired, you'll get cold more easily. When you're cold, you'll get tired more easily. Once that vicious cycle starts, your decision making abilities will flee along with your body heat - you need to act quickly if you feel your energy levels start to drop before your head stuffs itself with fog. Head back early, find an open door and get inside to warm up, or make a phonecall for a bailout ride - there's no shame in living to fight another day and anything is better than staggering around in confusion as hypothermia sets in. Be especially careful if you've caught a bit of the dumb and have to drive home from your end point! Driving with brain fog is a great way to get in a crash that may hurt you or others.

The risk isn't over once you're done. Change out of wet clothing right away. If you're returning to a cold car parked at your departure point, have an extra sweater or jacket waiting, and jack the heat right up. A post-workout snack is not only a great idea for recovery; digestion tends to raise your body's internal temperature. A thermos with some hot chocolate stowed in your glove box can be like heaven after a cold run! Of course, warm showers or baths can help get you back to normal, too.

I've made it all sound really complicated, but it's not. The hardest part about winter running is really just convincing yourself to take the first few steps out the door; once you're kitted up and out there you may just find the rewards outweigh the challenges. In certain circumstances - like an ice storm - even I will let discretion be the better part of valour and either take an unplanned rest day or even (gasp!) head for the hamster wheel, but for the most part I really enjoy being an all-weather outdoor runner. Get out there and see what winter running has to offer! Just don't lick anything metal, ok?

You'll never see that smile on the dreadmill!

Oh yeah, and I do realise that was a buttload of stuff about apparel for a post that purported to be about non-wearable winter running ideas. Sorry kids - I'll refund every penny of your subscription price!

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