Sunday, November 24, 2013

How to Run in the Winter

I love running.

It used to be something I hated with a passion. I would dread the laps we had to do in gym and I had nightmares about finishing last in Track, but somewhere along the way, that changed. I've always struggled with exercise-induced asthma, which kept me from doing so many activities -- I let it dictate what I could or couldn't do. Just over two years ago, though, I decided I didn't want to let my asthma rule me, so I (very slowly!) taught myself to get over it.

My knowledge of breath, which I'd learned through yoga, played a huge role. Essentially, I started by walking a lot, slowly increasing my pace and distance until I felt like I might be able to run. Then I would jog for a block, walk for a block, jog a block, walk a block, and so on -- the whole time, I made sure I was taking slow, deep breaths instead of fast, shallow ones. I could tell if I was pushing myself too hard, because I'd have to stop and catch my breath before I had an asthma attack. What I eventually found was that, through the long process of teaching myself how to breathe and how to run, I fell in love with it! The sunshine, the wind on my face, the smell of the air, the way my legs stretch and pull, the pounding of my feet against the ground, the way it makes me feel like I'm flying... I love all of it! I've found that running gave me back control of my own body. Instead of being a victim who "couldn't" do things, I now know that I can do anything! Running has set me free.

Now... naturally, moving to Alaska has proven to be a new challenge for my running. When we got here, it was still nice enough outside that I ran four or five days a week along my new favorite route and I enjoyed every minute of it, but now that winter has come, I've had to tackle a whole new set of obstacles I wasn't fully prepared for.

Running is important to me. I can tell when I haven't been able to run for a few days -- I get pretty restless and irritable (sorry, Husband!). As soon as "Fall" weather showed up (we're talking 40-50 degrees at the most), it didn't take long for me to figure out what I should wear in order to maximize my runs. However, when our first real snow hit and the temperatures dropped quickly (25-35 degrees or so), I was not a happy camper... I couldn't really run for about two weeks straight because the snow was so deep along my normal route that it was not even remotely fun to try and navigate.

I had no problems running in the snow when we only had a few inches on the ground -- as long as you have the right shoes to keep you from slipping, it's not really an issue -- but once we got over 6 inches of the cold, wet, powder, I had to give up on my route. I tried in vain a few times to run along it, but since it obviously wasn't shoveled, it just wasn't fun. There was snow everywhere and it was too cold to let it just hang out in my shoes and up my pants.

Needless to say, I had to do a lot of research and brainstorming to come up with a plan. There's no way I could go all winter without running at all... I would go insane, and so would everyone else around me. So, I thought I might as well compile some tips that might help my fellow runners if you live in an area that gets "real Winter." I am, by no means, a professional; I just found out through trial and error what works for me and thought I might share, in case anyone else can benefit from my experiences. Here we go!

Winter Running Tips:

1. Clothes! One of the many benefits of taking up running is that it usually doesn't require much equipment to get started. Once it gets cold out, though, it becomes a unique science to figure out what you should and shouldn't wear. The general rule of thumb is always to dress as if the actual temperature is 10 degrees warmer, since your body will heat up quickly as soon as you start moving. I still have yet to actually write out a chart for myself (it's all in my head), but I would recommend coming up with a somewhat standard outfit for every 10 degrees. That way, you can just look up the temperature, check your chart, and grab the pile of clothes you'll need. For example:

   40-50 degrees -- t-shirt, running jacket, shorts, ear band if it's windy.
   30-40 degrees -- t-shirt, running jacket, tights, shorts, ear band, beanie.
   20-30 degrees -- long-sleeved shirt, running jacket, tights, pants, ear band, beanie.
   10-20 degrees -- long-sleeved shirt, running jacket, tights, pants, neck gaiter/scarf (to cover nose and mouth), ear band, beanie, thin gloves.
    0-10 degrees -- long-sleeved shirt, running jacket, parka, tights, pants, balaclava, ear band, beanie, two pairs of gloves.
   -10-0 degrees -- long-sleeved shirt, running jacket, coat, tights, pants, balaclava, ear band, beanie, two pairs of gloves.

Of course, this is just an example from my own closet. Socks, sports bra, underwear, and shoes are things I wear no matter what the weather is, so I left them out of my lists. The coat I like to wear is lightweight but warm, and it has plenty of pockets, so if I get too hot and sweaty (like with a second pair of gloves on), I can just take something off and stick it in one of my pockets.

2. Shoes -- you should probably wear them. You don't necessarily need a fancy new pair of shoes for running in the winter, as long as you have some way to help with traction if the ground is slippery. Many people invest in chains (like these), but I went ahead and purchased a new pair of shoes, since my old ones are getting pretty worn anyway. I'm a big fan of Saucony, so I stuck with a brand of winter-specific shoes that I absolutely love: these! Not only do they have excellent traction on snow and ice, but they have an extra layer of protection that keeps moisture out. They're a little heavier than regular running shoes, so that took some getting used to, but I've never slipped once and my feet have never gotten wet while wearing them. I highly recommend them if you live in an area with lots of snow and ice.

3. Check the weather. I always double- and triple-check the weather before I head outside. Many websites and apps will vary greatly between one another. I've seen up to 10 degrees difference between two sources! When we're talking about dressing for cold weather, 24 and 34 are two very different numbers! It's also nice to know whether you should put some goggles on if it's going to be snowing like crazy during your run. Along the same lines, it's a good idea to be aware of road conditions if you plan on running on the pavement -- don't run on the street if the roads are "Black." Even with a good pair of shoes or trusty chains, there's still a good chance you'll slip and fall, which would be very bad.

4. Take your phone with you! Luckily, I haven't had to use mine in an emergency, but you never know what can happen when you venture out in adverse conditions. Whether you fall and hurt yourself, or you run into a moose on the trail (really!), it's never a bad idea to have a way to call for help if you need it. This is also where the coat with many pockets comes in handy: plenty of room to keep my phone just in case!

5. Stay in your neighborhood. In my case, the route I usually take is covered in almost two feet of snow right now, so it's simply a matter of convenience to stay by the house during an outside run, since the snow on the roads is packed down so tightly that it's pretty easy to run on. But generally speaking, when you're running in temperatures that are below freezing, being able to quickly get back home in the case of an injury or if you get too cold, is very important. The street we live on is a giant loop, which makes it pretty easy to just run laps whenever I feel like it. I've figured out that one loop is half a mile, so I like being able to stay close to home and still keep track of my mileage at the same time.

6. Watch your extremities. Running in negative temperatures is not ideal, I won't lie. Even with almost every inch of my body covered (I don't usually have something covering my eyes, unless it's snowing heavily), it still hurts to inhale. If you blink too slowly, your eyelashes freeze together and you have to warm them up with your hands before you can see again. The biggest issue I've had to deal with, however, is keeping my hands from freezing. I've finally found the perfect combination of gloves/mittens in our house that do the job well, but the first few runs I went on in -10 degrees were not enjoyable -- after only half a mile, my fingers would start to hurt and I'd have to wiggle them all around and ball my hands into fists (while holding dog leashes at the same time). I didn't start freaking out until my fingertips would start to go numb, at which point I'd just run back home as quickly as possible and hold them under warm water until they thawed. I am horribly afraid of getting frostbite, for whatever reason, so ever since I started experiencing the numbness in my hands during runs, I tend to go a little overboard with gloves and mittens. Frostbite is very serious, especially when it's so cold you can't even see your breath, and it is definitely important to make sure it doesn't happen to you! Wearing a balaclava or neck gaiter over your nose and mouth will help immensely, as will making sure your ears are completely covered as well. The biggest issue with your hands in negative temperatures is to make sure you don't touch any metal (like your keys or doorknob!) without having at least one pair of gloves on. So far, I've been lucky enough not to experience contact frostbite, but I hope that doesn't change any time soon.

7. Don't stay out too long. The experts say you shouldn't stay out in extremely cold weather for longer than 30 minutes, so plan your runs accordingly. This is also where staying close to home comes in handy -- when you're done, you're done. There's no need to push yourself when it's cold out. If you hit that 30-minute mark, it's time to go back inside. Because it's cold out, it's easy to forget that you still need to rehydrate after your run; drink lots of water! The other thing to remember is to wear clothes that keep sweat away from your body (try to avoid cotton and wool). If you sweat a ton while you're running, it's harder for your body to keep itself warm, so not only do you have to be aware of dehydration, but hypothermia as well. When I run outside, I don't typically stay out any longer than 20 minutes. I also try to time my runs so that I'm out when it's the warmest part of the day. Since we are losing daylight very quickly here, I think it's important to take advantage of what little sun we do get.

8. If all else fails, run indoors. We had two days in a row last week where the temperature dropped to the -30s. Just walking outside was painful, so there was no way I was about to run when it was so cold out. That's when my new treadmill comes in handy! Although I definitely prefer running outside, sometimes you just have to settle for what will be safer and more beneficial to your body. Treadmill training is much less exciting, but at least you know you'll get a consistent run in without worrying about freezing or slipping on ice. If you're curious, the treadmill I got (and love!) is the Gold's Gym Trainer 410. It's relatively quiet and it fits nicely in the living room for now, so I can distract myself by watching TV while I run. If you don't have a treadmill or don't want to fork out the cash to get one (the one I got was a display model -- super cheap!), check out your local gym. (Just FYI: if you have a military ID, you can use the gym on post for free!)

I hope these tips have helped shed some light on running in the winter. It's a unique beast to conquer, that's for sure! If there's anything I've left out or if you have any questions at all, please feel free to leave a comment. I don't have all the answers, but it's pretty fun to explore the possibilities of cold weather training!

What do you think? Do you have any helpful tricks for running in the snow? Are there any Spring races you're getting pumped for? 

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Alicia! And really cool to hear again the details of your journey from gym class to now.