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Winter Running – The Chill Factor

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! If you’re a cold weather runner like me, you will be relieved to see the back of those hot, humid summer days as we transition to the cooler temperatures. Autumn is well underway where I am in Canada and it won’t be long before the mercury dips below freezing and the winter adventures commence. Cue happy dance! With that in mind, it was time this week to pack away the last of my warm weather running gear and sort through the winter crate to prepare for the coming season.

If you haven’t experienced a winter run, you really are missing out. Besides the benefit of running in more comfortable temperatures, your stabilizing muscles are working harder to keep you upright in the snow and ice, giving you an extra workout. There are challenges of course. That first time you experience the freezing cold in your lungs and it feels like they are on fire, and the danger of slippery roads and snow covered trails that increase your risk of falling. Don’t worry, these can be overcome. With the right preparation and appropriate winter running gear, it won’t take long to acclimatize to the conditions and also train your respiratory system to deal with the cold.

Photo Credit Meteo-Weather

Layer, layer, layer

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”

– Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Just like your everyday wardrobe, it’s important to dress appropriately for the season if you are to enjoy your outdoor runs. The key to successful winter running is getting your layers right to ensure maximum warmth and breathability. One layer too many (or less), coupled with the wrong choice of fabric, will ruin your run and you may find yourself running towards the treadmill instead. A general guideline for cold weather running is to dress as if it is 10-20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature. Yes, you will feel cold when you initially step outside the door, but it is temporary. You will soon warm up within 5-10 minutes. Three layers of the right clothing are enough to keep you warm and dry. These include:

Your base layer. This item of clothing needs to be breathable in order to wick away moisture. Avoid cotton as it will make you feel cold especially if you have to stop and you’ve built up a sweat. Synthetic fabrics that are water resistant, such as polyester or polyamide, dry quickly and help the body regulate its temperature. Merino wool also works great in cold weather, as do mixed synthetic/wool blends.

Then there is the mid layer. An effective mid layer will conserve the heat generated by your body to keep you warm. As the temperature cools during the Autumn months, it’s not a bad idea to pack a mid layer in case you have to stop or the weather worsens which could happen while out on a longer run. Depending on the temperature, you may want to consider a synthetic fleece or a lighter winter jacket to keep you warm while also helping to remove moisture. In the extreme cold, it’s tempting to choose a down jacket which will provide a lot of warmth, however, the more you sweat, the more wet the down will become and it loses its insulating qualities. The same will happen in wet weather conditions. Rather than keep you warm, you will be left shivering.

Finally, there is the outer layer to protect from the elements. Many of us will immediately think of GORE-TEX® jackets, even though there are other brands of waterproof protection and more breathable membranes. There is plenty of information on the internet that delves into greater detail on how to measure and compare waterproofness, water resistance vs. water repellent and membrane breathability, which I won’t go into here. If you are considering an outer shell, bear in mind that the more breathable the fabric, the better it will be for a high intensity activity like running. Jackets with zippered pit vents also work well in removing perspiration as you sweat. There is a superlight GORE-TEX® shakedry fabric that Arcteryx and Salomon have used in their running range, and while not inexpensive, these jackets will fully protect you in the rain and breathe better than other waterproof fabrics. The lightness of the garment means you can easily store it in your pack or wear around your waist.

Other membranes like windstopper, protect against the wind and is also breathable, while softshell is water repellent, breathable and comfortable to wear. Water repellent garments provide good protection in lighter rain or wet snow conditions on shorter runs.

For your lower half, thicker winter tights are sufficient for when the temperature is above freezing. In colder temperatures, opt for fleece lined tights or softshell pants with a base layer, to keep you warm and dry.

Determining how many layers you need, will depend on what the conditions are where you run and your level of acclimation to the cold. For myself, living in a country where the conditions can be extreme and the temperature can be as low as minus 40 with the wind chill, I have worn all combinations of layers – base/mid, base/outer and base/mid/outer.

My coldest running experience was January 2019 during the polar vortex. When I went out, the temperature was minus 38c with the windchill and there was wet snow. My gear on that day included Salomon Agile tights, Under Armour ColdGear fleece lined pants, Under Armour ColdGear fitted crew base, Salomon Agile mid hoodie, Salomon Lightening WP jacket, alpaca socks, merino wool/fleece lined hat, Salomon Agile gloves with merino wool liners, neck gaitor, Salomon Speedcross 4 shoes and Yaktrax spikes.

It’s worth investing in fewer, good quality pieces that will do a solid job of keeping you dry and warm in the worst winter conditions. There is nothing worse than being out on a long run in terrible conditions and you feel that awful dampness set in. As with other elements of your training, you will need to experiment with what works best clothing-wise for you. When you get your layers right, it won’t matter what the temperature is outside.

Happy Feet

Remaining upright is another challenge when running in snowy, slippery conditions. Black ice is the curse of winter runners. When considering footwear, trail shoes with lugs are a safe bet. For added protection or if your favourite shoes don’t have the best traction, you can wear a traction device like Yaktrax or manually attach spikes to the soles of your shoes. When choosing a traction device, look for something that is most suitable for the terrain you will be running on. Some feature microspikes, coils or the pointed, sharp traction spikes that work well when the ground is frozen or covered in packed snow. I prefer the devices you can carry and easily slip on over your shoes when needed. Both the coils and sharp spike models have worked well for me, although with the coils, you need to beware of snow accumulating in them.

Keeping your feet warm and dry is also important. Some runners favour fully waterproof shoes, notably those made with GORE-TEX®, while others choose to wear regular trainers with the least amount of mesh, and pair them with waterproof socks. I’ve worn both GTX and non GTX shoes in the snow and wet conditions and to be honest, I don’t find GTX that much of a benefit for me. The issue I have faced wearing GTX shoes, is that for one thing, they are heavier, and secondly, when crossing a creek or plunging through ice pockets, water gets in. The shoes don’t drain and I have to remove them, empty the water and change my socks.

As for how we dress our feet during the cold winter months, as with the rest of our body, it’s all about keeping them dry and warm. Socks that are made from sweat-wicking and temperature regulating fibres such as merino wool or alpaca will keep them cozy. There is also the option of wearing cold weather waterproof socks which are constructed by bonding an outer nylon layer with a middle layer waterproof membrance and wool/synthetic blend inner layer. These tick all the boxes. I’ve worn both waterproof and non waterproof options and my preference for cold weather running continues to be natural fibres. My current favourite socks are made from alpaca fibres, which is super warm, breathable, and water repellent. I’ve worn them in regular trainers in wet conditions and most of the time, my feet have remained bone dry. As an added bonus, they are antimicrobial so no stinky feet!

The other bits

Once you’ve figured out your layers, shoes and socks, there are other parts of your body you need to protect from the elements. When it comes to headgear, you will want a hat that keeps you warm without overheating. It’s important that the fit isn’t too tight or too loose. You don’t want it riding up and exposing your ears to the cold or trapping moisture. Material-wise, there are different options that offer synthetic fabrics, natural fibres and mix of both. I wear different hats according to the temperature. On milder days when it’s minus 5c and above, a lightweight beanie style works for me or a running headband that keeps my ears warm, without too much extra insulation.

On colder days, natural fibres such as merino wool or alpaca with a polyester fleece lining, provide extra warmth while effectively wicking away moisture. I find that natural materials don’t retain the unpleasant odour that man made fabrics often do. I also wear a wool or fleece neck gaitor that can be pulled higher up my face when there is a biting wind. Another option when running in extreme temperatures is to wear a balaclava that fully covers your head and protects your ears and neck. One of my trail friends swears by his Under Armour ColdGear infrared hood for those very cold outings.

You will also need a good pair of running gloves to keep your hands feeling toasty. Protecting your hands from the cold is crucial, since the circulation in your hands worsens as your body works harder. With so many choices, it can be overwhelming when selecting a pair that can cope with different weather scenarios. When choosing the best pair for your needs, there are other factors besides warmth that you will want to consider, most notably fit, comfort, breathability, wind/waterproofing features, touch screen compatibility and reflective properties if you’re a night runner. It’s important the gloves you choose feature moisture wicking fabrics that dry quickly to prevent sweat building up and freezing your hands. For versatility, you could purchase lightweight gloves for days when it’s not too cold and pair them with merino wool liners when the temperature drops. There are also three layer styles that feature a synthetic exterior, waterproof membrane, and merino wool liner. Some runners who suffer from bad circulation, favour mittens over gloves because fingers generate more heat when they’re not separated from each other like they are in gloves. However, mittens lack dexterity and can be awkward when trying to undo zippers, operate your phone, etc. If you’re unsure whether to choose gloves or mittens, you could opt for hybrid styles that include a cover that converts gloves to mittens for additional warmth. I know of other runners who wear latex gloves inside their regular gloves to create a vapour barrier or hand warmers which produce heat on demand to warm up your hands.

Wearing a pack on your long runs can also be beneficial during the winter months. Not only is it practical for carrying your nutrition and other bits, but it can also be used to carry extra clothing if you get wet and have to change or for storing those layers you may need to shed during your run. You can also pack your electronic device in your vest to protect it from the cold. When the temperature drops below freezing, many smartphones experience shortened battery life and other issues, so it’s important to keep the phone as warm as possible. There are special cases you can buy that use insulation for this purpose and fit snugly in your vest pocket.

And finally, don’t forget the sunscreen, SPF lip balm and sunglasses. Yes, all three are important to protect your skin and eyes from harmful rays that reflect off the snow. Sunglasses also help prevent your eye lashes from freezing shut. This is a real risk in very cold temperatures. It’s the strangest sensation when you feel mini icicles forming on your lashes and your eyes start to close. In extreme temperatures, you may want to consider wearing ski goggles or a snow visor to block the wind and cold. Frost tape and wax-based balms will protect against frostbite and save your face in the coldest weather. I have found that Musher’s Secret, an all natural paw wax for dogs, does the job for me. Vaseline also works and can help improve insulation when you apply to both your hands and feet.

Hydrate

Just because it’s cold and you can’t feel yourself sweating or you may feel less thirsty, you still need to hydrate to replace what you are losing through running. Dehydration can happen no matter what the temperature is. Just like the summer months, it’s important to have a winter hydration plan for your longer runs in the colder weather. If you wear a pack with a hydration bladder, be sure to have proper insulation for both the bladder and the hose to prevent either from freezing and cutting you off from your water supply. Bonus tip: If you suffer a hydration malfunction and there is snow where you are running, your hydration needs will be met! I’ve had to do it a few times and have had access to all the water I needed. I’ve also used a snowbank to ice my knee when it’s played up during a run!

Stay safe out there

Your first time out in the colder temperatures and snow will be tough, but if you dress appropriately, protect your extremities and adjust your pace according to conditions, it won’t be long before you are fully acclimatized to the season. If you’re planning to run at night, which is absolutely stunning with the snow as your backdrop, be sure you are lit up just as you would any other time of the year. For your longer runs, where you may have to drive further or you’re unable to get home straightaway, having warm clothes to change into post-run is a must.

This also goes without saying, if you have any medical issues, poor circulation, heart or respiratory problems like asthma, always consult your doctor before engaging in cold weather running.

Other than out, just get outdoors and enjoy what Mother Nature has to offer!

Author Ruth Johnson