Winter Running #1

Rob McWilliam and Larry Duguay

Last year we wrote a series of columns leading up to the Yukon River Trail Marathon. This year, Yukon News and the organizing committee for the Trail Marathon would like to take the concept a bit further. We are interested in promoting adventure and trail running, and the active lifestyle that goes with such activities, so we will be doing a series of monthly columns that hopefully will encourage more people to get involved. We plan a series of articles on equipment, technique, related events, and even some human-interest stories. To start the year off we would like to share some thoughts on winter running. This month we’ll provide some suggestions on how to prepare, and next month some tips on winter trail running.

Before my ski club membership is revoked I hasten to say that I think cross-country skiing is a great way to enjoy winter and to stay fit. However, when I want a change of pace, or just want to get in some exercise in the limited amount of time that I have at lunch I find a winter run meets my needs provided I have prepared properly.

I refer to winter running to differentiate it from all those who trudge along on treadmills while they fantasize about spring. Maybe Christine Clark, training for the Olympics in Alaska, needs a treadmill to get the proper intensity; but for most of us the slower times aren’t that big a problem. What the tread millers are really trying to avoid is the cold. But by applying a few basic principles, and modern fabrics, winter running can be fun.

The key principle is layering. Thanks to new synthetic materials you can avoid the bulkiness and moisture retention properties of natural fibbers that used to be such a hassle. Now layering can be achieved without having to feel like you are closely related to the Good Year Tire creature. Of course, if you are going to practice layering you want to ensure that your outer garments are loose enough to accommodate layers without causing discomfort. The loose fit also helps to trap warmer air near your body instead of direct transfer to the atmosphere. For males a first layer should include a pair of wind briefs. Having neglected to do so on one run years ago, and then discovered that I was fighting a nasty headwind that contributed to the wind-chill I experienced first hand how painful it can be when chilled appendages start to warm up. I have never made that mistake again! As it gets colder I then add a layer of long underwear under my running pants, and in extreme cold I will put on a pair of nylon wind pants to complete the ensemble. For the upper body a long sleeve polypro top and a running jacket with zippered vents is usually enough, but again as it gets colder I will add a running vest (nylon/fleece front, mesh back) to the mix. It may not win me any awards for fashion, but I can venture outdoors in any conditions. Then to add to the fashion statement, if I am going to be running any portion of my route along roads Ill add a reflective vest to compensate for the limited winter daylight.

Once outdoors the next step is to monitor your body temperature fairly closely. All the running texts will advise you to start off feeling a bit chilled, or else you will quickly discover that you are overdressed once you start to work out. In winter running you should be prepared to use vents, or peel off layers whenever you start to feel warm. Don’t wait until the sweat starts running unless you want to go through another cold period as the moisture acts as instant refrigeration. It is far better to unzip, or remove layers than it is to overheat; and if conditions deteriorate (such as experiencing increasing wind conditions) you can easily slip a layer back on.

Another important principle is ensuring that you keep your extremities warm. Everyone except teenagers seem to know that your head is a major source of heat loss, and needs to be covered if you are going to feel comfortable in the cold. A headband for milder days, or a toque for colder temperatures is sufficient. However, I have always found that a traditional balaclava, that can be worn like a toque, or pulled down to provide protection for the face when it is really cold or there is a high wind-chill is very versatile. It provides a degree of flexibility that specialized facemasks lack. The other extremities should also be looked after. Are your feet and hands going to be warm enough to permit you to enjoy the run? Here again layering is the answer. When it is cold I will use two sets of hand covers. Often I wind up running with at least my outer mitts tucked in my pockets, but without them at the start I doubt that I would have made it passed the first few kilometres until my body warmed up enough to be able to peel off a layer. The same thing applies with socks. Until it goes below 25 I don’t take any special precaution, but below that I do wear a thin pair of inner socks and that is usually sufficient to ensure my feet stay warm.

Applying these few basic principles will work. I’ve run several winter and spring marathons, and that means having to do long training runs through the coldest periods of a Yukon winter. Using this approach to clothing I have been able to run 3 hour plus sessions without having a problem staying warm. Now if I could just keep those water bottles from freezing up! But even there the loose clothing approach has come to my rescue as I have actually run with a camel back pack inside my running jacket. I looked like Quasimodo, but I was able to get all the water I wanted without having to cope with ice.

Another concern with winter running is footwear. Many people are concerned about falling. For some the answer is to purchase special spiked shoes or what are essentially tire chains for your normal running shoes (these are available through mail order sources). These do work, but there are drawbacks. The shoes, for example have great spikes but fit and comfort aren’t great; and the attachable cleats take a lot of getting used to. In my own experience unless we get conditions like Christmas 1999 when everything was coated in ice, a bit of caution is really all that is necessary. It is in areas, such as road intersections where drivers have been spinning their wheels that conditions get icy enough to be a problem so running a bit slower in such spots is wise.

While I don’t pretend that I won’t be fantasizing about some idyllic summer conditions when I am running through deep fresh snow, or struggling with a miserable headwind and the wind chill factor; there are many winter runs when I will come back really pumped up. Running along a forest trail with the trees covered in frost or fresh snow, or seeing the trees silhouetted in gold as a low hanging sun turns the landscape into something magical is rewarding enough that I am always looking forward to the next run. See you on the trails.