It’s pretty bad when you go for a run and it’s so cold that your eyes tear up. It’s even worse when it’s so cold that the tears freeze to your face.
When I put together my training program for the Honolulu Marathon several months ago, I knew that I would have to do a 20 miler the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I wasn’t really concerned about the weather because Mid-November temperatures in this area typically fluctuate between the mid 30’s and upper 40’s. That’s almost ideal when it comes to running – even at the lower end of the that temperature range, I would be able to get away with a long sleeve running shirt and maybe a pair of long running pants. At the high end, I would still be wearing shorts. Of course, this is Chicago and things can never be that easy when it comes to the weather.
A massive snowstorm hit the day before my long run. I spent Saturday shoveling snow while dealing with 40mph wind gusts and falling temperatures. The next morning I woke up to a blanket of snow covering the ground, an outside temperature of 7 degrees and a windchill that made it feel like 3.
Obviously these are less than ideal conditions for a run of any length, let alone a 20 miler. I had to get the run in though or else I would risk not being ready on race day and increasing my chances of getting injured. And since the mere thought of running 20 miles on a treadmill is enough to make my eyes roll to the back of my head, staying inside was not an option.
This is not the first time I’ve run in conditions like this. A few years ago I was training for the Disney Marathon and had to deal with a cold snap that hit in the middle of December and dropped the temperature down to -9. Again, this happened just in time for a 20 mile run that I had planned months earlier. While I was running, a lady pulled up alongside me in her car and asked if I needed a ride. She assumed that the only reason anyone would be out running in weather that cold is because something was wrong and they were trying to run to a safe place. I smiled and waved and said “no thanks, I’m good”. She gave me an odd look and said “Okaaayyyyy….” and drove off.
Whenever I tell people stories like the ones above the response I get is usually something along the lines of either “Duuuude that’s hard core! You Rock!” or “Holy shit man, you’re crazy!”. So let’s be clear: I hate running in extremely cold weather. I just know that skipping long runs because it’s cold outside can create a whole separate set of risks on race day.
I also know that super cold temperatures in Chicago are both unpredictable and unavoidable, particularly between the months of December and March. If you live here and you’re planning on doing either a winter or an early spring marathon, you should be prepared for at least one of your long runs to be a below freezing, bone chilling hypothermiatastic good time. And since the temperature is going to get a lot colder over the next few months, I figured I would share some tips for doing long runs in extreme cold:
Cold Weather Running Gear
Here’s how I dressed for my run this past Sunday from the bottom up:
- Running shoes with two pairs of socks to protect my feet. I had to loosen the laces on my shoes to get my feet into them but I prefer that to frostbitten toes.
- 2XU MCS Compression Tights and a pair of thermal running pants to cover my legs.
- A short sleeve running t-shirt, covered by a long sleeve thermal running shirt covered by a moisture wicking hoodie on my upper body.
- A pair of running gloves.
- A UV Buff to protect my neck and face. Another UV BUFF to protect my ears, along with a hat and the hood from my hoodie.
Notice the key theme here – every area of my body was protected by multiple layers of clothing. Layers are important because they trap your body heat and help you to stay warmer than a single thick layer would by itself. There was never a time during my run when I felt more than a little bit chilly.
Other Cold Weather Tips
- Plan for some short breaks. I did not do a continuous 20 mile run on Sunday. Instead I did three loops that were a little under 7 miles each. After each loop, I stopped inside my house, drank some water, ate some carbs and replaced the lowest layer of my running clothes so that my skin would be dry when I went back out. If I went back outside in sweaty running clothes I would have increased my chances of developing hypothermia. Plus, frozen sweat feels nasty. I never spent more than a few minutes inside though – just long enough to eat, drink, change, and get back out.
- Hydrate. A common misconception among runners is that hydration isn’t as much of a concern when it’s not hot and humid outside. Even though you may not sweat as much in cold weather, your body is still losing fluids when you go for long runs. Additionally, one of the reasons your lungs hurt when you breathe in cold air is because the fluids that are usually present in your trachea to regulate the air temperature before it gets to your lungs have dried up. Making sure that you’re well hydrated can help with this.
- Pay attention to your surroundings and watch for ice on the roads. Even roads that are well plowed and salted can have patches of ice. In some cases the ice may be so thin that it’s barely visible (black ice). This is particularly dangerous because it can make you slip unexpectedly when you step on it. Even worse than that, it can make passing cars skid in your direction if the drivers aren’t careful. Patches of ice like this tend to be most common on bridges and overpasses so try to avoid running on these types of surfaces in extremely cold weather conditions.
- Be prepared to run a little slower. All those extra layers of running clothes are great when it comes to keeping you warm, but they’re also heavy and can limit your movements. On top of that, our muscles simply tend to not react as quickly when it’s cold outside. I ran close to a minute per mile slower on Sunday than I usually run… which sucked because it meant that I had to stay out in the cold that much longer, but on the other hand, I got my run in without having to worry about hypothermia or frostbite.
- Know how to recognize warning signs. If you experience any of the symptoms below, find the closest store, gas station, house, or whatever and get inside. Then forget the rest of your run and call someone to pick you up.
- Early warning signs of hypothermia include:
- Cold feet and hands
- Puffy or swollen face
- Pale skin
- Slower than normal speech or slurring words
- Acting sleepy
- Becoming angry or confused
- Early warning signs of frostbite include:
- Pale skin that turns red and feels very cold
- Prickling and numbness in the affected area
- Early warning signs of hypothermia include:
Hopefully you’ll find these tips helpful and hopefully you’ll be able to stay safe and warm on your runs this winter. In the meantime I’m going to start counting down the days until spring.