I love winter running. There’s a nostalgia for me in checking and rechecking the plummeting temperature and carefully selecting the perfect combination of Merino wool and Windstopper fleece before stepping out into the silent cold.
It’s because I got serious about running on – and I can remember the exact date – New Year’s Eve, 2004. I ran the Running Room’s eight-kilometre Resolution Run in -31C weather. Halfway through, I had an epiphany. (Or, at least, I think it was an epiphany; it could have been an endorphin Slurpee bathing my cold-addled brain.) The next day, I registered for my first marathon.
I started training on January 4, and because I was a diligent newbie who didn’t know any better, I did every single workout, whether it was -4 or -40C. I would start out in the pitch-dark morning, 40-below with the wind chill, my head so swaddled in fleece I couldn’t see.
I realize now I could have run on a treadmill watching the morning news – but that didn’t occur to me back then. I think it’s something my mom, a dedicated runner herself, once said. She said running in the cold helped her get through winter. Braving the snow three or four times per week helped her avoid that socked-in submission winter tends to instill. It was her way of controlling the uncontrollable or “kicking winter in the crotch,” as my triathlete friend Melonie MacDonald puts it.
But it’s not all fun and snow cones. There is a learning curve when it comes to dressing for cold weather and a lot of trial and error. When I first started winter running, I miscalculated the insulation of a particular running top and ran for 16 kilometres while unable to feel my arms. I still don’t always get it right, aiming for a moving target of changeable weather and a body that starts out cold and ends up sweaty.
Winter running isn’t for everyone. My friend Colette Hubner, one of the toughest runners I know, won’t go out if it’s much colder than -10 to -15C.
“For me, winter running is a means to an end,” she says. “But I wouldn’t call it rewarding.”
For me, there’s real value in running through the winter, not the least of which is that winter makes up a serious chunk of the year.
“If you didn’t run in the winter, you wouldn’t run very much,” McDonald says.
But, facing down icy, gale-force winds isn’t exactly something to relish, especially in tights, and sometimes it takes a superhuman amount of willpower to leave the house. This is where having a goal really helps. Putting the cold days into context is an excellent way of getting out there. In fact, January is peak season for the Running Room’s training clinics and learn-to-run programs.
“I call it positive peer pressure,” says John Stanton, founder and president of the Running Room.
Once I’m out and moving, I’m always glad I did it. Winter running is beautiful. Travelling along the frozen river valley pathways, which are often better-groomed than the roads, I see the city in a whole new light. Hoarfrost clinging to the branches, Canada geese huddling on the snow-covered riverbanks, steam rising from cracks in the ice. When the snow is fresh, it’s like a blanket of silence has fallen over the city. All I hear is the soft squeaking of my shoes and my breath puffing out in white plumes. It’s peaceful.
And then there are the bragging rights, because it’s not just 10 km any more; it’s 10 km in 25-below. Maybe this is reproachable, but, for me, bravado is a necessary part of the winter running experience. I need to tell people – a lot of people – that I ran in -25C in order to pump myself up to do it again. See, the toughest enemy in the winter running business isn’t the cold; it’s my own mind throwing out every trick in the book in hopes I’ll stay inside. Braggadocio is simply one more weapon in my arsenal of Gore-Tex and fleece.
One time, I ran six km through a blizzard to get to work. When I got there, the office was locked and silent – every last one of my co-workers got stuck in traffic. I stood there, teeth chattering, for half an hour. But the swagger lasted me till spring.
1. Experiment with clothing. Try out different combinations of merino wool, fleece and other technical clothing to keep you warm when you sweat.
2. Watch the wind chill. When there’s bluster, make sure you add a wind-stopping jacket to prevent losing too much heat.
3. Cover your head, hands, feet and face. These overlooked spots are where you’ll get significant heat loss. Also, this is where frostbite lives.
4. You’ve got a hot body. You’ll warm up quickly, so dress as though it’s 15 to 20 degrees celsius warmer than it is.
5. Find your cold cut-off. Figure out what’s too cold for comfort and don’t push your limit. Your body (not your running buddies) should tell you when to stay indoors.
6. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Cold air can dry you out faster than the warm stuff.
7. Caution, Thin Ice. Snowy or even groomed trails can be covering a slick layer of ice. Be cautious to avoid taking a tumble.
8. Warm up slowly and thoroughly. Chilly muscles are more prone to injury.
9. Stay visible. It gets dark early in the winter, so make sure you’re wearing bright colours and reflective clothing to be seen by motorists.
10. Stay sun-smart. The sun reflecting off the snow can be even more powerful than the hot summer rays. Wear polarized sunglasses, sunscreen and lip balm to protect yourself.