Friday, December 28, 2007

Winter running

Well, 'tis the season of overloading, plate, cup and glass- so I'm out running on the trails again. Running in the winter can be invigorating and beats trudging on treadmills. The points to remember are that you want to keep the wind from blowing on exposed skin to prevent frostbite, but that the exercise itself will generate all the warmth you need. A light layer clothing of the correct materials is usually sufficient, beneath some kind of windbreaker.

Dressing for running in the winter can just mean loading up on layers of sweaters and $10 sweat pants. I did that through two winters and survived OK. However for a few more bucks I got some polypropylene running tights and a similar turtle neck sweater. Unlike cotton, which absorbs water, these materials wick the perspiration away from your body so you stay warm and reasonably dry, and don't develop pneumonia or, more seriously, hypothermia. To cut the wind I wear a cycling jacket. The tail helps cover my buttocks from wind, which is a big bonus. In colder temperatures(below -10C) I add a similar technical sweater(poly fleece or similar) over the turtle neck. Polyester fleece mittens will keep your hands warm and not too sweaty. On my head I favour a tuque(stocking cap) or if the temperature is up around freezing, a ball cap. Since I wear glasses, the peak of a baseball cap keeps falling snow from blocking my vision.

I've never tried winter running shoes. After running through 13 Montreal winters, I don't see the point. Regular running shoes and socks work fine, and if you like the fancy, wicking, technical socks your feet wont notice the difference (I've run regularly for durations of up 1 1/2 hours at temperatures down to -20C/-10F and never suffered from cold feet).

Underwear is another issue. Usually a pair of biking shorts provides adequate protection for me, but my buddy swears by wind-proof shorts. It seems he got frostbite down below one time, and has been 'sensitive' about his parts ever since.

Some people complain of difficulty breathing cold air. Apparently there is even a form of asthma that affects some people, including Olympic-class cross-country skiers. You can get a mask that helps warm your breath as well as shield your lower face from the wind. A fleece scarf wrapped around your face will also work.

Overdressing can be a problem. Many people overload on the clothing then get too warm after about ten minutes into the run. Jogging in a parka is hot, sweaty and heavy - and not in an attractive way. As a rule of thumb, you should feel a little cold at the start of the run and rely on warming up as you get moving. An option to ward off the initial chill is to do calisthenics or lift some weights prior to stepping out.

Once you get out on your path, it's a good idea to plan your running based on time rather than distance. That 20 minute path can easily take 30 minutes if it's covered in 20cm/8" of crusty snow. Don't forget to drink water as you can still get dehydrated, even if it is cold and snowing.

Running in the winter has some different challenges from summer running, but can be really exhilarating. Running on Mont Royal with a gentle snow fall and the lights of Montréal below, unobscured by leaves, is a lovely experience.

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"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster