20 Cold weather running tips and tricks

The warm weather of spring will be here before you know it...or not. I don’t love the cold, but I’ve learned to appreciate the unique challenges of snow, wind, rain, ice, and that abominable snowman from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (hot cocoa!). Here are some thoughts on surviving this less pleasant time of year.

First off, it’s about mindset. If you keep telling yourself it’s going to suck to be in the cold, no surprise, it will suck. Have the attitude that you are adaptable and that the conditions are fun or unique in order to shift your perspective. If you have the guts to commit to consistent exercise, you have the guts to tolerate the cold for a bit.

If you struggle with the initial shock of cold when heading outside, try getting your core temperature up indoors first with 2-10 minutes of indoor biking, treadmill running, push-ups, air squats, running in place, butt kicks, or high knees.

It’s never as cold as you think it’s going to be - as long as you are consistently moving. Pretend you are dressing for a temperature that is 10-15 degrees warmer than the actual thermometer reading.

However, if you would happen to become injured by the aforementioned abominable snowman and had to stop moving, how long do you think you would stay warm? Probably not as long as you think. This is where it is smart to carry an emergency item or two, especially if you plan to be far from civilization, home, and other people. We’ve all heard about dressing in layers, but I like to dress with the intention to pack away the outer layer. A tightly packable, waterproof jacket is a great addition, especially on those damp 40-degree days. It’s there if you need it but not a hindrance if you never use it. In a pinch, a simple kitchen trash bag with a hole ripped in the bottom for your head can be used as a rain, cold, and wind barrier. Cheap, simple, and effective, but don’t expect it to be breathable. Space blankets are a great compact option. On long, adventurous trail runs, my ultimate choice would be a bivy sack, especially for going out into a more risky environment that would be less accessible in an emergency. Of course, this is overkill for running roads in a city. Consider that even if you had to stop moving for 60 minutes while waiting for help, a bivy sack or space blanket would be a welcome and potentially lifesaving item that weighs very little. Though it’s a little larger and heavier, the bivy is more ideal than a space blanket because you can actually get inside of it.

It’s not just the temperature that you have to consider. Wind and water will make the temperature feel at least an extra 5-10 degrees cooler. But if the sun is out, it can easily feel an extra 5-10 degrees warmer. The hardest conditions to dress for are when it is raining at 35 to 48 degrees. That’s perfect hypothermia weather. There’s a definite need for a breathable, waterproof jacket in that instance if you plan to stay out for 30 minutes or more.

Wool is an awesome material to layer, especially for socks. Many people love wool for the heat retention it maintains while wet, which can easily happen if you sink a foot in a puddle of slush. The Smartwool socks I’ve had have been amazingly durable and are my favorites so far. Anything but cotton, please!

In full-on cold muck, around 34-48 degrees, consider a waterproof/windproof sock, like this one from Sugoi. I’ve used these intermittently over the past five years. They definitely weren’t manufactured as a hiking and running product as they do slip around in the shoes a little. And they have external seams that might annoy some people. But they are flexible and my feet would only get a bit damp from sweat. (Keep in mind the dampness from sweat can cause chilling though.) They are useless if you dunk your foot deeper than ankle depth.

Check out some running gaiters if the snow is getting deep or if it’s slushy and muddy. Even a thin gaiter can keep debris from accumulating in your shoe. And if the weather is really poor, you might have a hard time untying the shoe to get that debris out in the middle of a run. Prevent it in the first place.

A single, thin layer can go a long way toward improving comfort. You don’t always have to use heavy, thick layers to get the job done. And the nice thing about a single layer is that it is still very breathable. This is why I hang onto a 15 year-old, super worn pair of tights that my wife would like to throw away. They are perfect for the 30-40 degree days. I’ve found that some areas are more sensitive to cold than others. My shins don’t need much coverage so one layer there is often plenty. My hands are super sensitive though and I’ll need to layer up a liner gloves and possibly mittens.

Carry a Buff or other similar multi-purpose garment. Options are nice. This can cover and protect your neck, face, ears, and head in one fell swoop, in any combination.

Cover your hands in a thick moisturizing and protective barrier like Bag Balm, beeswax, Aquaphor, or petroleum jelly. I have pretty poor blood flow in my hands and this, at the very least, buys me some additional time before my hands start to ache and lose blood supply. And it seems like the act of massaging these products onto the skin is helpful to increase blood flow even before going outside. If it was super cold out, I would put this same protective barrier on my face as well. I’ll carry a little tube of this stuff on a long run for reapplication and chaffing problems.

Sheet metal screws tightened into the bottom of your shoes make for cheap, light, and effective studs on slick surfaces. Just three to five of them can go a long way towards enhancing your stability if they are thoughtfully placed.

Cross train on snowshoes, cross country skis, or just go for a hike. Nobody feels their most fit when exercising in the cold. The clothing is restrictive, breathing is difficult, everything feels stiff, and the footing is horrible. These other activities are more than acceptable to provide an aerobic workout. As a bonus, they break up monotony and train your body in ways you might not normally. Were you going to PR today anyway?

Keep in mind any food you take will become more firm, perhaps more… chewy as it gets colder. Which means you will probably have a desire to drink more while eating. If you tuck the food close to your body prior to eating, it won’t be so darn hard to chew.

Similarly, if you use a hydration pack, tuck the tubing into your jacket so that it doesn’t freeze up. Depending on the size of pack, you may be able to place it under an outer layer of clothing. Drink small amounts from the pack often to keep the water moving. The real hard-assess of winter running mix a little vodka or whiskey into their water to help prevent freezing. It doesn’t take much to lower the freezing point.

Warm liquids are amazing in the middle of a long, cold bout. My dad always brought a small thermos of hot cocoa for me when I was a little kid hunting in the cold. I promise you, in the middle of a cold long run there is nothing better than hot tea or chicken broth. I haven’t found a thermos that works better than a Zojirushi

Carry back up charcoal hand warmers. Just don’t expect them to heat up quickly. For that, there are more instant hand warmers. Or make your own out of these inexpensive flexible heating pads.

Make loops that include public buildings where you could warm up for a few minutes if necessary.

Don’t tie your car or house key to your shoe in wintery conditions. Your hands might be too cold to untie the knot or the knot might just be completely frozen. There is no worse feeling than standing outside a locked warm car or house when you are super cold.

That's disappointing

That's disappointing

Find someone to hold you accountable to getting your run done. A consistent training partner can be a great motivator who won’t let you slack off and make excuses. Training groups can provide that same motivation. Plus it’s safer for everybody involved.

Bonus: Make a game out of it. A Hash House Harrier run is the best example of this game atmosphere. You will be so busy wondering where you are on the random course and where you are supposed to be going that you just might forget about the cold.

Bonus: Cellphone batteries die very quickly when exposed to the cold. Keep your phone closer to your body to keep it warm. If it does die, getting it warm next to your body may breathe some life back into it again.

Let me know if you have questions: derek@mountainridgept.com

The art and science of exercising in the summer heat

Your body is finicky about its temperature, which means it will carry out whatever processes are necessary to stay within the best working range. And that includes slowing you down when you go outside to exercise.

In a hot environment, at rest and with activity, blood is diverted to the skin for cooling purposes via increased sweat production. The sweat on the surface of the skin leads to a loss of heat via convection and evaporation (hooray for science). It’s a pretty awesome and effective system - as long as you aren’t working at really high effort levels or in a really hot and humid environment.

Sustained exercise causes a shift of a portion of our blood volume to the working muscles. And the bigger the muscle used, the bigger the blood supply required to keep it going. Harder efforts will inevitably use more energy at a quicker rate and therefore increase your core temperature to even higher levels than easy efforts. That’s where the sweating mechanism gets a little more inefficient as you are generating more heat than you can get rid of. High humidity also affects the cooling mechanism because the evaporative efficiency of sweating is reduced.

And then we add a third concern: dehydration. Dehydration decreases overall blood volume which magnifies the blood distribution problem further. This means there’s less blood volume for cooling and less blood volume for working muscles. This does not mean you need to go overboard with drinking water, as you could end up in a dangerous state of hyponatremia where you have actually diluted your body’s electrolytes. This ultimately wreaks havoc on your brain function and can lead to death. Some level of dehydration is expected during hard exercise in hot conditions, you just don’t want it to get out of control. Drink to quench your thirst and do not try to drink excess amounts to “stay ahead” of water losses.

Unfortunately, when it’s hot, the body uses more of its stored carbohydrate, glycogen, for energy. This may not be much of a factor for a 30-minute run, but if you intend on racing a marathon you must consider it a factor because you are hoping for your glycogen stores to last as long as possible.

You might think you can compensate for that increased glycogen loss by eating more during longer runs, but there are still a couple problems. One problem is that when the core blood volume is reduced to maintain cooling and supply working muscle, there isn’t much blood left for the internal organs, particularly the intestines and stomach. The other problem is that any carbohydrate you take in while exercising in the heat is used at a slower rate.

With the loss of blood volume to the digestive organs, your stomach might feel like it has a brick in it after deciding (too late) to eat that first gel at mile 10 when you realize you are suddenly feeling woozy. Is it the heat? Are you dehydrated? Was it the pre-race pasta dinner? It’s just poor planning and underestimating Mother Nature.

Those gels are meant to be consumed with large amounts of water: 6-10 ounces. Guess how much water is in one of those little aid station Dixie cups? Probably 1-2 ounces. Gels are a very concentrated source of calories, so the proper amount of water needs to be included to dilute them or it will often upset your stomach.

Once the woozy bonking has started, it’s usually too late to get those calories in quickly and maintain your pace, at least for a few minutes. So back off the pace, eat, and then reassess. You can keep the workout from being a complete disaster by making that choice to slow down for a mile and getting in some extra calories and fluids when you first notice a decline in performance and mental state. A slower than expected race finish is better than a DNF, and slowing down on a training day is better than needing your significant other to come pick you up in the car. Nobody needs to see your Road ID bracelet today.

Prevention is the optimal solution for feeling well and having a decent race or training day when the heat is brutal.

Most of us are capable of absorbing around a liter of water per hour but for prevention all you would need to do is drink 16-20 ounces of fluid per hour. I’m saying “fluid” because you may like energy drinks, but realize those don’t always work well in the heat for the same reason the gels can be a problem; too many calories and not enough pure water can slow the rate that fluids are absorbed in an already stressed digestive system.

You should also consume a small amount of calories early and often. Maybe you normally take in 100 calories per hour starting at 45 minutes in a 2- or 3-hour event. Well, you might start at 25-30 minutes instead and try to do it in smaller quantities and at more regular intervals. You might see if you can get in 110-130 calories in an hour instead. And preferably use something you have eaten in hot weather and at a high effort before. There’s nothing worse than experimenting on the day of a competition. Don’t blame me if you haven’t tried these things out before race day.

If you can pull it off, it is wise to use ice and cold water to help regulate your body temperature before and during exercise. During my most recent long run, which lasted 2.5 hours in the middle of a humid 90-degree day, I sat or stood in four creeks for 1-2 minutes each. I’m sure some purist runners would have a problem with mid-run stops, but I consider it a way to ensure success and consistency in pacing for the remainder of the run. You can also chew on ice, use wet sponges or clothing, and place ice within your hat and clothing. If nothing else, the cold is a nice distraction.

Proper pacing or effort dosing is critical in prevention. Expect the worst if you plan to start out at your PR pace on a humid 85-degree day. The calculator at this link can help guide pace adjustments. It’s probably not going to be a PR kind of day but finishing strong would be nice wouldn’t it? It’s also not the kind of day to do speedwork or long, hard pushes in a competition.

A huge part of prevention is regularly having heat exposure during exercise leading up to a particular event. This is the reason why you will experience a disaster day if you always train early in the cool mornings or only exercise indoors at a 65-degree gym. Your body is exceptionally good at adapting to the stressors consistently placed upon it. Try to have the heat exposure for at least two weeks prior to a hot competition or big training day.

Some other thoughts:

  • Plan ahead by checking the weather forecast before you head outside.
  • Try to exercise in shaded areas to avoid direct sun exposure that will heat you more.
  • Figure out ahead of time if you are going to develop blisters from wet socks and shoes by going for multiple brief runs with the shoes and socks wet. Shoes that are well broken-in are less likely to be a problem.
  • Wear light-colored clothing.

Clearly, exercising in a hot environment requires your body adjust to not one but many stressors: your working muscles, increased need for temperature regulation, and increased demand on glycogen energy stores. Training or competing in the heat doesn’t have to be dangerous if you are otherwise healthy, well prepared, and plan appropriately.

Seek medical attention if you have any of the signs and symptoms of heat illness:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Pale, ashen, or flushed skin
  • Loss of sweating
  • Confusion
  • Loss of or changes in consciousness
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Sudden onset of weakness
  • Visual disturbances
  • Chills
  • Severe muscle cramping
  • Severe stomach cramping

Stay safe out there. Share this article with all of your exercise buddies. If you have any training questions contact me at derek@mountainridgept.com.