Cold enough for ya? How to weather winter as outdoor runner

winter sunset

My bedroom is on the north side of the house.

It was an overlooked design flaw when I moved in about four years ago, when all I thought was “Oh good, it faces the street, so any noise won’t wake the kids up.”

What I missed was that it also means their rooms are on the back of the house – red wine and Wilco and late-night chatter under their windows don’t make it easier for them to fall asleep when it’s still light out at 10 p.m.

But it also means that as I lay in bed in February, I can hear the wind howling, feel it rattle the window and know, even just from that little dip of my toe out from beneath the blanket, that it’s going to be a cold morning for a run.

So you lay there and think to yourself: I only have a few weeks before my spring race. How badly do I need this run?

Probably pretty badly.

OK, then, how cold is it, and can I justify running inside on the treadmill?

If you’re like me, you’ve probably already used that excuse for lesser weather, now it’s time to pay the piper.

Get out the balaclava. The windproof tights. The base layer and windbreaker and huge mittens, rip open the chemical hand warmers and lay them on the counter to warm up while you drink coffee and stare at various weather apps on your phone, trying to believe whatever the warmest prediction is.

We all have our own motivation. Maybe it’s trying to qualify for Boston, or just finish your first race, or find time with your friends and running together outside is how you do it. Whatever it is, it’s what gets you out the door.

As I laid there, I thought about the science of it all.

Then my mind went to where it always goes next in that process: To Thayne Munce, Ph.D., who works in the Sanford Sports Science Institute. He’s always game for a bunch of random questions. (Like what’s the difference in the pounds of pressure per step it puts on a bone to run a marathon in 1:59 vs. 2:05, and at what point will the body be unable to maintain the weight load? We’ll come back to that.)

Munce studies all things sweat. He has a heat chamber, for the love of all that’s holy, and athletes willingly step into it to better understand themselves.

So he just sighed when I called him to ask him yet another round of inane questions about if I’m getting any caloric benefit from running in the cold versus just hibernating until spring.

“Thayne, level me with, what’s the point?” is how I think I phrased it to him.

Turns out, there isn’t one.

“It’s a bigger challenge to cool yourself down,” Munce said. “When you’re exercising, your muscles create heat and that creates the challenge of getting rid of it.”

That helps explain why fall marathon training is nearly as dreadful as spring marathon training – all those long runs in August, where you’re battling heat illness and heatstroke, both serious illnesses.

The technical explanation of winter running wariness is this: If it’s cold enough for ya, you’ll have diminished blood flow to your periphery and muscles, and that can affect your nervous system. But as you exercise, it all starts to warm up again, so those challenges tend to go away.

The issue becomes when it’s brutally cold and you aren’t dressed appropriately. Think hypothermia.

In the winter, you can combat that with the right clothing and keep yourself warm enough. Then, the bigger issue just becomes exposure: frostbite on exposed skin, slipping on ice, stumbling over a pile of snow at the curb.

I changed my tactic.

“OK, well, what about trying to plod through in all those layers, doesn’t that make you feel the burn more?” I asked.

“Not really,” Munce said. “You may be carrying around a little extra weight, but in the summer, your respirations and heart rate will be a little higher, and that requires a few more calories. It’s negligible.”

The same is true for intensity: It’s difficult to get in speed work on ice or really long runs in subzero temperatures.

“It’s similar in the heat,” Munce said. “People can’t run as fast because they’re overheated and fatigued sooner and cut their workouts short.”

I’m starting to feel disillusioned, so I ask Munce about biomechanics. At what point am I so wrapped up in technical clothes that I turn into a scene from “A Christmas Story?”

Munce assures me my body will find a way to be its most efficient self (which, frankly, as a recreational athlete, probably isn’t that efficient anyway).

“I’ve seen shufflers so bundled up they’re restricted from running normally, so they just sort of move their limbs in whatever pattern is available to them,” Munce said. “If you don’t run efficiently, you can overheat.”

It isn’t common, but it happens. They key is to dress knowing you’re going to warm up.

“Don’t dress for a run as if you were at a parade or a football game,” Munce said.

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Posted In Health Information, Healthy Living, Orthopedics, Running

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