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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Minnesotan's No B.S. Guide to Winter Running

I've suspected for years something that most of the rest of the United States already knows: Mother Nature hates Minnesota.  We've had a record amount of snow here for 2010.  Apparently we have another large amount on the way for New Year's Eve.  And winter only officially started about a week ago.  Joy!  So given the nature of the season we find ourselves in, I thought it would be fitting to write a little about one of my favorite things: winter running.

Now let me qualify.  When I'm talking about winter, I'm talking about snow, ice, and temps below freezing.  If your state does not experience the four seasons, you do not have winter.  And no California, the four seasons are not: warm, really warm, not as warm, and somewhat cold.  It also does not count that it snows in the mountains, a mere 9 hour drive from your sunny Los Angeles home.  It also snows in the mountains 9 hours from my house, but that place is called Ontario.  We have enough common sense to know when enough state was enough.

No, when I talk about winter, I am talking about this:



For those who didn't see this, because of all of the snow we got this year The Big Inflatable Toilet, aka The Metrodome, roof collapsed.  This forced the Vikings to play their games in a stadium that is actually nice. 

And when I talk about winter running, I'm talking about this:



I have a love/hate relationship with winter running.  I've always suspected that people live in Minnesota for the sole reason that there's more weather to complain about.  And there's a lot to complain about around here.  I maintain that Minnesotans are behind only Siberia, Alaska, and certain parts of Canada when it comes to shitty winter weather.  We have a city with a nickname "The Nation's Icebox" after all.  You don't get a nickname like that unless your city location is really, really unfortunate.   

At the same time, Minnesotans are a hearty lot.  Our ability to be content in miserable weather is also a badge of honor to us.  This leads to a lot of silly behavior, like jumping into frozen lakes, and ice fishing.  I might get some flack from the locals about the ice fishing jab, but they're the ones sitting on a bucket in the middle of a lake staring at a little hole.  And no, ice fishing in a fishing shack isn't real ice fishing, it's a cabin on the water. 

I'm not immune to either phenomenon.  For me, my odd behavior manifests itself in random displays of winter running heroism/stupidity.  I recall numerous runs of several miles in up to a foot of snow, where I felt like I was doing more climbing than running.  I've run in temps as low as -20 degrees F, where my eyelids froze shut.  Some people like to push their limits with respect to distance or speed.  I like to push my limits in the cold.  I'm not sure what it's all leading up to.  Maybe something like this?

Why do I do it?  I might be trying to connect with some Nordic ancestor, who would probably call me a sissy anyway and club me with a baby seal.  Maybe I read too much Jack London when I was a kid.  Minnesota kids have to read a ton of Jack London, probably to convince us that it's not that bad around here. 

Mostly I run outside in the winter because I would rather watch a Kardashians marathon than run on a treadmill.  Running around and not getting anywhere should be left to hampsters with wheels, and dealing with Comcast customer service.  It's also because I love the solitude of a winter run.  I've run through entire winter seasons without seeing another runner on the trails by my house. 

At the same time, winter running in Minnesota just plain sucks.  There's only so many places you can put 20-some inches of snow.  So it ends up in piles at intersections.  It ends up on paths and trails in frozen chunks.  It melts and freezes into sheets with loose snow on top of it, so that you're about as sure-footed walking as a baby deer.  And in order to even consider going outside in the winter around here you need at least three layers on.  When I go out running, I have on enough stretchy black fabric to supply an entire yoga class, or an entire army of moisture-wicking ninjas.  It doesn't feel natural to run with that much clothing.  Sometimes I feel like if I'm outside with this many layers I should at least be doing something cool; like dog-sledding, or spear-fishing for blue whale.  But I'm not...I'm just running.

At the beginning of winter, everything is great.  It's getting colder, but all you need is a light jacket.  It just started to snow, but it looks really pretty hanging off the trees.  Then nature takes a big white dump on you.  And all the trails start looking like this:



This guide focuses on running in these conditions.  I mean conditions where a smart person would decide to go cross-country skiing.  A smarter person would stay inside.  In situations like this, you do what you have to do.  Here's what I do.

What kind of clothing should I wear?

Frostbite sucks.  Hypothermia sucks.  Dying sucks worse.  It's important to have the proper equipment for winter running.  Your life is literally at stake.

But before I go through an exhaustive list of the clothing you will need to brave the tundra, I need to talk about the type of said clothing.  In the winter, everything from your head to your feet should be covered in some kind of moisture-wicking fabric.  This is not the time to wear your cotton hoodie and wool gloves.  You need fabrics that are going to wick away moisture from your body.  Cotton and other similar materials don't evaporate your sweat fast enough.  If you wear too much cotton while running, your clothing will become cold and wet.  Wearing cold and wet clothing is a great way to get hypothermia and die.

You also need to get over any objection you have to winter running's greatest invention: running tights.  Yes, I understand that tights on a dude begs several uncomfortable gender-identity questions.  Yes, I understand that you think they make your ass look like a watermelon stuffed into scuba suit. 

I'm telling you right now to get over it for a couple of reasons.  First, it's fucking freezing and nobody gives a rat how you look.  Winter is the season that has brought us the invention of coats that look like you killed a black poodle and stuffed it in country-ham casing.  When the person next to you looks like a Hefty bag, I wouldn't be too worried about what they think of your ass.



Second, running tights are the single most versatile piece of clothing in your winter running arsenal.  They are thin enough to keep you cool in the fall, but tight enough to keep you warm in the winter.  This is due to the magic of compression.  Most tights are, well, tight.  And that means more blood flow in the old thunder thighs.  Result?  Warmth!  Not to mention their other benefits, such as keeping the wind from flying up your pants. 

If you're really self-conscious about how you look in them, wear a pair of shorts over them.  In my opinion, this option hides nothing.  You still look like a fat-ass.  Now you're a fat-ass in ridiculous clothes.  Bravo!

Now that we have that little diatribe out of the way, here's a comprehensive list of all the clothing you'll need to brave weather from 32 degrees to minus 32. 
  • Baselayer: Merino wool wicks moisture the best and stays the warmest.  Buy several.  Look into buying at least one synthetic layer with a hood.  I like to wear this one over my merino wool layer when the temperature is too cold for just a baselayer and jacket.  Here's is what I own.
  • Jacket: When I say jacket, I don't mean a winter coat.  Your jacket should be a wind and water resistant shell coat with a little bit of lining to keep you warm.  I don't have anything against winter coats.  But when you're running, except in extremely cold temperatures, these coats are unnecessarily warm and bulky.  Your core will generate more than enough warmth to keep you toasty with just a baselayer and shell in most weather.  Here's what I own.
  • Running tights: DO IT!  Here's what I own.
  • Wind-resistant pants: There are some situations where running tights alone won't cut it.  When it's really cold, or really windy, it will feel like you're wearing fish nets (not that I've ever worn them).  In those situations, you will want a pair of winter running pants to go over your tights.  You can also wear them with long-underwear.  Or, for those people who I still haven't convinced to wear tights, they can be the first layer on your legs.  Again, here is what I own.
  • Lined underwear: For dudes, this is the second most important piece of winter running gear you will own.  Buy some!  There's nothing more painful than a thawing pecker.  Don't be the guy looking for creative ways to wrap your tool to keep it warm after experiencing the dreaded "lower brain freeze".  You'll just be that guy holding a sock over your groin and wincing in pain (again, I will not disclose whether I have had that experience).  That's the stuff that lands you on youtube.  Here's what I own.  Yes, I just posted a link to underwear with a furry crotch on the interwebs.  This is THAT important. 
  • Neck gaiter: Even if you wear a hat and a jacket with a collar, there is a lot of uncovered real estate between those items that is pretty sensitive.  Neck gaiters either cover just your neck, your neck and face, or your entire neck and head depending on how much coverage you want.  Here's what I own.
  • Face mask: Just like you need protection for your neck, it will eventually get cold enough that you will want protection for your face.  You want to be careful about what you get here.  I lot of these face masks are made for downhill skiing, not running.  Runners breath more than skiers, and if you buy a ski mask, you'll be rewarded with a face full of ice crystals when your breath freezes on your face.  These ski masks can also restrict your breathing as you get into your run and start breathing heavily.  Get something that has enough protection for your cheeks and lips, but is not so protected that it restricts your breathing.  Even one of those old 70's hats with the eye and mouth holes are better than most of the masks out there.  This is my favorite.  It's made here in Duluth, MN, so they know winter.
  • Hat: Hats and gloves are very important people.  Our bodies heat our extremities last.  If you don't cover these areas, you'll get frostbite.  My rule here is to use more than you'll think you'll need, because these are the easiest things to take off and store.  Especially if you opt for a neck gaiter with no head coverage, you'll want a few different kinds of hats.  First, get a good wicking skull cap to go under your warm hat.  Then get a nice thermal hat to go over it.  It can even be wool. Here is my skull cap. 
  • Gloves: You don't need gigantic choppers to run outside, except in the worst weather conditions.  Get something that is warm, but not too bulky.  You want to be able to do things like tie your shoe and adjust your clothes without taking off your gloves if possible.  Best gloves ever.  They are convertible.
  • Goggles: You heard me.  I said goggles.  Have you ever had your eyelids freeze shut?  Ever gotten brain-freeze from the wind?  If you run outside in the winter long enough, you will experience both of these things.  They ain't fun.  Get over the fact that you will look like the Red Baron, or the weird kid waiting in line for Santa in A Christmas Story.  This is function over form people.  You will need a pair for very cold, and very windy days.   
How much clothing to wear?

Suiting up to run in the winter is a delicate balance.  Dressing in layers is key.  But it's not as simple as "the colder you feel, the more layers you wear".  If you wear too little clothing, you're not going to generate enough heat to keep your body warm.  Your body's core temperature will drop, you'll get hypothermia and you'll die.

But if you wear too much clothing, you're going to sweat your ass off.  All that sweat will be wicked off your body onto your clothing.  This will make your clothing wet and cold.  Same pattern: not warm, temp drop, dead. 

There are a lot of methods I've looked at to decide how much to wear for a winter run.  Most of them are complete B.S.  For example, there is the saying, "dress for weather that is 20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature".  Sayings like this aren't as helpful as they might first seem.  For one, do you really know what you wear when the temperature is 34 degrees?  How about 42 degrees?  How about 11.5?  I know I don't, and I doubt you do either, unless you keep some kind of clothing log.  I don't even know what the purpose of such a log would be, except to be very, very boring. 

Another reason sayings like this are B.S. is because even if you know what you wear in certain weather conditions, you probably weren't going for a 3 mile run.  You only wore what you did to hustle the 400 feet from your car to your office.  You also no doubt complained about how cold you were once you got inside. 

There are also a bunch of tools available on the internet that will tell you what to wear in certain weather conditions.  One such tool is the What Should I Wear? tool available at Runners World.  I'm not sure how they come up with the clothing suggestions on this site.  They might work for you, but they don't work for me.  They also don't account for the most important factor in my mind regarding winter weather conditions: wind chill.  There's a ton of difference between a 20 degree day with no wind chill, and a 20 degree day with a 0 degree wind chill.  These tools are a good guideline, but shouldn't be the gospel truth. 

The test that I use is to put on as many layers as I think I need, and then to go outside.  Then I either add or subtract layers until I can feel the cold, but it's not so bad that I am shivering.  Once you start running, the heat from your body will make you feel nice and toasty within a few minutes.  If you stay cold, it's time to put some more clothes on.  It's a method that takes a little trial and error, but it's also the one that will keep you safe this winter.  If you're not confident in the outfit you went out running in, take a few extra layers, or stay close to home.

Here are my general guidelines that I use when deciding how to layer up.  I make it easy for myself by breaking it down into different levels of coverage for different temperatures.
  • Level 1 (32 degrees to around 20 degrees): Hat, light gloves, baselayer, running tights
  • Level 2 (20 degrees to around 10 degrees): Hat, heavy gloves, baselayer, jacket, lined underwear, running tights
  • Level 3 (10 degrees to minus 10 degrees): Hat, heavy gloves, neck gaiter, face mask, 2 baselayers, jacket, lined underwear, running tights, winter running pants
  • Level 4 (below 10 degrees): What are you, freakin nuts?  Well, in case you are, I wear two hats, two gloves, neck gaiter, face mask, 2 baselayers, winter ski jacket, lined underwear, long underwear, running tights, winter running pants
What kind of shoes should I wear?

You don't have to look very hard on this blog to find out that I'm a barefoot runner.  I run barefoot whenever I can.  I also subscribe to the theory that barefoot runners must occasionally wear shoes as needed for the situation.  For the most part, we barefooters prefer to wear the most minimal shoe that gets the job done.

I say that's all fine and dandy in the spring, summer, and fall.  But most minimalist shoes suck in the winter because they are as bald as Brittany Spears after the K-Fed breakup.  Wear a pair of Vibram Fivefingers out on a snowy trail, and you'll spend most of your time trying to stay upright.  You wouldn't drive with bald tires in the winter, so why wear bald shoes?  In the winter, all bets are off for me.  I want a pair of footwear that allows me to run somewhat normally, with a minimal amount of slippage.

They make shoes that are specifically designed for the snow, equip with things like spikes and aggressive tread.  Well, when I went barefoot, I ended up buying about five new pairs of shoes.  Ironic, yes.  But that aside, the last thing I need is another pair of shoes. 

Plus, most winter shoes aren't that great for the same reason that most winter tires aren't that great.  There's only so much that rubber can do against ice, which is everywhere in the winter.  Your choice of shoe isn't the problem.  All shoes behave equally bad in the winter.  The best weapon for traction on ice is a combination of friction and metal.  That's why ice road truckers put chains on their tires.  You need to turn your foot into a human snow tire. 

You need something like this.  With these things I have successfully ran across a frozen lake without slipping.  They are incredible.  Note to minimalist runners: if you use these things, be sure to chose a shoe with a thicker sole.  Otherwise you'll feel like you're running on a toaster-oven coil.  The best shoe choice I've found to pair with these and still satisfy my minimalist tastes is a sturdy, yet light trail shoe like my MT100s.  Pictures to follow.

Other equipment

Things just work differently in the cold.  More specifically, they freeze.  That means that if you are used to carrying food, water, or other gear on runs, you have to learn a new way to do it to prevent your supplies from going bad.  Here's a few tricks that I've learned. 
  • Water bottles: Steer clear of small water bottles and packs like those Fuelbelts with several 8 oz bottles.  Water freezes faster in smaller amounts.  It's better to carry one large water bottle than several small ones.  Also, avoid water bottles with mouth pieces and go with screw top or flip top models.  Right after you take a drink from a bottle with a mouth piece, the residual water in the mouth piece will freeze, and you won't be able to take a drink.  If you want a water solution that is guaranteed not to freeze, try a bullet thermos like this one.  It is vacuum-insulated stainless steel.  It will keep your bevy within 2 degrees of its original temperature guaranteed.
  • Food: If you plan on running long enough to eat food, I suggest steering away from any gels or gummies.  If you don't, your gels will become popsicles, and your gummies will become Jolly Ranchers.  I stick with real food during the winter.  Something I know won't freeze, like a peanut butter sandwich.
  • Night running gear: In the winter we get 8 hours of daylight or less.  Unless you are unemployed, or work at a 7-11, you work during those daylight hours.  Chances are you will be running at least occasionally during the night.  In the winter time, this poses a problem.  For some reason, running clothing manufactures have deemed in their infinite wisdom that all winter running gear shall be black.  Also, drivers in my experience don't look for you like they do in the summer because they don't expect someone to be crazy enough to run in the winter.  When you combine those two things, you get an accident waiting to happen.  My theory of night running gear is that more is better.  I go out with a headlamp, a reflective vest, and several blinking red lights to signal that my dumb ass is coming.  If you don't want to get hit by a car/snowmobile/snow plow, you should too.
  • Cellphone: I can think of a thousand situations where you might need to call someone for help in the winter.  Always carry this, even if you're only going a short distance or staying close to home.
Location

As I've said before, there's a wide variety of reasons why winter running can suck.  There's no reason to seek out ways to make it suck more.  The way that most people make winter running suck is to try to do too much.  What I mean by that, is that you shouldn't be going out in the winter and trying to push yourself unless you know what you're doing.  This isn't the time of year when you should train for that first half marathon.  It's not the time when you're going to get in some good speedwork.  You're not going to break any kind of distance or time PR. 

And if you try, something about winter, be it the temperature or the trail conditions, is going to bite you in the ass.  You just can't perform the same during winter as during other months.  The trails are icy at best, and downright impassible at worst, so you can't run as fast.  The temperature is so cold that you spend more energy warming your body than running. 

Winter is one of those seasons where you need to get over yourself, and just do what you can.  That goes for both where you run, as well as how far you run.  Doing too much and suffering the consequences is the quickest way to get burnt out on winter running.  For example, you might want to go on that new trail that your friends told you about all summer.  But now you realize that your city is a bunch of cheap asses, and have only plowed a 2 mile looped trail a half hour from your house.  Go do some laps big shot.  It's better than dashing through a foot of snow and falling on your ass.  I bet that little adventure put an end to your trailblazing spirit.

In my experience, unless you live in a very big city, you will only see some of your trails plowed this winter.  Generally those include the trails of major parks, as well as local sidewalks.  They do not include neighborhood parks and any kind of nature or dirt trails.  You will also not see them plowed in any sort of urgent fashion.  The priority of most cities is to clear their streets first, and then move on to city sidewalks and trails.  Even then, I don't know many cities that do a great job of plowing their trails.  I tend to run on a far more limited set of trails than I do during the other seasons.  When it snows really bad, I stick to the streets.

Distance

There's nothing like slipping around on a poorly plowed trail to make you lose motivation.  Combine that with a blistering 20 mph wind on a 10 degree day and you may consider giving up running altogether.  It's okay to feel that way.  This isn't the time of year to put in that first 50 mile week.  It's not even time to maintain your current mileage totals.  Did you know that you can maintain your current level of fitness with half of your current mileage over the winter?  There's a good article in Runners World about it. 

I find that I enjoy winter running more if I don't do it more than 3x a week on non-consecutive days.  That keeps my interest peaked without sacrificing any of my conditioning.  I use the rest of the week to concentrate on strength training.

There's nothing wrong with running less in the winter.  If nothing else, your body needs a break from all the constant abuse it takes during the other three seasons.  Plus, absence makes the heart grow fonder people.  Four months of running 2-3x a week, and when the snow starts melting you'll be pissing yourself in anticipation of getting back out there.  Winter might even become one of your favorite seasons to run, as it is mine.  Thanks for reading citizens!

6 comments:

  1. I love winter running as well and this is my first winter trying to be barefoot and yes, I've purchased about 5 pairs of shoes trying to find the right combination. Great exhaustive tips about winter running! You are in a more brutal place than I am, I've never had frozen eyelids and am a wimp in wind. I'd take the hamster wheel any day over freezing wind. Thanks for the info! And good on you! I'm impressed!

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  2. Um. Ok. So I don't qualify for this post... HOWEVER, this part of CA gets pretty damn cold. And hey! We're only 1 hour away from Tahoe!

    I'm running tomorrow night with my running group and I suspect it will be in the low 30s. STOP LAUGHING! That's cold for me! :)

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  3. This is exactly why I love Florida

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  4. I am a little jealous of CA and FL weather. But I don't think I could live somewhere without a few bitterly cold days. It builds character.

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  5. Great post!!! As a fellow Minnesotan,this was a joy to read! I might add beware of snowplows,as they do not look out for you! I am a 54 yr old female minimalist runner and was able to average 28-35 miles a week all winter this year. I think my piece of clothing I can't live without,definetly -my neck gaiter! Wind chill is all that matters-I run in 0--10-15depending on wind. Also this winter I ran in Newtons all winter. I have found that I break yaktrax in a week every time I try them. I found great success this past winter by running with screws (sheet metal screws) in my shoes all winter. Best traction ever on all surfaces!!

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  6. Thanks for the tips - even if I did find this a few years later. Good info for me - another MN runner! :-)

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