When a cold wind is blowing in the winter darkness and the sleet continues to fall, it often takes a great act of will power to step outside for a training run. Some people actually enjoy winter running rather than the warmer weather of summer and derive greater benefit from following a training schedule during those long months. But what are the pitfalls of running during cold days and nights and what is the appropriate gear to wear?
For many runners a winter running program is an essential part of building endurance levels for the upcoming year but steps must be taken to ensure that personal safety is guaranteed. Before embarking upon a run, the weather will be a great determinant in selecting suitable clothing for the session. Consider these essential items of winter gear…
- Woolly Hat – Heat expires more readily through the top of the head and so a hat can prevent this happening
- Gloves – Hands can soon become exposed on cold nights, which can be quite painful. Wear gloves initially and remove them if the hands become too warm. There is very little effort involved in carrying gloves.
- Trackster Bottoms – Leg muscles exposed to cold winter weather are more liable to strains, pulls and tears.
- Thermal Vest – Although it is only lightweight, if it is worn next to the body, it is surprising how warm it can be and it is moisture wicking.
- A light top – Whether it be a light t-shirt or a high visibility jacket, it is essential to be seen in the dark.
- Lightweight waterproof top and tracksters for those exceptionally wet nights.
- Sufficient top layers to allow the body to become warm but not that they become too heavy after warming up. If you too warm before setting out remove a layer, as being slightly chilled for the first few hundred yards is ideal before the body naturally warms up.
Remember that winter running can become dangerous if not fully protected from the elements and serious problems from exposure and hypothermia can become a real possibility if adequate precautions are not taken prior to the run.
Once clothing matters are sufficiently sorted, the next stage is to decide upon the content of the session and for this consideration must be given to underfoot conditions. No medals are awarded for running in extreme Arctic conditions, and lying snow, frost and black ice represent potential hazards for the runner. There is little point in trying any speed work under these conditions as the most important factor is just to stay on two feet. If conditions underfoot are extreme a treadmill is usually the safest option, even though they are not to everybody’s taste. If it is deemed necessary to run on the paths during the winter wear a pair of shoes with good grip as there may be patchy frost or ice just around the corner.
Another important aspect when running outside in winter is to run where the area is well lit. Run where there are street lamps if a session has to take place at night and stay near to roads where there are paths. Running on the grass especially at night is not beneficial as there are two extremes to this: hidden muddy stretches and holes and ruts on uneven frozen ground which can become a major cause of twisted ankles.
If possible run during the daylight hours and keep the running stride shorter as there are still unwelcome hazards during the day such as patchy frost and lying snow. Also the daytime presents more opportunity for noticing any hidden dangers especially when there is snow. It is always better to run on fresh snow rather than packed snow as there is more traction and it reduces the chances of slipping.
A cold wind can be another unwelcome scenario during winter running. There always seems to a headwind no matter which direction for the run. If there is a force 10 gale blowing start running into the wind even though it might not seem a good idea at the time. On the way back, there should be a tailwind and there will be less chance of becoming chilled after sweating.
Winter running with friends is also a good idea. What would happen if you did slip after taking all the necessary precautions? Friends would be able to provide some assistance, especially if mobile phones have been left elsewhere. If a solo run is the only option, one tip is to tie small piece of cardboard or equivalent with some string to the shoelaces. This will contain your name and contact details of next of kin, just in case an accident does occur in winter weather. More importantly, tell somebody your route and most likely time of return.
Although it often takes a great deal of motivation to go running in the winter, when faced with many of the hazards mentioned above, it can still be very enjoyable. Many runners use the long winter months for long slow runs which build up the background stamina, which is essential for the more serious training later in spring and summer. Several international athletes have been heard to say that they had a ‘good winter’, meaning that they missed very few sessions and built a platform of useful long distance mileage during their program.
Jenny Hadfield, a respected coach and author of running books, has recommended devising goals as a prime motivator for beginning a winter running program. Set a target of running a race during the spring, which means venturing out in the cold weather is an essential part of the training. If affordable, try and seek a warm weather race as part of a winter holiday.
Running in the winter can be serious fun especially when participating with a group. Sharing jokes and banter about the weather is all part of the experience. Assuming common sense is used, winter running can be safe, and there are fewer children around making rude comments about the passing runners.