The day before I started writing this, the second article in our unofficial series on winter workout tips, the first snowflakes touched down here in northwestern Oregon. They made their arrival in the dark hours of the morning, and had been overpowered by the warmer rain by the time daylight came along, so all that was left was the half-frozen slush that I found covering my cold car at around eight in the morning.
Such is the beginning of winter around here.
For many people in the United States, however, the first snow blew in days or even weeks ago. For all of you in these areas, it’s likely that the not-warm blankets of white, water-based road blockage are there to last, potentially all the way until the birds wake up, check their calendars, and decide to end their southern vacations. Daily activities now have to be planned out with the weather in mind, much more so than usual. Some activities are allowed to begin, like skiing and snowboarding, but others now have to take a backseat; the only time you should ever wreck your surfboard on an iceberg is in a nightmare you have after watching a back-to-back showing of Titanic and The Revenant. (Awesome counterpoint: these guys disagree.)
(And, fact check: Winter is not actually what creates icebergs, but it’s only a dream, goodness.)
Anyway, at this point, if you’re not an ice surfer, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, you’re right. It’s too cold, I’ll have to save the good workouts until spring.” No! Stop right there! Don’t fall into the trap. That’s hibernating. That’s what bears do. You’re not a bear. I promise you that you physically are not a bear. Heather’s article last month detailed some of the benefits that are provided by regular exercise during the colder months: more calories are burned, the body becomes more tolerant of lower temperatures, your mood is regulated and improved, and your immune system is given a lift. Those things benefit the body in both the short term and the long term.
So, you say, “Alright! I’m motivated! Time to get out there! … Now what?”
Well, the thing about exercising outside during the winter is that, not only is it colder, but odds are that it will also be darker when you do it. I tend to exercise in the earlier morning, which means that during the summer, I’m jogging in 7 A.M. daylight. In December, however, the same time of day is still as dark as it would have been at 3 A.M. If any of you reading this article happen to live in Northern Canada or Scandinavia, then you probably understand this struggle better than anybody else; the closer one gets to one of the earth’s poles, the more drastic the seasonal changes in daylight and darkness get.
Exercising in the cold and in the dark is a great sign of dedication. Good for you! Seriously, props. But, what will you need to do to make sure that you can still do it safely?
Humans usually don’t gravitate toward the cold and dark places of the world. The stereotypical working man or woman’s choice to spend their year’s vacation days at the beach is a barrier to that sort of thinking. There are reasons why we don’t, and they’re based on needs that we’ve come to see as necessary in the history of human evolution; preserving optimal body temperature, and the fear of predators or other danger that cannot be immediately identified. It’s literally natural to instinctively avoid the cold and the dark. In contemporary times, however, we have adapted! We have lightbulbs, coats, water heaters, football stadium lights, and the divine gift of heated seats in cars. Technologies that we have available to us now can help us all combat the fear of the unknown and the too-dang-cold. Here’s some tips on what to bring with you for your good old-fashioned winter run.
The right Clothing
Making sure you have the right clothing for a cold run is the most important thing to do. You might default in most workout situations to a T-shirt and shorts with your normal underwear and cotton socks, and slip on your already-tied shoes just before you leave the house. Might not be the best idea here. Why? I’ll tell you why, warm-blooded human; the shirt and shorts aren’t tight to the skin, and they’ll let a majority of the heat escape. Your lower arms and legs won’t get any protection at all, and that exposure to the elements will take a toll that you’ll be able to feel pretty quickly. And cotton socks? More like winter runner’s nightmare. The old “cotton kills” mantra I heard so much in my boyhood is still as true as it ever was. Cotton retains moisture, and when that moisture is freezing cold and won’t evaporate, it’s the last thing you want your ankles and feet to deal with. And, of course, the second to last thing your ankles and feet want to deal with are shoes that provide no traction. If you’re wearing shoes without textured soles or structure, and if they’re not tight on your feet, then as soon as you hit the first ice patch in the path you’ll be doing nothing but hurting your back, embarrassing yourself, and reminding any amused onlookers of Charlie Brown trying and failing to kick a football.
Once again, when it comes to socks for running, avoid cotton at all costs. You’re much better off with fabrics like wool or polyester, which largely repel water and keep it away from the surface of your skin. The idea of wool socks may come with mental images of those huge tube socks that Grandma gave everyone for Christmas that one year. (You know, the ones that look like they were made out of your favorite teddy bear.) Don’t worry, there are much easier and more flattering wool-based socks to work with. Smartwool™ socks are a good example of functional wool socks; thinner than you’d think, and with patterns that you actually like.
Tights, or leggings, are vital, for men and women. Stay with me, gentlemen; the heat that you want to retain in below-freezing temperatures is going to stay in the same way with both men and women; by a layer of underclothing that A) covers as much as possible and B) pulls away the moist sweat from your skin. Lululemon and Nike are two companies that both sell their own incarnations of women’s and men’s leggings, but you can also find many other brands of tights online in various price ranges.
You’ve heard about how much heat you lose through your head, right? Well, whoever told you how much head heat you actually lose was probably wrong, but you still lose heat through your head just like you do from any other part of your body that isn’t properly protected from the elements. And who likes having frozen ears? These suggestions below for hats to wear when running outside provide not only a more-than-adequate covering for your cranial satellite dishes, but also, in the case of the women’s hat from Trailheads, there is even space for your ponytail, so that there’s no awkward or painful compression of your long hair. How cool is that? I know a lot of long-haired folk that would readily chalk this hat up to the proverbial list of “things I didn’t know I needed”.
A cousin of the well-known scarf, the buff is another great addition to your winter wardrobe. Athletes praise it for its versatility; you can cover your neck, ears, mouth, nose, or anything else with it that you need to.
Going running with flat-soled shoes during the summer is hard enough; running with bad shoes in the winter is essentially sweeping a field for ice mines with your own feet. Not good, unless you want an embarrassing video of you eating pavement to go viral on the Internet. The shoes you want are going to depend on where you run most – trails, pavement, or other surfaces.
Don’t wear sweatpants out in the wet cold. It may seem tempting, since they’re initially warm, but most sweats are made with cotton or a cotton mixture, and that won’t help you for long. Wind pants and fleece pants will help you out a lot more.
Gloves are mega important. Your fingers might be alright if you don’t do anything with them while running, at least for a bit, but if you plan on holding anything with them, or using them to skip songs on your phone or iPod, then you’re going to want good gloves, bad. Manzanella makes gloves in men’s and women’s models that insulate from the cold, stand up against both wind and water, and allow for manipulation of a touch screen with the thumbs and forefingers. That’s a good place to start.
Layers are the way to win. Mom told you that, and Mom was correct. If you go running and you’re too warm in the process, you can adjust, but better to start on the warm end than on the cold end. Each layer should accomplish its own purpose, too; the lowest layer should fit tight, like a second skin, and wick away moisture; the middle layer should provide insulation, to increase the warmth and retain body heat; the outer layer should protect from the elements and repel the rain and the cold. Your outer layer should also ideally be reflective; none of these things end up being beneficial if you get injured in an accident. There are also many outer layers (windbreakers or running jackets) that include reflective fabric or linings that allow others to see you when running. Additional reflective gear is also recommended, but this is a good start. (And yes, reflective gear might look silly, but it would really be better to stay home instead of not wearing reflective clothing.)
Flashlights and MORE REFLECTIVE CLOTHING
A sub-tip I’ll throw in here is to go running in an area that you already know; run in your neighborhood, near where you work, or a familiar street or trail. That way you can generally expect what conditions or sudden curves that the path has to offer you. Still, even with that advice, here’s a surprise – it’s kinda hard to see where you’re going when it’s dark outside. Not only that, but it can be hard for others to see you, too. To combat this, bring a headlamp with you. The more lumens it boasts, the better – if you’ve ever been behind the frozen windshield of a moving vehicle and had to struggle to make out the pedestrian on the side of the nighttime road, then you’ll know that drivers in your area will appreciate the lengths you go to in order to be seen. You can also trade in the headlamp for a traditional flashlight, but know that carrying a flashlight the whole time can get a bit inconvenient for a lot of people.
Reflective gear is also important for those drivers and other runners who are looking to avoid running into you. Reflective jackets are a good choice, but if you find that your jacket isn’t reflective, you need to invest in a little extra gear. You may think it looks a bit unattractive, but honestly, 1) nobody was going to see what you looked like at night anyway, and 2) I shouldn’t have to tell you how unattractive it is to get into an avoidable accident because somebody couldn’t tell that you were there. This strap vest from Amphipod™ takes up very little space, but still provides another passing person the ability to identify you from any angle.
There have been many nights I’ve had in my life in which I had woken up, and found that I was unable to go back to sleep. After tossing and turning for several minutes, I would consign myself to staying awake, and then I would often decide to take a trip outside. In those moments, as I would slip on my clothes quietly, for fear of waking up my siblings and roommates and turning them into monsters, and then as I would step outside into the sharp air and check out the starry winter sky above my head, I would feel myself being able to think about things with more clarity than I could usually find in any other circumstance. There’s a lot to be said about those moments, and who could be faulted for doing more to seek them out? No matter how cold it gets, or how late it is, if you’re feeling like it, there’s nothing wrong with getting up and going for a jog.
Or a surf, if you’re into that.