As I write this, we're having our first real cold snap of the winter. It brings to mind the question: When is it too cold to run outside? The answer is as variable as the runner who asks. For some of you, below freezing (31 degrees Fahrenheit) is too cold; for others, it's single digits. And, for the extreme, running outside when it is below zero is met with nary a worry.
Over the years I've developed a checklist of cold weather reminders, most of which are very common sense. The first and most important is “acclimation”. It doesn't matter how well-conditioned you are or how tough you are, if you haven't been outside on a regular basis, adjusting to the cooler air of the season, then you must be cautious.
As a general rule, though, runners should consider alternative training anytime the temperature is below zero. Yes, well-conditioned runners could “survive” running in those conditions, but the risk of short-term injuries and even long-term damage to your body goes up drastically. The question is: why chance it? When the weather is that cold, a simple fall can result in a serious injury. And if no one is around to help you, catastrophe is possible.
If you follow these tips, many of the biggest possible problems can be prevented:
•Acclimation: Are your lungs ready?
Unless you've been running regularly as the weather gets colder, your body can't possibly be ready to withstand brutal temperatures.
You can be in the best physical condition, but if your lungs are not prepared, then you are best staying inside.
•Company: Don't go it alone.
Running with others, as a general rule, is better. When on the roads, it's easier for drivers to see you. When on trails, if you happen to fall and get injured, someone is there to help. But when the weather is dangerous, all sorts of issues can arise. For one, if you slip on the ice or get injured, it doesn't take long before hypothermia sets in.
Another benefit to running with others: it helps keep your mind sharp. If you are all alone, it's easy to drift off mentally and lose touch with your vital signs.
•Layers: Be flexible with your gear.
The more clothing, the better. Of course, you don't have to wear all of it all the time. With more layers, you can bundle up early in the run (like I do) and then dress down as you warm up. And, if you run into the wind, adding a layer comes in handy. Most winter running gear is very light, so balling it up and carrying it isn't much of a hindrance.
Most importantly, if disaster strikes and you are down with an injury, the more clothes the better.
It is good to have a variety of clothing – each type serves a different purpose. The first layer should be light and consist of sort of wicking material that pulls the sweat away from the body. The second layer could be of the same material, or of something a little heavier like fleece, to help keep the warmth in. Finally, the outer layer should consist of water and wind-repellant material. More on the wind part later on.
•Relaxed pace: This is not a race, it is a training run.
If the conditions are bitter, just be happy to get your run in. There will be time for longer, more aggressive runs when the weather breaks. A spring marathon can't be won in January, but it can be lost if you over-do it.
Typically when conditions are bad, the footing isn't good and chance of injury skyrockets. Ice (including black ice), snow and drifting snow are obvious hazards, but so is the cold. When temperatures are that cold and the body is working extra hard to stay warm, a 7:30 per mile pace can come off like a 7:00 per mile pace. So take it easy.
•Safe route: An out-and-back or circular route is best.
Again, if you are alone, don't run too far from a safe place (home, car, shelter). And whatever the route, make sure to provide plenty of options such as cutting short the run or stopping back at the car to add/discard layers and to hydrate.
If you don't have company on days like this, shorter loops (such as 1 mile) are not a bad option. Sure, it can be boring running in circles, but you'll be safe.
•Hydration: Fluids are not just for hot weather.
Despite the cold temperatures, always have water or a sports drink. Because of the cold, you won't be thirsty, but that's when it's most important to drink. Consider all the layers you have on: Your body is probably just as warm as it is on a hot day. So why wouldn't you hydrate?
•Wind protection: Let's face it ... in the beginning.
If you must do an out-and-back course, run into the wind first. Sure, it's a wake-up call, but when you finally turn for home, you will be pretty comfortable. Obviously, it's best to run loops or change directions several times just to alternate. Another advantage to look for is lots of hills and trees. These work as wind barriers.
•Warm-down: Save the best for last.
What do you do after surviving a long run in sub-zero conditions? Same as after any other brutal run: repair the body and feed yourself! Start with plenty of water and then get something warm to eat and drink. The worst thing you can do is take a long, hot shower followed by a nap. If you are dehydrated, you will endanger yourself. And then you may not live to brag about that long run in horrific conditions.
Good luck with your winter training.