Dressing for the Changing Season | October 26, 2011
The winter months can put the big hurt on your running plans. Temperatures drop. Cold rains fall. Ice and snow blanket the trails. The wind cuts like a knife. Trying to run after work, you are hampered by the early darkness, and running before work requires trading a warm bed for the freezing morning chill. Many runners scale back their workout routines and use the worst of winter for some beneficial rest. But others soldier through, turning the harsh conditions to their advantage by finding new ways to tough out the miles and thus building on their ultrarunning capabilities. It’s hard to beat that feeling of self-satisfaction you get from finishing a long run in conditions that keep most people glued to their couches.
The key to running through the winter months, of course, is how you dress. And like so many aspects of ultrarunning, proper dress will vary from runner to runner. I can comfortably run around in the snow in a t-shirt and shorts as long as the wind isn’t blowing too hard, but I’ll look around and see other runners dressed like Arctic explorers. So even though clothing needs will vary from runner to runner, most runners are well served through quite a wide range of cooler temperatures with just three basic items: a lightweight, ventilated shell; a pair of gloves; and a beanie or headband that covers the ears. The shell provides basic warmth and cuts the wind. The gloves protect your hands which tend to be the first area of your body to react to the cold. And the beanie keeps you from losing too much heat through your head. If the weather is mild enough, you might not even need these basic things once you’ve started running and gotten thoroughly warmed up. The gloves might come off or the jacket might go around your waist as the run progresses. If you encounter colder spots in a shady section of forest or down by a river bottom, or if the weather should take a turn for the worse, you can always bundle back up. Some runners like to add a pair of sleeves to the mix which can be rolled up and down as the temperature dictates.
When you’re facing really cold conditions, below freezing and lower, it gets more complicated. First of all, it’s easy to overdress as you tend to want to put on enough clothes to step outside and be warm while standing still and not exercising. If you’re running and generating heat, you can stay warm with a lot less clothes than if you were not running. I don’t know how many times I’ve come to an aid station dressed comfortably in a t-shirt and found all the volunteers bundled up like Eskimos. I’ve even heard runners offering encouragement to the volunteers. “Hang in there. You’ll get through it…” The trick is to dress in layers so you have some flexibility if you are getting too warm or too cold. The inner layer needs to be a technical material that will wick moisture away from the skin. It won’t hurt if the middle layer has the wicking property as well. Add additional middle layers as the temperature and wind dictate. The outer shell or jacket should offer protection against the wind but should also be vented to allow moisture to escape. To keep your hands warm, you may need to add mittens over your standard running gloves, and likewise you may need to pull your jacket’s hood up over your head if just a beanie is not doing the job of keeping your head warm. As you work at dialing in your running clothes, plan for some shorter loops that get you back home or back to your car before too much time passes. You don’t want to strike out on an epic run far from shelter until you’re pretty sure you know how to dress for it.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the wind’s speed and direction when running in the cold. I had good luck facing down some January blizzards in Kansas one year by simply starting my run heading directly into the wind and finishing with the wind at my back. If I could stay warm going against the wind, I knew I would be fine coming back even though I was tired and less energetic at the end of the run. If you’re facing severe wind chill, you may need a face mask and protection for your neck. You want all skin covered in such conditions to avoid frostbite. A cheap, flexible and highly useful piece of cold weather running gear is a large-sized garbage bag (unused, preferably). Stuff one in a pocket or in your hydration pack, and you’re ready for an array of emergencies. A garbage bag can keep you warm and dry in a cold rain. It provides an extra layer against stiff winds. If you run into trouble and have to do some walking, a garbage bag will trap warm air and slow down the process of getting chilled once you’re not generating a lot of heat by running.
When you are planning your clothing for a very long workout or a race in cold weather, be sure to take into account some less than ideal scenarios. Maybe the eating will not go well, you totally run out of energy, and you need to walk long stretches. Maybe you will twist an ankle and be slowed to a crawl. Maybe you’ll get lost. Maybe the weather will turn much worse. Better to carry an extra layer of clothes along or have clothes waiting in a drop bag than to find you’re heading for hypothermia. The early morning hours of a hundred mile attempt, for example, can be a real challenge for runners who have spent all their energy and been slowed to a snail’s pace just when the temperatures are bottoming out. In such a situation, even several layers of clothes may be no substitute for a heavier, well-lined jacket that can keep you warm no matter what your pace. If you’ve got that jacket ready to go in your drop bag, you’re in great shape. If it’s hanging in your closet back home, you’re sunk. Running at night, I’m never sure when I’m going to want to pull on my long running pants, so I’ll stash up to three pairs of pants in different drop bags. It triples my chances of having the pants right at hand when I need them without having to carry them with me all night. The extra clothes you scatter around in your drop bags may go unused, but on the other hand, they could save your race.
Collecting just the right array of cold weather gear that works well for you may take awhile but it will be well worth the effort. There is nothing like being out in the woods on a cold winter’s day in the quiet and the solitude running long and feeling warm and secure about what you are doing.