Winter Running

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You’re a runner in the Chicago-land area, and that means cold and snowy winters.  Because of this, most runners loathe this time of year where icy footing, chilling winds, sub-zero temperatures force them inside to run on the dreaded treadmill, or to forego a run all together.  While there are some conditions to be avoided, if you are prepared with a positive attitude, the proper running attire, and choose your route wisely, running in the winter can actually be rather enjoyable.  I have been running and coaching in the Chigago-land area all my life along with 4 years in VT, and yet I have missed very few runs due to winter weather.  Below are some tips to help you not only survive but thrive and enjoy the aspects of running in the winter.

Having the right attitude is an essential place to start.  Find a way to look forward to the change in season and make the most of what winter running has to offer.  One of my favorite things is to go out for a run after a snowfall, especially if it’s a calm, bright, and sunny day.  Since most avoid this time of year, the paths are usually clear, and it’s usually just me and nature.  I never run with music, and this really lets me take in the entirety of the environment and nature around me.  With things so still and quiet, it’s easy to pick out the winter birds looking for seeds and trails left behind by rabbits or other animals.  There’s also a sense of accomplishment when finishing a run with rosy cheeks and little icicles on my eyebrows.

Of course, in order to enjoy this season, one needs to have proper attire.  While some people naturally get colder than others, nothing is more important than making sure you are prepared for the cold, snowy, and windy conditions.  To me, wind is the worst!  I would much rather run in a sub zero snow day with no wind, than a 20 degree day with 20mph winds.  Here are some tips for proper winter running attire from head to toe.  Starting with the head, a hat or headband is a must.  Ears are usually the first thing to get really cold and need to be protected.  For me, thick hats aren’t necessary, and usually cause the head to sweat 10 min into the run.  A light hat or headband usually does the trick allowing excess heat to escape while keeping the ears toasty.  Along with a hat/headband, gloves are another essential piece of winter running equipment.  Any extremities like the ears and fingers are the first to really feel the effects of the cold.  Running gloves usually don’t need to be that think.  Usually just something to act as a barrier between the skin and cold air is enough.  I feel the upper body is really important to keep warm, and I usually go with 3 layers.  Short sleeve, long sleeve, and then sweatshirt or thicker running jacket.  This is usually about right for most days, and layers are nice to shed when the body warms up during the run.  Our HS runners can often be seen ditching their outer layer a mile or so into the run.  Body heat is truly an amazing thing.  Legs tend to deal better with the cold, but a good pair of running pants or tights is essential, and I usually have a pair of shorts on underneath.  These give a little more protection from wind, and are nice to to have the option to shed the pants if they get too warm or if there are indoor exercises afterwards.  I have never had a problem with feet or toes getting cold, and don’t wear any kind of special winter socks or shoes.  All of this gear should get you ready to deal with whatever the Chicago winters send our way.  Plus, lots of this gear looks and feels great.  This is one of the pluses is to have a legitimate reason to spend some money on cool running gear.  Some of the gear is not cheap, but you will definitely appreciate a quality pair of gloves or running top.  Put some of this on your Christmas list for this year and be ready to run this winter!

An often neglected aspect of winter running is choosing a proper route.  Some traditional trails are often snowed in, and difficult to impossible to run on.  Runners need to adjust and find plowed areas with clear footing.  Surprisingly enough, there is often a single track plowed on the river bike path from Geneva down to Batavia.  I have always wondered who takes the time to do this.  Finally, years ago on a winter run, I ran into the individual who works at Fermi Lab and bikes there every day.  He set up a plow rig on his bike to clear the path.  I am very thankful for his efforts as we make good use of this instead of running on the streets.  Also, when there is a wind, I plan to always start my run into the wind and finish it with the wind to my back.  There’s nothing worse than getting 4 miles out into a run, being a little sweaty, and then turning around to find a stiff headwind to run into.  Battle the wind when you are fresh and warm, and have the wind help push you back when you are a little colder and more tired.

Snow also gives the option of other winter activities.  Whenever we get a massive amount of snow, I always like to break out the cross country skis.  I’m not very adept with them, but that makes for more of a workout.  It is also a great way to get an aerobic workout in and not have to fight the conditions.  Breaking out the skis allows me to visit the scenic forest preserves that would be normally impossible to run on with snow.  Along with cross country skiing, snowshoeing is also another great winter workout when the snow is plentiful.  Both of these are great alternatives to running when there’s ample snow.

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5 thoughts on “Winter Running

  1. I screw 1/4 inch hex head sheet metal screws into the bottoms of an old pair of running shoes to use when it is icy or slippery out. This hardly adds any weight to the shoes, so I don’t even notice them. My other secret weapon is a face mask with small holes for breathing. I keep it in my pocket until I need it. It comes in handy when the cold wind hits me in the face!

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    1. Great ideas. I haven’t had any issues with breathing in cold air, but the mask certainly would help, especially with a cold wind on the face too. Screws in the shoes as also a good DIY trick. I have also seen little crampon-like rubber and metal things to strap on the shoes for traction. I have never used them and just prefer to find a route with better footing.

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  2. Couldn’t agree more Coach Raak! Once my family learned about attire and selecting the right route, we couldn’t wait to get out on Saturday and Sunday mornings all winter long. What used to seem like an awful idea became something that we all looked forward to each year. There’s nothing better than a winter run through a forest preserve (or even through Fermilab) if you simply have the right gear! Cross country skis are a great idea in deep snow or you can even throw in snowshoes for a change of pace.

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    1. Glad to hear that you have learned to appreciate and even look forward to winter runs. I can imagine your family will be giving and receiving plenty of cool running presents this holiday season! Then of course you must head outside and try them out!

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  3. Winter running is by far the worst type of running, but if you take it seriously and put your mind to it it will pay off in the long run. The winter in a way kinda should be treated as the summer. It is a way to build a good solid base for the whole entire track season. Indoor in my eyes is a way to get races under your belt and to get used to racing again after a long time off. If you have goals for the upcoming track season you better start running now to make those goals a reality at the end of the season. So I believe that winter running is a big part towards a runners success.

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