Friday, January 25, 2013

Cold Weather Running Musings

The big news in the Washington D.C. metro area is that it's cold! Yes, temperatures are below average but it's really nothing that should be seen as out of the ordinary. This weather is to be expected in mid-January and I can deal with it. I have to admit I do start to complain when it's 80 degrees in March or if there's 50 MPH winds or something out of the ordinary. But weather that's perfectly in line with the time of year and not some extreme weather event doesn't at all bother me.

And with that, I present some observations and opinions on marathon training in winter weather.

Having the Right Tools
An analogy my sports psychologist frequently uses is that of having the right "tools" to handle certain situations. He says that if it's 20 degrees out and all you have on is shorts and a t-shirt, you won't feel prepared to go outside. But if you have a warm coat and some gloves, then you'd feel better about the situation. Kind of obvious, but it's useful to think about in terms of my past marathon anxiety issues. In the past, I would go out and try to run a marathon without the proper tools. It was the equivalent of going outside in 20-degree weather in just shorts and a t-shirt. As a result, I was anxious and my body would react to the extent that I couldn't even finish the race.

Now, I have many tools in my arsenal to manage potential race anxiety. I have a hat and a warm pair of gloves and some fleece-lined pants. Also known as a process-focused mindset, a realistic understanding of the wide range of outcomes that could occur, and separation of myself as a person from my running. I understand which elements elements of the race I will control and which ones I won't, and I have ways of feeling in control at times when I might have otherwise felt out of control. Simply knowing that I have these tools and I've used them successfully in past races makes me feel confident and more relaxed going into the marathon. While there are no guarantees that I won't blow-up, I have no reason to believe that it would happen again, given that I am starting the race in an entirely different spot.

Tool Recommendations
Moving toward the more literal definition of tool, I have discovered some great running gear to help me feel comfortable in temperatures in the teen's. I typically don't review running products in my blog, but I make exceptions for items that are extremely helpful.

Brooks Wanganui Cabrio Mittens
  • Smart Wool socks. The ones I use are almost as thin as my summer socks but keep my feet from going numb. This is no easy task as I have a pretty bad case of Reynaud's syndrome in my feet. The key, though, is to start running as soon as I get outside so my feet don't  have a chance to get cold beforehand. 
  • Mizuno Breath Thermo base layers. I have a pair of Mizuno Breath Thermo gloves and a Breath Thermo half-zip shirt.On their own, they are okay, but they really work their magic as a base layer. Why? Because when you sweat, the material supposedly gets warmer so instead of the sweat making you cold, it makes you warm. This is an important property for the layer that's closest to your skin.
  • Brooks Wanganui Cabrio Mittens. The Mizuno gloves don't do much on their own, but when warn with Brooks Cabrio Mittens and a set of Little Hotties hand warmers, they are awesome. Here's how it works: the Mizuno gloves are the base layer, then I put on the Brooks mittens, which are convertible into gloves. I insert one pair of the hand warmers into each glove (two pairs total) so that both the outside and the inside of my fingers are warmed. This solution kept my hands from going numb on a 9-mile run in 12 degree weather.
  • Brooks Utopia Thermal Pants. My sister got me these for Christmas and they are a must-have. Last winter, I had to put tights underneath other running pants so that my butt and legs wouldn't freeze.  And that solution was uncomfortable and still very cold. These new Brooks pants are fantastic! I reserve them for temperatures under 25 degrees and they keep my legs and butt warm while still being a lightweight material. They are expensive, but I don't think I could run in such cold temperatures without a pair of pants of this caliber.
You don't get a medal for training in the cold.

While I do believe that training "in the elements" is valuable, it's okay to draw a line somewhere and opt for a treadmill. You can get just as good of a workout on a treadmill as you can outside, but there are some caveats. The primary one is injury. While a treadmill is arguably a softer and more forgiving surface than the road, most people change their gait on a treadmill. If you do nearly all of your running outdoors and then switch to a treadmill, your gait will alter and there is the potential for injury. That's how I ended up with three stress fractures a few winters ago. I also did treadmill intervals on a business trip back in October and my legs were sore for two days after. I had to pool run when I got home because they were so sore. That would not have happened on a track.

Putting the injury potential aside, I think that treadmill running can be useful when the roads are icy and unsafe. Or if you just don't feel like bundling up and going out in the cold. There is really no shame in running on a treadmill-- and there is really nothing commendable about running in very cold weather. You do what you need to do to get the training in.

Personally, I will opt for the 'mill if the road is icy and I'm worried about slipping. I'll also do the treadmill if there's a thunderstorm or more than 25 mph sustained winds. And occasionally on business trips if there is nowhere safe to run. However, I will not run more than 8 miles on a treadmill at a time. And I won't run on it more than 2-3 days a week. And as I learned in October, I won't do treadmill intervals anymore. Pool running would be preferable.

Scheduling Flexibility Is Important
I like having a training plan and I have one now. I went without training plans for about a year because I wanted to take things one week at a time, but now I am focused on the big picture and it's important to know what my overall training cycle will look like. The key thing to remember with a plan is that it should be flexible based on how your body feels and on life circumstances. Winter weather is a life circumstance that warrants some scheduling flexibility.

This week, I had planned to run my tempo run on Thursday. Wednesday was a scheduled rest day. I woke up on Wednesday morning and my legs did not feel like they needed to rest. I looked at the forecast and noticed it was supposed to snow that evening, meaning the roads would potentially be unsafe for Thursday's tempo. The current weather was 12 degrees with very minimal wind. No snow or ice on the ground. Pretty nice weather for a tempo, and if I had waited until Thursday I wouldn't have been able to do it at all. 

I adjusted on the spot. Got dressed in my trusty Brooks Utopia pants and layered on the gloves/mittens and did my tempo a day early. The run was fantastic-- my fastest 5-mile tempo ever while keeping my heart rate in the low LT zone. Including warmup and cooldown it was 9 miles total and it felt good! Actually it was much more comfortable than running a tempo in 70-degree weather. I just don't run very well in the heat/humidity so I will take 12 degrees over 70 on a speed work day or a race day.

I had my rest day on Thursday when there was snow on the ground and I did a short treadmill run this morning as there was still snow and ice. I'm not sure how I will manage my long run tomorrow with this ice and snow on the ground, but I'll try to find a mile or two of non-slippery pavement to run back and forth on. My teammates are running the Rock Creek loop (which may or may not be icy), but I need to stay close to home because of other plans I've made.

I think I've belabored this topic long enough! I'm looking forward to some warming next week so that the ice and snow will melt and running outside will be safe.


  1. A friend and I were just talking about the treadmill and she was somewhat embarrassed at her recent treadmill "indulgence". I agree with what you said....when it's ridiculously cold, windy, or just dangerous for footing, go treadmill!

  2. I wish I had your drive to run in the cold! Instead of running in the cold, I've been swimming a few times a week instead. I miss running but it's hard to motivate myself to go out when it's freezing. I hate winter! :P