That fear is one of many that keeps some runners from getting outside in winter. Fear of slipping. Fear of freezing. But you can, in fact, run all winter long, no matter how far the mercury slips below zero.
Most people will be just fine — as long as they keep moving. Ask ultra-marathon runner Katherine Yager, who ran 1,000 kilometres last winter between December and March while training for a spring “50-miler” or 80-kilometre race in Haliburton, Ont.
She only covered 22 of those kilometres on the treadmill. For the rest, Yager faced the polar vortex. Literally. Her nose ran uncontrollably and her eyelashes froze together.
“I don’t think any cold is too cold,” she said. It’s uncomfortable, sure, and she worried about frostbite, but it was road conditions that drove her inside: ice increased the risk of a slip and fall and the odd blizzard made it hard to see.
Yager, 26, dresses strategically, arranges her longer runs for milder days, fills her bottle with warm water and tries to head out during the meagre hours of winter sunlight.
“I find it really rewarding in the winter to know I’ve spent all this time outside and people spend all day inside,” she said. “We live here and winter is a part of that. I like being able to run outside all year round.”
If you keep running, you will continue to generate enough body heat to stay safe, said Matthew Cramer, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. Cramer is from Toronto but did his doctorate at the University of Ottawa and studies the interaction between endurance and temperature.
In the two decades that Burlington, Ont. has hosted the Chilly Half Marathon, held in early March, it’s never been cancelled due to inclement weather, said race director Kelly Arnott. Five of those years have brought extreme cold or storms, but 3,500 runners are expected on March 6.
And no one has suffered hypothermia, as far as Arnott knows. (But yes, finish times might be slower.)
Less blood may be diverted to the skin to conserve heat. Exposed fingers might experience the “hunting response,” which is an occasional resupply of warm blood to cold extremities, though frostbite can also happen with prolonged exposure.
Run all the way to your front door: as soon as you slow down, a combination of sweat evaporation, a drop in heat generation and wet clothes will make you feel even colder. Overdressing and thus overheating can cause the same problem, so choose your winter workout gear with care.
It’s also a myth that you always lose the most heat through the head. What is not covered will lose heat. But the ears and nose have a higher risk of frostbite than some other parts of the body because they are far from moving muscles that generate warmth.
“People underestimate their ability to handle the cold when they’re running,” said Mike Anderson, co-owner of Toronto’s retail store and training hub Black Toe Running. “One of the most common things we hear is that people are scared to run in the cold . . . But running in winter is actually extremely enjoyable.”
That is, if you’re dressed for it. Run with a friend and bring a TTC token or some cash just in case.
Runners will often remember a thermal base layer or windbreaker, but sometimes forget about the legs, said Anderson, who sells “bun warmer” shorts and thermal boxer briefs worn underneath running tights. Layers of technical material or thin merino wool make more sense than feather down, which can actually be too warm, he said. A running jacket’s primary purpose is wind protection and should have good ventilation, and it’s a good idea to start out cool and warm up with effort. Don’t wear a regular winter jacket — you will overheat and when sweat dries, it could freeze.
Jackets that glow in the dark, shoes and socks with reflective patterns, brightly coloured vests: anything that helps drivers see runners, especially at night, is recommended. You can also buy tiny flashing lights that attach to outerwear to alert drivers and others. “When it gets cold, people who aren’t running, who are in cars, forget there are people crazy enough to run in that weather,” he said.
“Technology in running apparel has really advanced over the past couple of years,” he said. Runners can use their phone to update their running apps or take a photo — or Uber an escape — without having to remove their gloves. For very cold days, mittens will keep hands toastier than gloves, but some can be converted back to gloves after a warm-up.
The uneven terrain of snow and ice can actually strengthen a runner’s leg muscles, but it can also wear them down. “People are more prone to overuse injuries in winter than they are in the summer,” Anderson said. Many runners wear compression stockings to improve circulation and stability, and some wear trail shoes or Yaktrax, a slip-on traction device worn over the shoe. Also try to avoid slush puddles, because no shoe is really waterproof.
Some websites recommend ski goggles and some runners swear by their polarized lenses on those cold, sunny days when the snow is blinding, even if it looks goofy.
“I’ll just say we do not carry goggles,” Anderson said, laughing. “But more power to them for getting out there.” Others wear sport sunglasses, which look a little more reasonable. You can wear a balaclava to keep your face warm.