Winter Running in New England

Fri 09 October 2015

tags: running

I still consider myself a bit of a running n00b. Several months ago, I was even more of one - so much so that I kept running through one of the worst winters anyone here seems able to remember. Paradoxically, that n00b decision seems to have left me in the position of knowing more than most about how to run safely in those conditions. Since a couple of friends have expressed curiosity about that exact topic recently, I might as well collect those thoughts here.

First, the good news. It's entirely feasible to keep running all through a harsh New England Winter. There are certainly some challenges, which I'll try to address. There are rewards too. However, a little bit of context might help. I'm not that hard core. I'm talking about running in the suburbs, not the city or the country. I'm sure those present their own different challenges, of which I am certainy still ignorant. I'm not talking about extreme conditions, either. Even in the depths of winter I was still running on dry streets, not snow, and only down to about 15ºF. I'm crazy, but not that crazy.

The most important thing about winter running is situational awareness. Sidewalks are likely to be useless, so you'll be out in the road with the cars. Both visibility and mobility are going to be restricted by piled-up snow and other obstacles. This is a dangerous situation, so the first thing you want to do is improve your odds as much as possible. Always know where you'll go if a car comes along, and for heaven's sake don't impair your ability to hear them. Learn when and where the school/work rush hours are going to pose a problem. Learn how long the snowplows remain out after a snowfall (so you can avoid them) and where they dump the big piles (ditto). Learn which roads have too many turns or driveways with poor visibility, and avoid them. Ditto for steep downhills (uphills are actually OK) and places where puddles are likely to form. Some of my favorite summer routes are unusable in winter for one or more of these reasons, but that's life. Knowing a variety of routes in your neighborhood is always good, but these limitations make it even more important in winter.

Another big thing for winter running is knowing the weather. I find that Weather Underground is very accurate ahead of time, but just before I go out I double-check on AccuWeather; their "MinuteCast" is often eerily accurate. While knowing the temperature and likelihood of precipitation might determine when I run, wind speed and direction might determine where. Again, knowing a lot of routes comes in handy. There's nothing quite like coming over a hill or around a bend and getting blasted with a freezing wind. Lack of leaves on the trees might be good for visibility, but it can also make you more exposed.

OK, so let's talk gear. The most important thing is not so much specific items or brands but flexibility. I'll wear different gear if it's 32ºF than if it's 24ºF, and different gear again if it's 16ºF. Wind and humidity are also factors. It's also important to remember how much you warm up while you're running. I warm up a lot, so I dress to be slightly cool at the outset and I still usually end up taking off my cap and gloves before I'm done. Lastly, don't wear cotton. Sweat + cold = death, and cotton just absorbs too much. I'm an all-synthetic guy myself, but others swear by wool and/or silk.

With all that said, and purely by way of example, here are some of the items I have in my own winter-running closet. YMMV.

  • Head: lightweight "beanie" style hat. We're talking no more than a couple of layers of thin poly here. I'm not a big fan of ear warmers, but I do make sure my cap covers most of my ears. You can find any number of these at any running store.

  • Face: I have a convertible hat/mask that I really like, but mostly for snowboarding. I only used it for running on the coldest days; otherwise it was too warm.

  • Trunk/arms: Mostly I'd run in my usual T-shirts plus a lightweight jacket which I just love (mine's red BTW). Breathes well, nice little thumb holes to keep the sleeves from riding up, reflective material, etc. For really cold weather I have a couple of thermal long-sleeved shirts, but even the lighter one would be too warm above 20ºF or so.

  • Hands: Like beanies, lightweight gloves are easy to find. I have two pairs, one Under Armour and one Saucony (I think). The UA ones are very slightly warmer, which I mention because even tiny gradations become very noticeable when you're out there. It's worth it to have multiple hat and glove options.

  • Underwear: I have some New Balance, some Puma, some Champion. I can barely tell the difference. The important thing is that none of them are cotton.

  • Legs: probably my favorite find (narrowly beating out the jacket) was these leggings/tights. They're honestly a bit of a pain to get on and off, but they're absolutely perfect for keeping the wind and splatters off. I'd wear these with shorts over them for a little extra warmth and to look (just slightly) less silly, anywhere from 40ºF on down, and my legs never felt too warm or too cold. Modern technology is awesome.

  • Socks: the biggest decision point for each run. At the warmer end, I could actually get away with the same Balega or Fitsox I wear all year. At the colder end I'd wear insulated socks. Most of the time, in between, I'd wear calf length compression socks or (if I ran out of those) light ski socks.

  • Shoes: there are special winter running shoes, and "micro spikes" for better traction, but to be honest I never had much use for either. I just ran in the same Asics GT-2000 shoes I'd been using already, and tried to avoid puddles. My feet never felt cold, and I never felt that I didn't have enough grip.

  • Other: certain kinds of chafing are more of a problem in winter. I'll just mention Transpore tape and Friction Defense as potential solutions. If you have that even more awkward kind of chafing, I can recommend Chamois Butt'r. If you think it's gross to talk about these things I'm sorry, but if that's what it takes to save someone else some discomfort then it's worthwhile. I wish somebody had clued me in before I had to figure this stuff out on my own.

With all of that gear and preparation and good habits, you should be able to run safely even in that New England winter. It can even be fun. There's a special kind of quiet after a storm, and a special kind of light all the time. There are no cyclists. Places that are hidden behind greenery in summer become visible through bare trees. There's no danger of overheating. This spring, I was worried that I wouldn't even be able to run in anything over 50ºF because I'd gotten so used to it being cooler. I did adjust after all, but I think I still prefer running when it's cooler. You might find that you enjoy it too, no matter how crazy it seems.

UPDATE (October 19). While I was putting all of this into practice today, I came up with a few more things I should have mentioned.

  • First and foremost, take it easy especially at the beginning of the cold season. Your muscles will stay stiffer longer, increasing the risk of over-extension if you push too hard. Your shoes will have less flex too, putting even more stress on your muscles to absorb impact. It's not just your legs, either. Your core will also stiffen up a bit. Your body will be less wiling to take big gulps of delicious air when that air's cold. Everything's going to be just a bit harder, especially at the top end of your range. Don't expect to maintain the same pace as in summer. If you do, that's great, but be prepared for a bit of a slowdown. It'll all come back to you in spring.

  • At any time of year, I recommend bringing some ID plus a credit card and/or a small amount of cash, just in case something happens. I use a magnetic pocket that clips onto my waistband. Others prefer wrist or arm bands. Some people always bring a phone, though personally I can do without having something so dense weighing a pocket down.

  • Don't put your all-synthetic socks or underwear in the drier. It won't necessarily kill it right away, but your stuff will sure last a lot longer if you hang it out to dry.

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