Running in a Winter Wonderland
Updated: Dec 2, 2018
I knew this post was coming, but I’m honestly surprised to have to be writing it in NOVEMBER!! As I write this, I’m on my third snow day of the school year. Yes, THIRD!!! I think it’s safe to say that winter has arrived and plans on sticking around, so it’s time to settle in for a long winter’s run. See what I did there!? ;)
Runners tend to be a hard core bunch, and don't let a little bit of snow or cold weather get in the way of our training. In fact, last winter, I only did two of my training runs on the treadmill-I much prefer to run in the cold and the snow! I'd love to share some of my favorite winter weather tips and tricks, but before I do, let me take a minute to talk about the impact of winter running on our bodies - our muscles, joints, circulatory system, etc. I think it’s important to first have this understanding, as this knowledge will drive the decisions we make about winter running - what we wear, how we fuel, hydration, etc.
Here are five of the many ways that our bodies are affected by winter running...
Your body is an incredible machine! It breaks down most carbohydrates from the foods you eat and converts them into glucose. Simply put, glucose is the main source of fuel for our cells. When the body doesn't use the glucose immediately for energy, it stores any extra in the liver and muscles. This stored form of glucose is made up of many connected glucose molecules: glycogen. When the body needs a quick boost of energy or when the body isn't getting glucose from food, glycogen is broken down to release glucose into the bloodstream to be used as fuel for the cells.
The thing is...glycogen is depleted more rapidly during winter running. Why is this? Simply put, muscles require more energy at a faster rate, leaving us winter runners more prone to fatiguing more quickly. We all know that our bodies have to work extra hard to stay warmer in the cold, right? Our bodies do this while running primarily through shivering (involuntary muscle contractions) and by pushing ourselves harder (and taking fewer breaks than a typical summer run, for instance). Both shivering and pushing ourselves harder increase our metabolic heat production and are intended to offset heat loss by generating heat (this is a good thing!), which ultimately recruits the muscles to use up all of that glycogen that we’ve stored up in our muscles. The likely result-we are going to fatigue much faster during the winter. I don’t know about you, but this is a very counterintuitive concept to me!
So what does this mean for us runners? No need to go crazy with the carbs, but make sure you’ve had enough carbs before a run, and have a carb loaded snack within 30 minutes of finishing a run. This will aid in muscle recovery. One more thing: I follow the rule of consuming 25-30 grams of carbohydrates per hour of a run. So if you plan on running for more than an hour, carry some fast carbs with you (pretzels, candy, sports beans, gu, chews, etc.)! Don't wait until you are feeling fatigued-consume them on schedule to keep you energy stores up. Also, if you are shivering uncontrollably, get warm ASAP - it could be a sign of approaching hypothermia.
You’re Gonna Sweat!
Again, a fairly counterintuitive idea. Sweat only happens when we are hot, right? Not necessarily! Exercise means metabolic heat production which means we’re gonna sweat! One of the cool things about exertion during exercise produces enough heat to keep our core temperature from dropping too much, if at all. However, the real issue comes AFTER we are done running. Our bodies are no longer generating that heat, and our sweat-soaked clothes can become very cold, very fast. Before we know it, we are chilled to the bone and have a hard time warming up.
So what can we do to avoid getting chilled? First of all, dress in several thin layers rather than one bulky layer. This helps wick the sweat away from our skin and won’t be as bulky and heavy. Base layers are super important. While they may be a bit pricey, they are worth every penny and will make winter running so much more comfortable! Also, wear clothing that is on the fitted side, rather than loose clothing. This will prevent cold air from getting trapped next to your skin.
Another misconception about winter running is that we don’t need to worry about hydration. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Cold weather can depress feelings of thirst, so even though you may not crave a cold drink every 20 minutes like you do on a hot summer run, your body still needs it. Several factors unique to cold-weather exercise can cause dehydration. To further reiterate - you will still sweat on cold runs, and some of that sweat may evaporate in cold air so you don’t even know how much you’ve sweat (unlike humid summer runs when you’re clothes become visibly drenched). Also, fluids are lost through humidified breath in cold weather, which may lead to dehydration. And I know I’m not the only one looking for port-a-potties on those cold runs, because for some reason, our bodies produce a heck of a lot more urine during cold weather, also putting us at risk for dehydration.
So, runners, you can mitigate dehydration by drinking periodically during exercise - every 20 minutes or so. Preferably of the same fluids you use in the summer - something with electrolytes is best (another discussion altogether). If dehydration sets in, performance can be impaired, as well as your body's ability to retain heat. Headaches, cramps and elevated heart rate are all symptoms of dehydration and that is NO FUN. So, drink up, buttercup!
Don’t Get Cold Feet
When it’s cold enough, our bodies work to protect its core by restricting blood flow to the surface of our skin - especially in our extremities (hands and feet). The fancy term for this is Peripheral Vasoconstriction1. If you think about it, it makes sense - keeping blood close to our core (otherwise known as shunting) prevents heat loss to the environment and helps keep our core warm (you know, those vital organs that are, well, vital!). We don’t want our warm blood getting cooler by venturing out into our extremities and returning to the core as cold blood.
So what can we do? Keeping our hands and feet warm is important - so wear gloves and good socks! Depending on how cold it is, wear gloves (like the cheap ones from Target) with a pair of mittens over them; if it is really cold, I might wear some super puffy and warm mittens. Wool or wool blend running socks are a must as they will wick sweat away from your feet and keep your feet warm and dry. On really cold days, I might double up on socks. Also, because blood flow to the head will NEVER decrease (that's a good thing, believe me!), so it’s important to wear a hat to keep from losing heat from our head. I’m not a fan of hats because my head tends to get too hot, but I suck it up on winter runs because I know what’s good for me.
Oops, I Did It Again...and Again
Unfortunately, I’m an expert in winter running injuries! In fact, I’ve never had as many skinned knees, hands, elbows, etc. since I began running! Cold hands, feet and skin, even shivering, often means decreased coordination and agility. We may also have poor motor control and even some numbness. Basically, we become clumsier and less agile and our risks of falls, trips, fumbles, and slips increases! The cold weather also means our joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons are less flexible and are more prone to strains and injuries in the cold.
I don’t know about you, but heightened risk of injury isn’t enough to keep me from running in the winter! So what can we do? Be extra cautious, don’t run in icy conditions, spend a little more time warming up (a brisk walk outside, a quick jaunt on the treadmill, running up and down the stairs in your house, etc.). Above all, listen to your body. Be safe: we all want to be running for a long time to come!
Thanks so much for reading! Now that we know how winter running impacts our body, I’ll be back soon with some winter running tips and tricks! In the meantime, feel free to contact me anytime with questions or comments!
Happy running, friends!
1: Peripheral vasoconstriction is an important autonomic response to cold exposure, which restricts heat transfer from the core to the environment through the skin.