Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What to Wear in Winter Weather, by Shannon McGinn

Photo by Stephen Bandfield while on one of his beautiful winter trail
runs on the Paulinskil Trail.  Stephen recommends gaiters
for conditions pictured above
Here in New Jersey, it has been a bitter, snow-filled winter. Yet, running in a snow-covered world is truly a gorgeous, serene, awe-inspiringing experience and simply must be done by anyone who calls themselves a runner.

The challenge of winter training is not only about "being tough enough"to brave the relentless cold (that is the easy part), but rather it is about finding safe places to run when our normal routes have become unnavigable, have unsafe footing, or have become too dangerous for safe travel.  In some cases, I feel it is more important to run appropriate training paces than it is to brave the elements. Even though I can tolerate the cold, I have run many miles inside this winter for both safety and for training pace purposes.

Many new runners fear that winter training means being miserably cold for hours.  That is simply not true.  Once a runnable route is available, the most uncomfortable part about winter running is the start. I have timed how long runners training with me take to feel comfortable on the coldest days.  Depending up how cold it is, the appropriately dressed runners report feeling comfortable between 3 and 10 minutes from the start and, barring worsening conditions, they remain comfortable for the duration of their run. That's it. About 5 minutes of being cold was the norm for those with appropriate gear. Therefore, if after 1.0 to 1.5 miles the cold is still a problem then your gear needs to be evaluated and weaknesses addressed.

At the start of each winter season, I notice that very few new runners dress properly.  Runners are either woefully underdressed, usually because they simply don’t own appropriate winter running gear, or they overcompensate with gear more appropriate for the ski slopes. It takes a few runs in the cold, in the wrong gear, to learn how your body feels after it generates its own warmth. Keep in mind that erring on the side of overdressing can make a run equally miserable by causing you to feel oppressively overheated or sometimes chilly from sweating too much before removing layers. The goal is to find lightweight warm-enough gear that eliminates the bitter sting of the cold while allowing you free range of motion, the ability to remove layers as needed, and the ability to sweat off the heat your body is generating even on the coldest days.

When dressing in the winter, consider what you might wear if you were standing around outside, not running, and the weather was 20 degrees warmer.  I always look at the “feels like” temperature not the actual temperature. Windchill and humidity can make a big difference in what I wear.  Pace of the run matters as well.  If you plan to run as fast as possible at a race, plan to dress lighter than when you plan to run a slower paced training run in the same weather.

A fun, effective tool called What to Wear is found on the Runners World website. You can personalize some factors to generate some appropriate options. This tool can help you not lose your mind the night before your first marathon when the weather is predicted to be 38 degrees with 10 mph winds from the north, and you have no idea if that means you should wear shorts or tights. 
Trail Shoe: Notice the Lugs 
Road Shoe: No Lugs

The last time I was out running in "feels like" 5 degrees, I made some notes about what I wore.  Thanks to my sponsorship by Brooks, I have acquired a lot of wonderful gear, most of it from their Utopia Thermal Line. I am sure there are other brands that offer comparable products, but I love what I use and have not needed to look further. I hope my list helps others more quickly discover what they need to feel comfortable during the long winter runs necessary for great spring races. After all we still have 28 more days until Spring to deal with.

Shoes: If I am running on roads that I believe will be cleared of snow, I chose road shoes.  However, I prefer trail shoes for running long periods of time on completely snow covered terrain (either trails or road/path that has not been maintained). Trail shoes have lugs which allow better traction as well as encourage the snow to fall away with each step. 

Since toothy traction is not needed for roads, road shoes tend to have ridges cut into the sole. Muck and snow tend to adhere to road shoes and make the shoes very slippery. 

Trail Shoe: Tight Weave
Road Shoe: Loose Weave
Trail shoes also have a tighter weave of the upper to keep out grit. This also helps to keep out snow, moisture, and even cold air. Duct tape over the uppers of your road shoes can be a good solution to help your feet stay warm.

Gaiters:  I don't own gaiters.  I have never gotten enough grit into my shoes to compel me to purchase a product meant to keep the junk out.  Some runners have more trouble keeping debris out of their shoes and gaiter are aimed to resolve that problem.  Trail runners are more familiar and have more use for gaiters than road runners do.  One of the runners I am working with, Stephen, highly recommends wearing gaiters when training in the snow.  I recommend taking his advice since he has repeatedly proven that snowy days don't stop him for getting his training done.  I have heard wonderful things about Dirty Girl Gaiter and if I were to purchase a pair, I would start with them.
Dirty Girl Gaiters

Shoe Traction Accessories: I find that trail shoes work great for me and I no longer use any accessories to help me with traction. But as a rule, I avoid running on ice for extended periods of time whenever possible. Unlike others who abhor the treadmill, I am happy to take my run inside if the conditions outside are likely to be unsafe and frustrating.
Yak Trax
If you decide you must navigate an icy route you should think about traction accessories. Yak Trax are one option. The are convenient since you can take them on and off when needed, but some report that they do break over time.

Many people also swear by screw shoes. You will need sheet metal screw with hex heads and a power-drill (to make fast work of this). If you choose this option, I recommend you carry a dime in your pocket.

If it was 1984, you could use that dime to call home when your screws start to get a bit unruly. But it is not 1984, so instead the dime can be used to loosen or remove screws as needed. If you run long enough (i.e. many hours), you will find that your shoes do compress significantly and depending upon the placement of your screws, you may start to feel them poke through and that can make running less fun.

Personally, I find that screw shoes work well for shorter, unavoidably icy runs. But if you are running a hybrid course of road and ice for a long time, the teeth of the screws do wear down, ultimately adding  slip, rather than grip. You should always check the status of the screws before each run and change the screws as needed.

Photo of well-placed screws
After two seasons of playing around with screws, I stopped using them for a few reasons. First, they poked me on my long run and I did not like that.  Second, they were not necessary or appropriate for all terrain I traveled during my long runs. Finally, if you plan to stop anywhere (e.g. out to breakfast after the run) you need to remember to bring an extra pair of shoes unless you are ok with sounding like a tap-dancer and/or don't mind if you scratch up someone’s floor. For those who like to make mid-run pit stops for drinks or the bathroom, screws may be a bad choice.

If you do thinks screws are for you, aim to place them in a manner that will allow them to grip when needed, but minimize the chance that they will be felt through your shoes. Along the outside edges work best.

Drymax Sock
Socks: I use Drymax sock exclusively. I wear the maximum protection socks for all my winter running. They are warm enough to make my road shoes comfortable in the cold and add cushion to my trail shoes that feels nice.  I wear the lighter versions Drymax offers in the warmer months.

Pants: Brooks Utopia Fleece Lined Tights and Brooks Utopia Thermal Pants are my winter running options. I really cant say enough good things about these, especially the fleece-lined tights. On very cold days, where I plan to run long and slow and expect a lot of wind, I will wear them together. If the temperatures are over 15, I will just wear the tights. A note about what to wear under tights, I prefer some type of comfortable bikini brief or even boy short cut type underwear under tights since they do not have liners like shorts so. Some guys like compression shorts. Choose undergarments that don't result in riding up or chafing and you should be good.
Utopia Thermal
Fleece-Lined Tights

Tops: At 5 degrees, I needed many layers on top to stay warm. I have learned that if I want to keep my finger warm, I need to think about my core and keep that very warm first. If my upper body is too cold, my body will start conserving heat not allowing warmth to reach my extremities. Sometimes cold hands are more about needing more layers on the core than better gloves on my hands.

When it is very cold, I always start with a sleeveless tech shell over my sports bra and then layer a long sleeve thin tech shirt over that.  If it is particularly windy or extremely cold, I will add one more layer over the those (usually a tech-T shirt) and then add a jacket. I lots lots of light layers to capture warmth and to allow me to adjust.

Material matters.  Technical fabrics are much more comfortable, breathable, and warmer than cotton.  Cotton holds moisture and makes winter running very uncomfortable both due to chaffing as well as creating a chilling effect when you stop moving or slow down and you are covered in sweat.

Utopia Thermal
I have two jackets to choose from that work very well for me. I really like my Brooks Utopia Thermal Hoodie for the coldest days. It is breathable but with a tight enough weave to be wind-resistant. A second, lighter jacket option that I also really like is my Brooks Nightlife Jacket II, which has since been replaced by the Nightlife III. I like both of these jackets because they both are wind resistant, but not waterproof, offer sleeves with thumb holes that can cover my hands (I don’t prefer elastic around my wrists) and they have pockets that zipper shut.   

Face covering: In very cold weather I need to have something to cover my face and neck. For years I have been using a thin fleece buff (a tube of fleece). This piece of gear is invaluable to me. When I have something to cover my face, I feel a lot more comfortable. Without it my experience would be exponentially more unpleasant.  Recently, Alanna gave me a new larger, thicker fleece Buff that is best for the coldest day.

Hat: A warm wool hat works very well for me. I prefer a hat that covers my ears over just a head band/ear warmers type thing. If I get too warm, I take off the hat and slide my neck buff over my head to cover my ears if needed.

Between the hat and buff, the only part of my face that is exposed is my eyes. Sometimes this is still uncomfortable. You know it is cold when you contemplate sunglasses for warmth. I cant wear glasses with the buff because the warm humid air from my breath gets directed up from the buff, fogging the glasses. So for me, it is either the buff or the glasses and the buff wins.

Inner Glove of 3-in-1
Outer shell of the 3-in-1
Gloves/Mittens: After trying many types of glove, I finally conceded that the only covering that keeps my hands warm are mittens.  My hands are very sensitive to the cold. My fingers go painfully numb in temperatures that should not make that happen. The only gloves that work for me are the Brooks Utopia 2-in-1 Mittens. They are now called the 3-in-1 Mittens. My 2-in-1's are two layers of mitten. The new version has an internal glove layer and I am not sure how I feel about this change.  I like having my fingers touch each other sharing warmth. Both have an external mitten that is windproof/waterproof. The double layer seems to make a huge difference for me. Since getting my mittens, my long runs no longer are cut short due to my painfully cold hands. 

Many new runners fear that running in the cold will be too miserable to tolerate. My experience is quite the opposite. I have figured out what I need to neutralize the cold.  Since finding the gear that works best for me, running in winter weather has become a challenging but pleasant experience, preferable to hot, humid, summer running where it can become impossible to run at comfortable temperature.  Besides, nothing makes you feel more like a running machine than training in temperature so cold that everything around you is frozen solid and the thought of cutting your run short doesn't even cross your mind.

No write up about winter weather would be complete without the famous quote from Bowerman, "There is no such thing as bad weather, just soft people"...  but I think I disagree.   Instead, I think there is no such thing as bad weather, just crappy gear.

Shannon McGinn is a RRCA Certified distance running coach and owner of Creating Momentum, LLC.  She is a life long runner,  who found running to be a great tool in her recovery from cancer when diagnosed in 2005.  Since completing treatment in 2007, Shannon started over as run/walker and grew into an accomplished ultrarunner, specializing in the 50 km and 50 Mile distances.  Since December 2011, she has been Streak Running, currently averaging 9.5 miles per day.  Shannon also placed 3rd Woman Overall in the 2013 USATF-NJ Long Distance Running New Balance Grand Prix, a year long 5k-to-Marathon distance Road Racing Series held in NJ.  Shannon offers Private Coaching (Online anywhere in the country and In-Person locally) and volunteers as a Coach for the Monmouth County Team in Training Chapter as well as the Ulman Fund’s Cancer to 5k At Home program. You can follow Shannon’s Race Reports and other writings posted weekly here on her blog, Creating Momentum!.

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