Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful…

This is my first post in The Winter Training for Triathlon Series

I live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Da U.P. Where the north shoreline gets real buddy-buddy with Lake Superior, the largest frickin’ lake in the world, or something like that*. Sometimes Superior freezes over enough that the snow stops falling in the winter, but this is a rare occasion (we’re talking once every 25 years, at least). So, every year, we get 200-300inches of white, fluffy, crisp snow. Sometimes it pummels us, with nothing to see outside except a sheet of white from the massive amounts of frozen white precipitation that isn’t so much falling from the sky but rather making opaque window blinds.

Sometimes, it floats nicely and carefree from the sky, drifting side to side until it finally makes contact with the ground. Watching it will put you into a trance. It calms the soul.

Then there’s days like today, which offered a mix of both. The sideways snow always makes me laugh. I look out the window from the ninth floor of the UP’s tallest building (I don’t know if that’s true, but I like to believe it), and the snow is making mini-tornadoes at the bottom of campus.

I can’t help but smile on days when I walk into school, the gray clouds hovering over and the day feeling all dreary, and then looking outside before lunchtime to see the big white snowflakes falling from the heavens. Love it! I was especially excited on a day like today, because the snow was coming down hard, and I knew my evening run with Margot would include some white-frosted trees and some pretty cool sights.

We donned our reflective gear (well, at least Margot did… I ended up leaving mine in my locker by accident) and rolled out of West Houghton. The first site we saw was the ski hill. Mont Ripley was beautiful. The snow covered hill made me ansy for some skiing. And I haven’t been ansy for skiing in a long time (hey, I can say it! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this summer’s triathlon training).

It wasn’t long before I started to feel my feet sliding around on the ground. Ugh. I hate that feeling. Especially in the last year with my knees acting all funny, I was especially cautious, as was Margot. This was when I realized my beloved Trances were probably not the best shoe for winter road running.

Because it has been so warm, the roads were a bit wet this week, and the snow today meant that the temperatures (obviously) dipped below freezing. This meant that the roads were covered in a sheet of ice. Not too bad if you can run on the non-roadways (eg. snowmobile paths), but since we started at 430 and it gets dark by 5, well… you can imagine. We were slipping and sliding (to the tune of Little Richard) and were extra cautious on the downward slopes. There are a lot of downward slopes in Houghton. The snowmobile trail was a beacon, and the ground crunched under our feet. I guess its time to buy new trail running shoes…

We made it safely back to Margot’s house after an hour and a half of crisp, wintery air. Finally, dear Winter, I welcome you with open arms.

Here are some rules I live by when going out for a winter run:

  • Dress warm. but not too warm. I’m out there to get a my sweat on, so if I am too warm at the start, I will do nothing but sweat more, get cold, and then be miserable. If the temps are between 20-30degrees Fahrenheit, I usually don a lightweight hat (Icebreaker Pocket 200 is awesome), wool socks (back to the Icebreakers… you really can’t get any better when it comes to socks, toasty and perfect for winter running), lightweight gloves (ya know those cheap’o nylon ones that cost 99cents? yeah, those), tights, and two lightweight dry-wicking shirts (Craft poly over my Brooks HVAC long sleeve is what I chose today. When it’s colder than that, I like to wear some thicker gloves, another shirt or a vest, and some heavier-duty pants (Swix Nordic ski pants or Mountain Hardwear Transition pants are great on WINDY U.P. days).
  • Dress in layers. Wearing the two shirts gave me the option to remove one if I got too warm. When in doubt about the temps outside, I typically bring along a lightweight jacket or cycling jersey, and if I get too warm I take it off. No harm in that! If it’s between rainy and snowy, wear something water resistant so you don’t get soggy and wet.
  • Wear shoes with traction! Trail shoes seem to be perfect for winter running. Last year, I bought a pair of La Sportiva Imogenes from Downwind Sports in Houghton. They are comfy and have a great, grippy sole made out of “sticky rubber” that they call Frixion. The tread is deeper than normal trainers, so it can grab onto the snow. In 2003, I bought a pair of Montrail Hardrocks, and although they had mega-tread, they didn’t quite fit my foot right. I’m going to give the newest rendition of the shoe a shot this year, though. I’m not a superfan of YakTraks up here, mainly because my runs take me on a varying terrain of snow, ice, rocks, pavement, and cobblestone. The YT Pros are not recommended for anything but snow-cover and ice, and they get pretty slick on concrete and it sounds like I’m tap-dancing. Regardless, they probably work better than my summer trainers alone; those Brooks Trances just didn’t do it for me last night.
    • Some other good trail-running shoe options include:
      • Brooks Adrenaline ASR– These shoes have a medial posting, which helps direct the foot for people with pronation issues. The ASR stands for All-Season Running, and the shoe upper is weather resistant. Not soggy shoes at the end of the run with these!
      • Saucony ProGrid Xodus- These shoes look sweet. Plus they have a Vibram sole, which means that the rubber is a little more stiff and tractiony (is that a word?). I have a pair of Keens with a Vibram sole and its amazing how sticky they can be on slick, leave-covered rocks out in the woods.
      • Salomon XA PRO 3D Ultra GTW– That’s a mouthful. These shoes have Contragrip and are pretty cool lookin’ too, plus they have a really awesome lacing system that won’t lead to sloppy, slappy laces that are wet and soggy at the end of the run. Great traction, too!
  • Keep it covered. “It” being your skin. On some sunny days, Running Chick uses sunscreen to keep her skin moist and prevent sun burn. Another trick is to use Vasoline on exposed skin and/or wear a balaclava. The last thing you want is a frost-bit nose (sadly, it happens more often than you think). Don’t forget the shades; if its sunny, they’re good for obvious reasons, but sunglasses can also keep your eyes protected by sideways snowfall (and keep your contacts from getting irritated on windy days).
  • Bring water. Just because it’s cold, doesn’t mean you aren’t sweating. You’re wearing more clothes, and your working harder to keep your body temperature up. Plus, breathing in cold weather is an easy way to lose fluids (that steam you see is water leaving your body!). I love my Nathan Quickdraw Elite, and luckily my camera fits perfectly in the zip-up pocket! I suppose if I ran with my cell phone, this would also be a good spot to put it.
  • Wear bright, reflective stuff! It’s not always bright and sunny out there. It’s not always clear, either. It might be when you start running, but that doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way by the time your done (especially if you live in da yoop). If it’s snowing, cars will have a hard time seeing you. And, if you live in an area like me, being aware of hunters is important to consider. Even if its daytime, being visible is incredibly important. Plus, how many people actually have time to run before work when its light out? The sun doesn’t come up until 8am here, and its gone by 5:30pm. Wearing a headlamp will make those dark roads easier to traverse, too. LL Bean sells a high visibility vest made by Brooks Running Company for $10! Serious. Team Mega Tough swears by these vests, too…
  • When in doubt, get low! If you aren’t sure if the road ahead (or underneath you) is icy, bend your knees more and anticipate a slip or a slide. Lowering your center of mass can help reduce your chances of falling, too. Plus, taking shorter steps, finding drier or more rough surfaces, and keeping your weight centered can help prevent a fall.
  • Don’t try and stop yourself from falling … with your hands. Sometimes falling is inevitable. But falling on ice and bracing yourself with your hands could lead to some serious wrist injuries. Your butt has way more cushion. That isn’t to say that you won’t get bruised, beaten up, or brought on some other painful problems, but there’s more surface area on your rump than on your wrists (more surface area = lower stress, because everyone knows that stress = force/area, right? hehe…). It’s hard to focus on where you are putting your hands when you fall, but if you can- try to remember to put them behind (or in front) of your head. If you fall backwards, having your hands behind your noggin’ might protect your head moreso than hitting your head on the icy road below. The key to falling is to stay limber. Let the fall happen. Don’t try to stop it. Get loose and relaxed and let more of your body absorb the impact.

What other tips do you have for winter running?

*Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world when measured by surface area.

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About megankillian

Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. I love biomechanics!

Posted on December 3, 2009, in In Training. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Very cool and informative post but I all I can say is, you're tough. Sooooo cold and so much preparation involved in this kind of training!

  2. Christopher Tassava

    This is a great post. I run, ski, and bike outside all winter, so I am inherently interested in winter clothes! All your ideas are good ones. My personal tweaks:1. I like to wear a gaiter or "buff" around my neck whenever I'm out in temperatures below 25 or so, and a balaclava if it's under 10. I like something pretty soft and thin, so it provides insulation but I can still push it down if/when I heat up.2. Socks – never cotton, and usually a couple layers: a thin inner layer and a thicker wool or synthetic outer one.3. Eye protection is a must. I have a couple pairs or yellow-lensed sunglasses for low-light daytime conditions; they're amazingly good at helping pick out detail on gray days. And at night I wear clear-lensed glasses, mostly to keep snow out of my eyes. They're worth it when you crash into a snowbank and don't get ice on your eyelashes.

  3. I love my smartwool socks in winter. I've also found that it's super hard to find pants that don't leave a gap between sock and pants so I've started wearing leg warmers when it's really cold! I did just find some that are probably long enough, though, so that's exciting.

  4. Great post! I live in Spokane, WA and just ran tonight in 8 degree temps. It really is doable when you have the right gear. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.-Jessi Thompson (Team Trakkers)

  5. Great tips! I’m definitely getting one of those nathan thermal sleeves to keep my water from freezing (happened more than once last year) I’ve tried the yak traks and didn’t love them, but maybe another shot… or perhaps the Sauconys! 🙂 And the reflective gear.. seriously people.. this is a matter of life and death. I think my life is worth the $10 reflective vest!!! I see so many people (at least I SEE THEM) running / riding around here in dark clothing.. I get that a lot of spandex stuff comes in black, but it also comes in day glo. Get w/ the program! 😀

    Thanks for the link to the post. It’s a good one… get ready for the snow to fly.. does SL get snow?? I have no idea.

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