When Jennie Heidbreder moved from Kingsbury, Texas, to Albany five years ago, she knew she would have to make some changes in her winter running habits.
“We’ve trained in the winter in Houston, but obviously it’s a little bit of a different environment,” said Heidbreder, who has been running for 10 years and is an organizer for the Albany chapter of USA Fit, a national marathon and half-marathon training program.
“For me, whenever I’m going out on a run into a new environment, a little planning goes a long way for me. A lot of times, what I do is check the weather and see what kind of elements and factors I’ll be dealing with — precipitation, wind chill.”
Heidbreder got into running through the Houston chapter of USA Fit and set up the Albany chapter of the program three years ago. While the program’s six-month course only runs from May through September, Heidbreder is still an avid winter runner. She, like many Northeast runners, has found that everything from clothing and footwear to the time the sun sets to seemingly simple things as getting enough fluids all need to be given special consideration when the temperature drops outside.
Mike Washco, who heads the safety committee for the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club, has been running for close to 15 years. He’s been with HMRRC for all of that time and has been in charge of safety at the organization for the past few months.
“I think the biggest issues — I’ve written two articles put out in Pacesetter [HMRRC’s newsletter], and the two things I centered around were the dangers of running in darkness — understanding the safeties of running at night,” Washco said, “and the other one was just kind of taking into account — which I don’t think a lot of people do — just understanding that running with cold temperature, there are precautions for making sure you are wearing the right types of clothing, as far as hypothermia, things such as that.”
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about dressing for winter running is to avoid cotton. Cotton soaks up sweat, which leaves a runner wet and thus more susceptible to hypothermia in cold conditions.
“You want to start with something that’s synthetic, like polypropylene, on the skin to wick sweat away,” said Dr. Eric Aronowitz, of Schenectady Regional Orthopedic Associates. “You want to avoid cotton — that’s going to hold in moisture, and you’re going to stay wet.”
“Some things are kind of across the board, like wearing proper wicking clothing — cotton is rotten,” Heidbreder said. “If you get a synthetic material, most places from Target to retail running stores usually have clothing with tags that say moisture-wicking.”
Of course, it’s still important to dress warmly — but not too warmly.
“It’s a matter of determining what other elements you’re going to run into,” Heidbreder said. “You’re kind of looking at those things like multiple layers — a wicking layer or other layers, like a nylon jacket, or if you need to add a middle layer, such as fleece. Once it’s below 40 degrees, even in the South, you should consider adding layers.”
Aronowitz recommends thin layers that will allow the body to warm up as the run progresses, with an outside layer made of nylon or Gore-Tex for protection against precipitation and wind chill.
“Another good rule of thumb is to always start off feeling like you’re a little bit chilly,” he said. “The rule of thumb is to dress like it’s 20 degrees warmer outside than it is. If you’re warm when you start running, you’re going to be really warm once you get going, and you increase the risk of sweating too much and getting really cold because of that.”
Dressing for darkness, with reflective clothing and even head lamps, is also recommended. Since the sun sets earlier in winter, runners will often find themselves training in the dark in both the morning and afternoon hours.
“The biggest things, too, as far as running at night, are staying in well-lit areas and being a defensive runner,” Washco said. “What I mean by that is taking into consideration that cars are not always going to see you, even if you can see them. You’re assuming that they can’t.”
Gloves and hats are also important for keeping heat in. “You lose 30 percent of your body heat from your hands and feet and 40 percent from your head; those things need to be protected,” Aronowitz said.
Heidbreder uses socks with a wool blend for running in cold weather. She also recommends different shoes, such as trail running shoes, for running in ice and snow.
“You want to pay attention to if you’re going to run a route where there might be ice and snow,” Heidbreder said. “If so, there are certain types of equipment you can attach to your shoes, depending on the shoe type. There are two different kinds of running shoes, and one is designed to handle that type of ice and wetness better. Sometimes even the model of the shoe, they should pay attention to that.”
Aronowitz recommends avoiding ice and snow all together.
“There’s not a whole lot of shoe wear designed for running in wintertime,” he said. “It’s one thing if there’s a snow pack, but if you’re running on ice, there’s the risk of slipping and falling. You’re much better off taking that time off or running on a treadmill; you really don’t want to be running on anything that’s not pavement.”
Staying hydrated by drinking water or sports drinks like Gatorade is also important in winter, when you may not feel as thirsty as you would in warmer weather.
“In the winter, a lot of people forget about hydration — when it’s cold out, it feels like you don’t need to stay as hydrated, when you really do,” Heidbreder said. “I always tell people to stay hydrated, even if they’re not thirsty.”
Getting the miles in
It’s also important to take things slow in cold weather.
“If you’re going to run outside, you shouldn’t be running for speed,” Aronowitz said. “You should go out knowing that you’re not looking for speed records here; you’re running to get your miles in. Another thing I tell people is that you should start off, if you can — start off your run running into the wind, so the wind is at your back on your way in.”
Even with these precautions, sometimes it’s better to not risk running outside at all.
“If the temperature is below zero, or if the wind chill is below minus-20, you probably should be running on a treadmill,” Aronowitz said. “You shouldn’t be running outside.”