Embrace the Outdoors: Winter Running Tips

By Thurston Hatcher

The downside of resolving to exercise more is that just about everyone else is doing the same thing. So if you’re in a cold climate like Chicago’s, that means battling all those fickle New Year’s resolutionaries for a coveted spot on the health club treadmill.

That is, unless you’re willing to confront the cold and learn to embrace the outdoors.

I finally forced myself to do that after moving to Chicago from the Deep South, where people don parkas when the mercury drops below 50. While I’m still no die-hard outdoorsman during the winter months, and you won’t find me on the Lakefront Trail when it’s 2 below with 30 mph winds, I have learned to cope with — and often relish — running in the elements.

Nothing beats having the path to yourself — and the whole city, it seems — on a snowy January day. It’s just you, the frozen lake and the skyline.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about running outside:

Psychological barrier: No matter how cold and snowy it is, the biggest obstacle is in your head. So don’t think too much about it. Just get dressed and push yourself out the door.

Cold start: The first few minutes might be rough. But then, miraculously, your body warms up after you start running, and you’re not so cold anymore. Works every time.

Layers: The days of heavy winter running gear are long gone. Think layers, including a mix of lightweight and slightly thicker tops, and maybe a light jacket if it’s extra cold or windy. And as any veteran runner knows, never wear cotton. Synthetic gear like Nike’s Dri-FIT wicks away moisture from your skin so you stay warmer. (While you’re at it, make sure you have dry clothes to change into when you’re done. You’ll be surprised how quickly you freeze over after you stop.)

Hats and gloves: It probably goes without saying that you’ll need these. Unless it’s unusually cold, lightweight will suffice. I’ve never felt the need for a balaclava to cover my face, but it’s probably not a bad idea in the coldest of conditions.

Pants: Some folks are uneasy with running tights, but I’ve given up caring how they look and appreciate the warmth and comfort. If you can’t bring yourself to wear them, there are plenty of long but less form-fitting options. I generally opt for long pants when temps drop below 40 degrees.

Wind: Pay attention to which way the wind is blowing. Gusts that you don’t even notice when they’re at your back can seem brutal once you turn around. I prefer to run into the wind for the first part of my run and save the more comfortable part for last.

Water: Most fountains are shut off during the winter months, so if you’re running more than three miles, it’s a good idea to carry a water bottle on your run. Some come with straps that make them easier to carry.

Ice: Snow really isn’t that hard to run in, at least not on the well-plowed paths and streets of the city, so I’ve never felt the need to get special shoes or gear for traction. But you do need to be extra careful.

As with driving, the most challenging conditions often come after snow has melted and then frozen over again. If the roads and paths are too icy, it might be best to head inside and — sigh — hop on the dreaded treadmill. Nothing ruins a good run like a fractured elbow.

Thurston Hatcher, a longtime runner, is Web managing editor and social media manager for Rush University Medical Center.

2 thoughts on “Embrace the Outdoors: Winter Running Tips

  1. Thurston I found your tips insightful and helpful. It reinforces what I thought I knew about winter running and I’m determined to give it another try. It will be especially helpful battling the “bulge” of the holidays. I”m a returning runner (2 recent Marathon finishes) after many years off and am looking forward to a PR this year. Thanks! AM

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