It’s turning into one of “those” winters in Upstate New York. The weather conditions often make one question the wisdom of running outside. The alternatives to running outside can be depressing, however. Did you know that the treadmill was originally designed to punish convicts? Of course you suspected that this was the case.
If you, like me, will do just about anything to avoid the treadmill –– here’s some good news: It turns out that it’s good for you to brave the elements and go outside for a run even when the conditions are marginal (OK, extreme). As long as you take some precautions and adjust expectations, running in the cold and snow make beneficial contributions to your fitness.
First, let’s address the “freeze your lungs” myth. If you started to get ready to run over the holidays when relatives were present, you undoubtedly heard this one from your great aunt Mabel: “You’ll freeze your lungs if you run outside.” (She still hasn’t forgiven you for disregarding her advice about your knees.) Freezing your lungs is not a thing. Your internal body temperature warms inhaled air before it reaches your lungs, so they will never freeze. Cold, dry air can, however, irritate your throat and nasal membranes. If you notice some irritation in cold weather, try covering your mouth with a Buff or balaclava.
These are good options for combating dry, cold air.
When it is extremely cold outside –– zero Fahrenheit with wind chill in the negatives –– it is important to limit skin exposure. It can be very helpful to liberally apply Vaseline to your nose, cheeks, forehead, and earlobes to protect against cold and wind.
When it’s super-cold, you’ll want to troubleshoot and take a few extra precautions. For example, running with a partner is recommended to help you keep track of potential frostbite and to provide help if necessary. An advantage of running in the city or urban area is apparent when it gets brutally cold. In Albany, for instance, there’s a Stewart’s or Dunkin Donuts just about every mile. If the weather really deteriorates, or you have to stop because of an injury, you can quickly get inside. This is one of those times when running with a phone and some cash can be very useful.
The pit stop for Upstate New York runners
Warming up for a run can be tricky when it’s extremely cold outside. Make sure that you wear layers of technical fabrics or merino wool that wick moisture. The air between the layers will heat up, keeping you warm. If you need to warm up inside before going out, avoid breaking a sweat. Moisture, of course, will freeze when you go outdoors and this can make you even colder. I prefer to start out slowly and ease into a run.
Be sure to give yourself at least a mile to warm up on extremely cold days. If you can, be sure to initially run against the wind so that you can have the wind at your back on the way back. The first several miles never feel that great when confronted by extreme cold and many of us are tempted to turn around and call it quits. Avoid this temptation, allow your body to warm up, and you will be rewarded with the benefits of cold weather running.
So, what’s the benefit (besides dodging the treadmill)? Here, the cliché “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” really does come into play. Running in the extreme cold and snow will make you stronger and can transform your body.
First of all, your heart will be working harder to keep your body warm. This will strengthen your heart and make it ready for harder workouts when the weather gets warmer. For those of you concerned about such things, you will also be burning more calories when running in the cold. There is also some evidence that exercising in the cold turns unwanted white fat into brown fat –– metabolic tissue that actually burns calories. Finally, running on ice and snow requires the constant activation and adjustment of your core muscles. The worse the conditions, the better the core workout.
Running in the ice and snow: It’s a core workout without being a core workout.
If you commit to the outdoor “extreme weather run,” remember to adjust your expectations. Don’t get overly concerned about hitting a specific pace. You’ll probably be slower because of tricky footing and the cold; at this time of year, it’s all about time on your feet and getting in those base miles. Getting out there and doing it now will have results later in the year. (Plus, you own bragging rights at the next happy hour.)
Finally, be sure that you quickly change out of your wet running clothes so that you don’t get chilled. If you are not concluding your run at home, be sure to bring some dry clothes –– dry underwear, socks, shirt, jacket, sweatpants, hat, and gloves –– so you can change and get warm. Hot drinks or soup also help raise your internal temp and thaw you out.
With the right preparation, supportive running partners, and long-term goals in mind, running in extreme winter conditions can be rather fun.