Many detest it and simply refuse to do it, while others do it begrudgingly while longing for spring’s sunny days. A third group, though, loves it and says that “it’s not a matter of bad weather; it’s a matter of bad clothing choices.”
We’re talking about winter running – which even in the mid-Atlantic can mean temperatures in the 20s, high winds and freezing rain.
None of this, though, has ever stopped Kathy Pugh, a Washington resident and coach who has been leading winter runs and race prep for nearly a decade.
“I love running in the winter. It’s so still, and sometimes you feel like you have the city to yourself,” Pugh says.
Winter running, Pugh says, takes much more thought and preparation than summer running, when shorts, a tank top and sneakers have you ready and out the door in no time.
Running in the cold must be a matter of careful calibration, or you might find your hands numb and your face chapped from high winds.
“Everyone has to figure out what works for them, but generally I suggest that runners dress as if it’s 20 degrees warmer,” she says.
In other words, if you are preparing to go for a run in 20-degree weather, then dress as if it’s 40 degrees.
If it’s windy and cold, then prepare by exposing as little skin as possible, Pugh says. You might even wear a balaclava (ski mask) to protect your face and neck. Think layers and wick-away materials.
“I have never canceled because of cold weather,” Pugh says of her running boot camp.
One of her longtime runners, Hilary Chapman, says cold weather is not the main deterrent against winter running – freezing rain and slippery road conditions are.
“If it’s 40 degrees and raining, then I probably will opt for an indoor group exercise class,” she says.
If she is preparing for a race and misses training runs, she tries to make up for them by doing indoor cycling at roughly the same intensity (measured by heart rate) and duration as her planned training runs.
For example, if she is training for a half-marathon and needs a two-hour run, but the streets outside resemble a hockey rink, then she will do indoor cycling for two hours. She does not care for treadmill running.
“I try to get in a similar workout in terms of level of effort and amount of time,” she says.
Pugh, on the other hand, says she will run outdoors anytime instead of working out indoors. And after years of coaching, she knows where to run when ice and snow coat the streets.
The loop around the Capitol building is 1.1 miles and is usually plowed and iceless within 24 hours of snowfall, she says. Another loop is on the National Mall, where the sidewalks along Jefferson and Madison drives are usually plowed and prepped.
“We will just do repeats if we need to,” Pugh says, meaning she will make sure her runners get the distances they need on ice-free streets – even though sometimes it means doing repetitive loops.
Other winter running tips by Pugh and Chapman:
– Take warmups extra seriously (e.g. dynamic stretching), eat a bigger breakfast, hydrate at least four ounces per hour even though you might not feel like it, take it easy during the first mile, do your post-run stretch indoors and get into the warm shower quickly.
– Race day
As for race day, it’s important to prepare to have to wait at the start. Runner Kate Langbein suggests wearing a throwaway long-sleeved T-shirt until the race begins. She also wears wool socks, mittens and a skin block such as Vaseline if it’s windy.
“Wool socks cannot be oversold,” she says.
As for winter running tips in general, Langbein suggests running with reflective gear, because chances are you will be running in the dark before or after work. Although conceding that winter running can be daunting, she says that winter is when she became a runner – her first significant race being the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in Washington in 2007. She started training in winter 2006.
“I didn’t know any better,” she jokes.
But as it turned out, winter running is by far her favorite, and her best race was in New York City in 35-degree weather. Her favorite training site: new snow in Rock Creek Park, which she describes as magical. You get to make the first tracks.
The only time she runs on the treadmill? You guessed it: in the muggy heat of D.C. summer days.
“I ran 17 miles on a treadmill one summer to avoid the heat. I hate to be too hot,” she says.
But back to winter running.
Chapman says she has all but quit doing big races because waiting around is too cold. She has Raynaud’s disease, which affects the blood supply to her fingers on very cold days.
“No one makes running gloves that are adequate,” Chapman says.
Final tips from Pugh: Run with a buddy or group to stay safe while it’s dark and possibly icy, check the weather forecast, and make sure to account for the wind when you make your clothing choices.
“Wind is like the heat index in the summer,” she says. But once the wind is entered into the equation, Pugh feels about winter runs the way she feels about any run: It’s a moving meditation. It’s a time for peace, quiet and self-care.