Tag Archives: winter running

Winter long run struggles

I’ve faced an odyssey of problems with my long runs over the past month due to Chicago’s extreme turn of winter weather.

Getting long runs in hasn’t been the problem. In fact, I’ve been more consistent with my weekly long runs over the past several months than ever before. The issue is that weather and other concerns have made those long runs more difficult. Last weekend’s 2 hour run was a snow stomping slog through an obstacle course of unplowed snow, standing ice and other issues.

This past weekend’s 2 hour run battled a stiff 30 mph crosswind that not only made maintaining a straight path difficult but also sent broken tree branches and other debris flying across the lakefront.

I haven’t focused as much on stretching out or improving training pace/cadency because just managing to stay upright and run in itself was already a huge challenge in the conditions.

It was almost a blessing in disguise that I had to run the F3 Half during the early portion of my training cycle. Racing 13 miles right off the bat meant that stretching out wasn’t a concern. And forced downtime the following week (due to extreme cold and -50°F windchills) allowed for some needed recovery after the race took quite a bit out of me. And it assured that by my early base phase I was already able to run 2 hours at a harder pace.

So effectively the first half of Vancouver training has been largely a base phase built around mixing challenging volume with recovery. The hope is that this builds strength with my endurance, while also adding extra recovery between key workouts.

Sure, it’s a bummer that the key workouts have been more about fighting through tough conditions than about speed or showing out pace, or that the quality has to be a tradeoff for a lesser quantity of mileage.

But, even if winter and the harsh conditions stick around longer than we’d want, hopefully this allows for volume building and longer base workouts, and the payoff is a good long run in Vancouver this May.

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Losing Fat Without Losing Sleep

An irony of New Year’s Resolutions driving people to diet and hit the gym in January is that winter is probably not the best time to try and burn fat in colder climates.

You have a more difficult time sleeping when hungry, especially if it’s cool or cold. Your body will kick into a sort of overdrive to burn body fat, which revs your circulation up enough to keep you in a state too awake to get to sleep. In fact, if you have issues getting to sleep, you may want to make sure you’re better fed shortly before bed.

But most of you want to lose weight and this is the time to do it because blah blah bathing suit season etc. You don’t want to punt the golden opportunity, and you certainly don’t want to gain weight during the winter when you want or need to lose fat in the long run. Fair enough.

There’s actually a middle ground, and it works especially well if you prefer to train later in the day. The key is intermittent fasting, i.e. not eating for most of the day, then eating all of your food in a limited time window like 6-8 hours.

Now, a myth with intermittent fasting is that it causes you to lose weight in itself. That isn’t necessarily true. You could still overeat for the day in the 6-8 hours you can eat. It’s very easy to pound a frozen pizza, and then a hamburger or something 4-6 hours later, let alone snack on anything in-between, and end up over the line. Even with 16-18 hours of not eating, you could still end up storing extra fat overall.

Given that, it’s still entirely possible to diet effectively and lose weight, while still going to bed each night feeling satiated after a ridiculously sized meal.

The key is to flip the conventional “breakfast like a king, dinner like a pauper” wisdom on its head. This is actually for most a counter-productive way of eating that has been sustained largely out of forced cultural habit. It makes sense to many people (even alleged experts) because that’s always how they’ve eaten.

Basically, even if your last meal of the day isn’t your largest, you want your last meal to be a large meal, one where by the time you go to bed you’re not in any way hungry. You may even want to top it off with a hearty snack right before bed.

Also, as this infers, you probably don’t want to start your limited feeding window at dawn and then eat your last meal around noon or 1pm, going to bed several hours after that meal. You will almost certainly be hungry at bedtime.

You will want to follow a more conventional intermittent fasting window, where you skip breakfast, eat your first meal at lunch, and then eat regularly until before bed. This allows you to fill your stomach close to full before bed and avoid insomnia-producing hunger.

Now, that doesn’t mean your first meal of the day should be the smallest. You can break your intermittent fast at lunch with a large meal as well. Just make sure any meal or snack you eat between lunch and dinner is not too large.

You probably do want to make sure you eat something a few hours after lunch to avoid any hormonal crashes or temptation to binge-eat any garbage at dinner… unless you have a specific reason you’d want to do so (like a special family dinner). Just make sure it’s around the 400-600 calorie range, bigger than a little snack but not quite a full meal.

Just because you can still gain weight intermittent fasting doesn’t mean your body isn’t burning fat during the fasting period. Moderating your diet just makes sure you aren’t piling on more fat than you burn. The fasting period does its job burning fat without food in your stomach. This process revs up your circulation, which you want during the day when you’re awake but mostly sedentary.

By back loading your food intake later in the day, your body can utilize this nutrition for post-workout and overnight recovery, and allow you to relax and sleep.

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Feast or Famine Winter Training: A blessing in disguise?

Chicago’s freezing weather has forced me to hibernate for days at a time. Last week’s brutal -50°F windchills knocked out a couple days, and this week a combination of sub-10°F temperatures with stiff 20-30 mph winds have compelled me to flex in a couple of days off.

This has led me into a feast/famine schedule, where I’ll run 4-5 days in a row, then run very little for a few days, then repeat. If Chicago’s weather can stabilize into something consistently tolerable, I’ll resume a more normal training schedule.

But I realized this schedule is very similar to one that emergency workers (hospital medical staff, firefighters, law enforcement) follow, along with to some extent expo workers.

They work long hours for several days in a row, then they get several days off in a row. In the case of emergency staff, working a regular 8 hour shift is often impractical when attending to real-time emergencies. In the case of expo staff, they work when convention services are needed, and those periods often come in peak-season blocks rather than everyday on a 40 hour schedule.

Obviously, there are drawbacks to life with such a schedule. No one ever argued this was an optimal schedule. However, not only do workers put in entire careers on such a schedule, but (taking a bit of a logical leap here) it’s entirely possible that runners could to some extent do fine on the same schedule.

In fact, runners kind of do. We train hard for goal races in 8-24 week cycles… then we take longer breaks before resuming training for the next goal. Even the famous elite Kenyan runners take weeks or months off following their marathons.

We couldn’t train as hard as we do unless we took breaks at some point. Sometimes, injuries or life force those breaks. But many end up taking them by choice or other willing circumstance. It’s during these breaks that the body and mind rebuild, allowing us to train hard the next time around. You don’t grow stronger during training, but during the recovery between bouts of training.

So back to this strange-to-many feast or famine schedule: Imagine 4-5 days straight of moderate running, with a long run at some point, perhaps a speedwork session early on… then 3-4 days of no training, or perhaps a short run or two during that period… before another 4-5 days straight of moderate/long running.

That moderate period might really beat you up, but then you get that long subsequent period to heal up from all that work. You’re possibly almost chomping at the bit to get back at it two days before you resume training. By the time you get back to longer runs, you’re physically and psychologically fresh.

The latter situation is actually the idea behind a marathon taper. You spend months grinding yourself to get ready for the race. Then you scale back your training to too-little-running, so that your body and mind can heal up and running can become fresh again once it’s time to run the actual race.

I won’t go as far as to say everyone should do this. If I had it my way, I’d have trained normally over this past month, instead of having to stall training for 2-3 days due to severe weather.

But in a way the severe weather was an opportunity to rest up and recover. So long as I maximize the time to train while the weather is good, the time off could maximize the recovery and growth from that training.

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The Hidden Benefits of Hibernating, or Why I Did Nothing During the 2019 Polar Vortex

I run through winter, but I have my limits.

My drop dead low temperature for running is -5°F. Beyond that, any amount of wind creates a sub-30-minute frostbite risk. I don’t want to take any chances by running outside for any length of time, since given icy conditions I will likely have to travel some distance on foot to find a suitable running path.

My drop dead low temperature for any kind of outdoor anything is -10°F. Even if covered up, even with no wind, the temperature by itself begins to pose a frostbite and hypothermia risk, regardless of how well you’re bundled up.

(Much respect to my Canadian, Maritime, Dakotan, Montanan, New English, Mongolian, Siberian, Antarctican, et ceteran readers who regularly experience temps far colder. You also have the benefit of generations of biology that we southerners lack. I have grown to handle extreme cold but despite my best efforts I still have physical limits.)

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Recap of an ice cold F3 Half Marathon

f3halfThough 10 degrees Fahrenheit was far warmer than it had been in Chicago throughout this week, the cold at Saturday’s F3 Half Marathon was stiff enough to compel organizers to do most of the pre-race festivities (including the National Anthem) inside the Soldier Field concourse.

Your intrepid running writer struggled Friday night to find an effective race-day-gear middle ground between minimal racing weight, and functionally layering for the cold.

Because this was basically a goal race on my schedule, how I did today was important enough to not just dismiss this as a throwaway result in icy conditions. I didn’t train for the Half distance just to phone the race in.

I knew a PR was probably unlikely: I knew I’d end up a bit heavy (and thus slower) due to layers, and that despite the cold I might end up a bit overheated due to what layers I wore. This was just about seeing how close I could get in these conditions.

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Quick thoughts on a slippery 10K track workout

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In the sunset darkness of the Wilson Track, with snow pellets coming down, there was one set of footprints coating the growing frost in Lane 3. That was me.

I ran 3 x 2 mile repeats last night at the Wilson Track. The 3x2mi is a 10K workout from Greg McMillan that while demanding will clearly show the pace you’re capable of running in a 10K. I’m not only training for the Tour De Trails 6 Miler but also the Mardi Gras Chaser 10K in early March… along, of course, with the Vancouver Marathon.

Thanks to snow flurries and general cold overcast throughout the last 24 hours, the track had some dubious patches of water and generally required some caution for use. I stuck to lane 3 as that was the inside-most lane enough to use in its entirety; even then, I had to ride the outside edge in some spots along the home stretch to avoid overlapping inside puddles.

However, snow pellets came down as I began my 2nd rep. Never mind hitting me in the face on the front stretch… pellets began coating the track surface, limiting traction and slowing me down while demanding more of my lower body to maintain form and movement. Nothing keeps your stride compact quite like trying to run tempo reps on a frosty track.

Most would have stopped a speed workout in this situation, unable to meet pace expectations and fearing falls and injury in the conditions… especially in footwear like mine: I was wearing my Topo Athletic ST2‘s, flats primarily intended for racing and speed running. I had the added bonus in wearing the least suitable running footwear for icy conditions!

However, along with knowing how to run in snow and ice, I also realize a tempo workout can still serve my desired purpose in less than ideal conditions. They’re about more than hitting a goal time.

Instead of disappointment in reps at a pace below my PR time, I see I can capably run a 10K at a pace 20 seconds slower than my PR in icy, increasingly slippery conditions.

Plus, with three trail races still to come, I also need to prep for running fast on uneven, probably slippery conditions… as I had to in the Tour De Trails 3 Miler a couple weeks before. Maintaining the best pace I could on a frosty track that didn’t provide great traction helps develop lower body muscles that will need to do serious work in next month’s 6 Miler plus the longer trail races beyond.


Now, not everyone should do this, and I wouldn’t keep a speed workout going every time ice started coating the surface. There are a lot of winter days where I’d bag a planned speed workout and do something else.

But this was one day where, as the conditions grew farther from ideal, the workout still provided growth opportunity and still served its purpose. Quality workouts intend to prepare you to race, not just hit a goal time.

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Replacing long runs in extreme weather with multiple runs

My sister’s boyfriend runs multiple half marathons and shorter races throughout each year. Living in the Las Vegas desert, where temperatures top 100 degrees Fahrenheit through most of the year, long runs are impractical.

You can’t run outside in such extreme heat for more than half an hour, not even in the morning (as temperatures don’t drop below 80 degrees many days, and that’s already rather hot for running). And running 10+ miles on a treadmill, if the gym will even allow it, isn’t psychologically feasible for most.

So how does he train for half marathons? He runs them in the neighborhood of 1:40, so he clearly gets in excellent shape for them. But he attests he certainly doesn’t do long runs. So what does he do?

Here’s how he outlined it for me (and I’m describing this some in my words rather than his):

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How to run in snow and ice

Snow finally hit Chicago hard for the first time this cold season. While 4-8″ isn’t anything close to a record, it means runners here finally get to deal with snow and ice.

Walking in snow and ice itself is an acquired skill, which puts running in snow and ice on a whole other level. Being a winter runner, I have enough first-hand experience and knowledge to help you continue to train outdoors in cold conditions.

The standard caveats apply: Layer accordingly, dress as if it’s 20 degrees warmer since you will warm up while running, and of course should the weather get suitably severe (blizzard conditions, massive snow or ice, thunder-snow, and dangerously low temperatures and windchill) you should go ahead and stay inside.

Barring that, here’s some key tips to running in snow and ice.

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Want to stay warm in winter?

This occurred to me about halfway through a brutal cardio workout in my otherwise cold apartment (bearing in mind that it isn’t even that cold yet).

There are two very easy ways to warm up during the winter, if you’d rather not blast your heater too much, or it’s so cold your heater isn’t really keeping your home warm.

One, you can cook. Use the oven, use the stove, use whatever generates heat. Cook a full meal. The meal itself can provide some temporary warmth, but a 350-400 degree oven or a hot stove will also provide some warmth. Learn to love cooking again if you need some help dealing with the cold.

Two, you can do serious exercise. The easiest and most direct way is to do an aerobic or circuit exercise program that really kicks your ass, in the not-quite-comfort of your own home. During warmer months, you may sweat enough to need a mop. But in the winter, your overheating may be exactly what your body needs to counteract the cold seeping through your walls into your bones. The added circulation during and after the workout will help keep you warmer than you were before.

Another helpful exercise method is to run outdoors, if you can handle it. I run all winter, and it makes acclimating to the cold easier to spend any extended amount of time active in it. Plus, after about 10-20 minutes of running, you warm up about as much as you do any other time of year. What may overheat you in summer is exactly what you might need in the dead of winter. Once you get inside, it not only will feel warmer than the outdoors, but you’ll be warmer and able to handle the cooler indoor air a lot better.

So, while most people want to curl up under a blanket during the coldest months, your best bet to warm up and stay warm may be to do the opposite. Get busy, and get warm! And probably cook a nice meal as well.

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Running outdoors in winter: Gear and Training Basics

As someone who has run throughout the dead of some winters in Chicago (aka Chiberia), I think I understand what cold weather running gear and training approaches are useful, let alone necessary.

A key point: When it comes to gear and layers, people forget that regardless of the outdoor temperature you do warm up as you run. So what seems like acceptably thick attire the moment you step out the door may be 20 degrees too much within a mile of running. You actually want to dress about a layer too thin when you go out for a freezing run, or else you’ll find yourself either a) ironically overheated or b) looking for somewhere to hold those extra layers once you take them off during the run.

Plus there’s a threshold at which, provided you can maintain an uninterrupted run, you will warm up to a comfortable level almost regardless of how low the temperature gets. I find that the warmness I feel at mile 2 of a 0 degree Fahrenheit run isn’t all that different than how warm I feel 2 miles into a 20 degree or 30 degree run.

That said, however, you should still layer appropriately for the temperature and conditions. After all, you will eventually stop, and once you stop your body soon goes back to a normal sense of temperature. When that happens, bitterly cold once again feels bitterly cold.

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So, what is my threshold for cold weather gear vs going out in more “normal” attire? At what point do I need to:

Wear a jacket? For me this threshold is 42-43 degrees Fahrenheit (5-6 degrees Celsius). Again, you warm up during a run to where your personal heat index feels about 20 degrees warmer (12’C). Ideal running temperature is in the 40-60 (4-16’C) degree range, and even when just walking I find myself avoiding long sleeves and coats until the 45-50’F degree range (let’s say 6-10’C). So only when the temperature reaches the 30’s (below 0’C) do I reach for the windbreaker.

Add a 2nd top layer? However, as we go from autumn to winter, I’ll add a long sleeve top at 30 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. The goal is to not need to take that off once I warm up (though I don’t mind removing a jacket and tying it around me during a run once I get warmer). Once I’m acclimated to the winter, I may stick with just the coat into the high 20’s, or maybe even forego the coat for just a sweatshirt if I know I’m getting inside for good after the run… but beyond that I will definitely wear a long sleeve as a 2nd layer.

Below 20 degrees, I will wear all three top layers: A regular t-shirt, a long sleeve top, and a jacket. Unless acclimated for cold weather, I will add another layer of thermal legs and a 2nd layer of socks at this stage. I also will cover my hands, and wear my fleece Carhartt 2-in-1 cap.

The key to handwear is not to wear gloves, but some sort of mitten-style cover. As you run, air quickly passes over the surface of any gear you wear. With gloves, freezing air can pass between all your fingers, which can quickly make them cold and defeat the point of wearing the gloves. With mittens there’s no path for the freezing air to pass between your fingers, better allowing your covered hands to stay warm.

I actually will wear a clean pair of old wool (or similar fabric) socks over my hands, rather than any gloves or a formal pair of mittens. I have mittens, but find carrying and wearing socks less of a pain, plus the fabric does a better job of keeping my hands warm.

My mother made me some fleece scarves years ago, and they work wonders as fleece does the best job of retaining heat in freezing weather. While I wear them more frequently when just walking, I may wear them while running once the temperatures drop to the single digits Fahrenheit and below, and when windchills drop into the negatives… conditions where leaving any part of your body uncovered can be dangerous.

If I’m running from work in winter, I will wear thermal legwear underneath my slacks below 30 degrees since my outer layer isn’t compressive. I will also keep my dress shirt on as the 2nd layer, and wear a sweatshirt/coat over it. While having these work layers can be a bit of a pain in the hotter summer, they’re a welcome thicker layer in the dead of winter.

As for footwear… in clear conditions, I will do all I can to continue to wear the same shoes I run in during summer. If conditions are going to be wet, I will try and wear my somewhat-waterproof Topo Hydroventures, which also have added tread (typically for trail conditions).

I do have a pair of winter-specific New Balance MW1400’s, a high top shoe that pretty much doubles as a pair of winter boots. They insulate well, and if needed you can certainly run in them (in fact I’ve put about 80 miles of running on them since getting my current pair two years ago). But usually I wear those when expecting to navigate substantial snowfall and other mush, since they insulate from those conditions. If I am wearing the 1400’s, I typically don’t expect to run before I return home.


Aside from the Carhartt cap, which has a specific and useful design, and the footwear I mentioned above… I won’t recommend any specific brands. Most of them provide the same benefit, and what matters more is that you have the needed gear for the needed conditions. Buy whatever brand you like, or whatever brand is conveniently, affordably available.

As for navigating snow and ice, and avoiding slips… I’m so well versed in navigating icy conditions that years ago I wrote a piece about how to do so. I can comfortably navigate icy conditions, avoid bad spots, and rarely have I slipped and fell during a walk let alone a run.

I realize others are not as used to handling those conditions. If you don’t feel comfortable with your ability to handle ice during a run and are pretty sure you won’t be… then definitely stick to the treadmill when conditions warrant.

If you want to give running in the ice cold a shot, I start with one (hopefully obvious) piece of advice: TAKE IT SLOW.

Run as slowly as you can get away with while getting used to working around or navigating ice patches. Not only is it entirely possible to run comfortably over icy conditions, many in Chicago (myself included) do it all winter every winter.

Another key, which is easy for most since many consider the winter their offseason, is to curb your mileage and quality workout expectations for the season. I pretty much go full Lydiard during the winter and do nothing but longer, easy running. I back off on pace and focus on just completing my runs safely.

The only thing resembling speedwork I may attempt outdoors in the coldest of winter are hill sprints, which aren’t so much done for pace but as a low-key extra strength workout. And I wouldn’t even call them sprints, so much as “brief runs up an incline at a somewhat higher intensity than usual”. Obviously I only do them if the conditions on the given path are suitably free of dangerous ice. Any tempo work I feel compelled to do either requires dry conditions or a treadmill inside somewhere.

And yes, if, say:

  • I look down the road and see sheets of ice everywhere
  • I’m slipping far more often than I can comfortably handle
  • The lights are out and I can’t see anything at all
  • I step in what turns out to be a puddle in icy weather and now my feet are wet
  • Suddenly the wind is gusting and the windchill turns negative
  • Suddenly an assload of snow starts falling

I’m not averse to turning back or even full-out stopping the run. I may want to train during winter, but I’m not crazy.


So WHY do I bother running in the dead of winter? Couldn’t I just take a hint from Chiberia and take the winter off like most other runners do?

  • I like running and want to keep doing it
  • I can handle being out in cold conditions
  • I actually do better with extreme cold than I do with extreme heat
  • In terms of not being harassed by other people on the trails, winter is actually the best time to run. Few people want to go outside, let alone train. You don’t have the trails totally to yourself, but there’s rarely anyone messing with you
  • My favorite races take place in late winter or spring, meaning I need to train during winter
  • Getting outside and staying active means I stay healthy. A key reason many people get depressed and out of shape during winter is they stop going outside once it gets cold.
  • I like eating but I don’t like getting fat because I eat more than I burn.

Alright, so do I ever take a offseason?

Sure, but that’s another post for another time. Until then….

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