Thursday, 5 December 2013

Running in a Calgarian winter

Calgary, with its proximity to the Rockies, gives a wide range of weather at most times of year. In the winter months, it is likely that there will be a few (cold) shorts-weather days. 
Those "bonus days" notwithstanding, it will mostly be more wintry than winter. The fair-weather runners will retreat indoors. For myself and some fellow runners at the more enthusiastic end of the scale, running season virtually never stops.
I say virtually: when there's a blizzard (such as recently on Monday December 2), I hit the gym. Temperature is not really a problem in and of itself. Wind chill from speeds of 30 km/h+ and blowing, driving snow on top of -20 makes it hard to even move and get an effective workout in, never mind the general discomfort. A wind chill factor of colder than -30, such as Calgary on December 6 (a Friday) is another line I've yet to cross. I saw just one runner that day, literally wearing ski gear. 

So when it's not cold enough for a Michelin Man impression, what should a runner wear?
"There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing," said someone I can't be bothered to google. The above is a pile of everything I put on to run on December 4, a Wednesday. It was around -20 with a light wind. 
A breakdown:
Base layer shirt and running tights. The first layer being tight will keep heat in most effectively. Tight and sexy = weather safe and a general feeling of well being.
Track pants and 2 long-sleeve tops on next. The thickest top on last. I'm wearing a "neck-gaitor" as my chin and neck get especially cold. 
A wind breaker tops off the clothing. Then accessorize. 2 pairs of gloves, and light wind-breaker mittens. A runner-specific balaclava with a mesh mouthpiece for easier breathing. As well as preventing heat loss from the top of the head, wearing it also means breathing in warmer air. It avoids the freezer burn sensation on the throat and lungs. 
Hood over the top and finally, ski-goggles. Snow or freezing rain in the eyes can sting, but mostly condensation gathers on the eyelashes and can freeze. I once blinked too slowly and my eyes stayed shut, and I had to open them with my fingers - not before having run an extra 50 metres.
The head of course generates a lot of heat once the heart rate is up. The hands are need the most protection rather than head, somewhat the opposite of walking. The toes, as long as they are dry, only need one pair of socks. My guess is the running action repeatedly shakes blood into the feet and toes and the heart is also pumping it quickly, so there's none of the waiting at the bus stop numbness.
Almost every step is going to involve a slide of some kind, in every direction. Experience and muscle memory will teach a runner to identify all kinds of winter surface in a split second - snow on ice, ice on snow, snow polished into ice, "mashed potato" snow on polished ice, etc. Overall, gentle short steps crossing the road (uneven polished ice), and slow down before going downhill (speeding up is the main way of correcting a slide) are 2 good rules of thumb.
The most dangerous surface by far is water on top of ice in spring from continuous melt/freeze and freezing slush splashing on top of a shoe's toebox.  That's one final sting that winter has in its tail - when it is otherwise spring. 
Downtown Calgary does somewhat spoil runners with the amount of pathway clearing (although caution is advised passing under bridges). This means that speed work is not impossible in winter, though still of course difficult. 
It's not quite so user-friendly in places such as Fish Creek Park. Deeper snow and the extra friction and weight from all the extra clothing uses extra energy. I unscientifically guess that this requires up to 20% more effort. One rule of thumb is to run for the same length of time that the planned distance would take if running in better weather. Do loops close to home in the worst weather if your planned route is a little remote.
Shorts weather is of course better than taking 10 minutes to put on heavy and restrictive clothing and subjecting oneself to a winter pounding while looking like a slightly camp, flailing Darth Vader. 
Many of us head out the door anyway because of the delight we take in doing what many call "crazy". The pleasure of defying the weather is comparable to the challenge of going for a PB, and the overall joy of running. "You make it sound so exciting," someone said to me at work. "That's because it is!"


  1. How to motivate yourself to run in the winter:
    1. Move close enough downtown to run to work.
    2. Don't buy a bus pass or parking downtown.
    This is what I did, so there hasn't been a point yet where I haven't run in.
    Good tips for winter running. I would second the tip about short steps to avoid slipping. I try to always keep my feet as close to below my center of gravity as I can. Another tip is on the really cold or slushy days plastic bags around your feet (over your socks, but in your shoes) can help to keep your feet warm and dry.

  2. Love the Superman base layer! All the best in 2014!