Running through a ‘proper’ winter: first impressions

I have been running seriously for about five years now. Despite numerous set backs (see this and the footing section below), I am now running nearly every day. This has required a change of attitude towards running, notably to schedule my life around running, as apposed to trying to ‘fit in’ a run when I can. This also means that I have chosen to run despite the weather.

For the last two months I have been living in Whitehorse, in Canada’s far Northern Yukon Territory. It gets pretty cold here. When I arrived in October the temperatures were around the -10oC mark. This quickly dropped to -20oC (referred to as “20 below” or even just “20” here) and eventually -30oC. My only other Canadian winter was spent on Vancouver Island, which has similar winter temperatures to the UK (nearly every time I have checked this year it has been warmer than the UK)

A Whitehorse trail, just a short run from my apartment

A Whitehorse trail, just a short run from my apartment

Therefore, despite having run through multiple winters before, I am now dealing with my first ‘proper’ one. This is, and will continue to be a learning curve. It’s been pretty fun so far though! Here are a few things I have learnt so far.

Clothing

Layering is the key to keeping a good temperature, as is bringing additional items, to switch to if necessary. For example I find that if anything is going to get cold it will be my hands, but my thick gloves can make my hands too warm and sweaty. Therefore I often start out wearing my thick pair and then switch to my thinner pair once I have warmed up. On a long run I take a running pack, so I put some additional layers for fine-tuning, and a jacket should I have to stop for any reason. Getting your clothing wrong normally results in being a bit too sweaty or a bit chilly on your run, here things could be a bit more serious.

A few times I have gotten a little cold in places, so I am continually fine tuning my layers. Though it’s easy to over-do it and get too warm, even in -20oC. I am getting a better sense of what to wear at certain temperatures, but as there are so many more factors involved than just temperature alone (especially wind and moisture), it isn’t reliable to just go on this one number. Using layers means I can set off and adjust as I go.

Face ice after a 4km run at -30 something celcius

Face ice after a 4km run at -30 something

The only area exposed to the elements is around my eyes, where the moisture from my breath can collect and freeze on my eyelids and eyebrows. Other than being a bit weird at first, this isn’t actually much of a problem and can be wiped off easily.

Feet

One of my biggest concerns before getting out here was keeping my feet dry and warm. This has actually turned out to be a non-issue. Whether running in -30oC or in a foot of powder at zero degrees, my feet are yet to get cold, and haven’t even really got wet. Perhaps I have some crazy circulation going on in me feet, as my shoes have plenty of ventilation and I wear very thin socks. I think because the feet receive so much lovely warm blood they keep nice and toasty.

As for keeping the water out, I haven’t done anything to stop it from getting in. I think because the snow is so cold, it doesn’t really stick or melt, but instead just gets brushed off. I also read recently that powder snow has such a low water content that it doesn’t really get things wet.

On longer runs I’m sure my feet will eventually get wet, which could cause them to get cold after longer exposure, but I will cross that bridge when I get to it.

Footing

Two weeks before moving out here I tripped myself up (literally) whilst running near my house. I hit the pavement pretty hard and fractured my arm in two places. During my first Canadian winter a couple of years back I hit some black ice whilst crossing a road, and went from being vertical to horizontal in a fraction of a second, which left me with a very impressive bruise on my hip and a back injury. Needless to say, my first few steps out here were cautious ones.

Snow hasn’t been a problem at all. It changes a surprising amount depending on a number of factors like air temperature, moisture and how compact it is. It can go from light and fluffy to crunchy and grippy. So far, snow has always been my friend. It usually has a softening affect and flattens out surfaces, so you actually have to pay less attention to where you are placing your feet. Except to look out for…

Ice. Ice is not my friend. Treacherous in any conditions, but especially lethal at around zero when it gets slippery. Luckily, I haven’t taken a fall yet, but I expect to. Ice is usually only a problem on roads and pavements, so it hasn’t been a constant fear, but you need to be really careful.

Yaktrax add coils and spikes to the bottom of your shoes

Yaktrax add coils and spikes to the bottom of your shoes

For my first month out here, I ran just wearing my trail shoes, which have a little more grip over my road shoes. As a birthday gift I was very kindly given some Yaktrax. They strap on to the bottom of your shoes and have spikes and coils which give you a surprising amount of grip. At first I just used them on trail runs, and didn’t think they were necessary on flat runs, but because of the extra traction and confidence they give I find myself using them more and more.

Breathing

It’s pretty important to breath while you run, and in most other situations too. The small amount of research I did (O.K. I didn’t actually do any research, Carly did) revealed that the human body is surprisingly good at regulating the temperature of the air that enters the lungs, and that running in the extreme cold without hurting your lungs is definitely possible.

After some experimentation, I wasn’t having any real problems drawing in the cold air, but found it more comfortable to have something to breath through to take the edge off. I already had a fleece neck warmer from my days working as a lifty and I found that lifting this up and over my mouth and nose warmed up the air nicely. If things got too stuffy, I can place it in different positions, or just take it off entirely. I find this level of tweaking works well and I haven’t yet sought an alternative solution.

Trails

Trail running in winter is great fun. It actually isn’t too different from trail running at any other time of year. One big difference is that the trails become a lot less technical due to the snow flattening out the surfaces. This makes running downhill in powder quite good fun, as the snow cushions your every step and can make for a softer landing if you take a tumble. In Whitehorse there are trails everywhere, most of them well marked, so I can be on them in a matter of minutes after leaving my apartment.

winter-trail-and-map

Running in deep snow can be pretty hard work as it increases the amount of effort required to lift your feet. The less frequently used trails, which haven’t had their snow compacted can make for really hard going.

Phones

I usually run with my phone on me as I often use it for listening to music/podcasts, mapping my route or as a call for help device. Electronics however don’t like extreme temperatures, more specifically, the batteries which power them don’t. It seems that in the extreme cold, the batteries stop functioning so you can’t use the device. My phone either complains about the operating temperature (incorrectly reporting it as too warm – perhaps people in California haven’t heard of the cold) or turns off completely. The only way of getting the phone to work again is to let it warm up, where the battery then reports it’s normal charge. My limited research tells me that this does not damage the battery, but who knows!

iPhone temperature warning cool down freezing

A curious warning message on my phone at -20 degrees Celsius!

To keep the phone warn I have been padding the pocket with insulation and keeping it close to my body, but this has given me mixed results. One idea I had for keeping the phone warm was to keep it beside a pocket warmer. I had one failed attempt to make my own, so I have bought some online and will test out the idea once it arrives.

So far

So far my experiences of running in the cold have all been good, and I have been surprised at how little it affects my running routine. I am taking things slow and am enjoying figuring this stuff out as I go along. Winter is far from over however, and it’s going to get colder before it’s through.

4 Comments

mum

about 2 years ago

I loved the photo of frozen you, Thank you for the flowers,really lovely. Love Mum xxx.

Reply

MOG

about 2 years ago

Assuming you have a Lion type battery; using it at low temperatures will probably reduce its capacity to store a charge (permanently). Suggest you keep it tucked inside your clothes and only use for emergencies.

You always surprised at how your crazy father wore sandals in winter. Perhaps you've got my feet. :-p
MOG

Reply

Jessica A. Hawes

about 2 years ago

Really enjoyed reading about your running Joe. I can't quite imagine how you have adapted to the temperature! We have had it a few degrees below freezing and that's about as much as I can cope with. The great thing is you are learning so much each day about what your body can master. It must be exciting. love, Grandma'

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Gemma

about 2 years ago

Really interesting! I haven't been out running here in Fort St John, but this will be good if I ever get hit by the desire ;) So bizarre how your Iphone thinks it's too warm, reminded me of the time we were above the Arctic Circle in late June and our GPS got super confused. The photo of your with frosty eyelashes is awesome!

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