Running at -21

I captured this image after my run on January 16, 2009.

After some bad experiences last year, every morning I roll over and check the weather on my phone before going for a run.  So what do you do when you roll over and see -22 as the actual air temperature?  I see three options:

1) Roll back over and snuggle under the blanket until the absolute last minute until its time to go to work.

2) Visit your local gym, assuming you have a membership, or any indoor running facility.

3) Jump out of bed with eager excitement and begin putting on every piece of running attire you own.

I recently had this experience and while many of you from the more southern regions of our country would say I’m insane for choosing number 3 2x’s this week, I was not alone.  No I saw plenty of bicyclists commuting to work and plenty of footprints in the snow indicating both runners and people walking their dogs.

How do you survive when the air temperature is below zero? Or below freezing for that matter? Layers and more layers. Honestly, it is amazing how much of a difference the wind chill can make though.  In these cases Joe’s Temperature Guide (xls) probably won’t help too much.  In 2007, I offered 9 winter running tips, but they don’t specifically address how to dress.

So here is my attempt to reconstruct how I survived running below zero (from the ground up):

Shoes – I wear my regular trainers and I actually don’t wear Yak-trax or put screws in my shoes. Since my (and most) running shoes are made of mesh I put strips of duct tape on the mesh parts.  I suggest using smaller strips so that the shoe can still flex properly. I actually wrapped some tape all the way around my toe box (including on the sole) which actually helped me loose traction!

Socks– I recommend Smart Wool Socks they are the excellent at keeping your feet warm without adding several layers. The taller the sock the better. I was given a hard time last year because all the socks I wore didn’t come over the ankle! You can always go with a liner sock underneath a wool sock, but that might be overkill.

Pants – Our legs are an important part of the running machine.  On these extreme temperature days I make sure to wear two layers.  Between 32 and 0 I might only wear one, depending on the wind chill.  I always wear running shorts underneath my tights, so I guess it is a triple layer over the most important stuff. I wore a pair of running tights.  On top of that I wear some type of windbreaker-type pant with insulation.  This obviously helps cut down on the wind while adding a bit of warmth.  The problem is that the more you wear on your legs the harder it is for you to actually run.

Upper-Body/Chest – This area has the largest surface area and represent where you’ll feel the most pain if not dressed appropriately.  I like to start with a short-sleeve thermal underwear shirt but also have worn a nice singlet.  I think that one additional little layer isn’t hugely vital, but I want to keep the core warm.  Over top of that I wear some-type of long-sleeve technical or dry-fit shirt.  I would prefer not to have any sweat on my skin if I can help it so this shirt helps wick it away into the cotton long-sleeve shirt.  Many people will probably protest this item but it has served me well.  Yes the cotton absorbs the water and gets a little heavier but it provides a little more insulation than a second technical shirt would.  Again depending on the actual temp or wind chill I might just wear a fleece vest, but on the extreme days I wear an insulated windbreaker jacket.  I actually still have my warm-up suit from college (although I try to avoid wearing both the pants and jacket at the same time because they are both purple).  The jacket again is insulated and help stop a lot of the wind from hitting my skin.

Hands – These things are hard to regulate.  You definitely want gloves, but there are so many options.  During my latest runs I wore a pair of 40 gram Thinsulate gloves that did an excellent job of blocking the wind and keeping my hands toasty – actually a little too toasty.  I have a variety of other options but none seem to do the trick like these for the extreme temperatures.  My recommendation would be some type of glove that changes into a mitten at the top so you can regulate the temp a little better.

Head – Every one says the head is the most important part, so who am I to disagree? I like to keep my head nice and warm!  I wore a ear band.  This doesn’t do a lot but keeps the ears from getting frostbite! On top of that I wore a Silk Balaclava. Silk makes a nice base layer because it traps the heat inside and slowly releases the heat while also wicking away sweat. On top of this I wear a fleece balaclava.  Fleece is also a good wicking fabric that is very warm, although it doesn’t protect very well from the wind. I actually sweat underneath these layers and don’t usually get cold, except for in the worst wind on my exposed flesh.  You see the other day I started out wearing glasses (which are highly recommended to protect your eyes and the exposed skin that the balaclava doesn’t cover) but they fogged up really bad and then the steam froze on them.  They were completely useless at that point, so I stuffed them in a pocket.  NO HEADPHONES! I decided that I didn’t really want them freezing into my ear so I left them at home, plus who knows how the mp3 player might react to the temps.

There you have it a very long look at how to survive running in -20 temps!  I’d love to hear what you wear out  there on the cold days. You can also take a look at Blaine’s Tips for Winter Running Apparel. You can also check out this guy who bike commutes across a frozen lake at 20 below (HT The Deets).

8 thoughts on “Running at -21

  1. Noel

    I like wearing a wick-dry skullcap under my wool hat. It keeps my head warm and dry, and expands the comfortable temperature range on both ends. Instead if thick wool socks, I like thin wool liner socks under medium wool socks. It is a good way to keep feet warm and dry. Smartwool and Wigwam both work well and last longer than others I have tried.

    1. crossn81 Post author

      @Blaine Thanks. I'll try to get a picture up. I think temps are dropping down in that range again this week!

      @Noel Thanks for your additional thoughts. I'll keep them in mind!

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  3. pchieng

    Duct tape has so many uses, I have just found another. Thanks for such a great tip. It never snows over here, but on days it rains, I will definitely use this tip.

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