As the evenings begin to get shorter and days colder, fair weather runners start to think about hibernating or retreating to the gym. It’s too cold, can be wet, and, above all for some people, there’s not enough light for comfortable, enjoyable outdoor running at times which suit them.
Now, I’m one of those crazy types that actually enjoys these things. I’m happy running in the rain, starting a run on a cold, crispy day in the dark and watching the day break, and running in the dark after sunset.
I’m more than happy to concede that winter running outdoors does require a different kind of preparation to summer running and a different mindset when you are actually running too. None of it is rocket science, though. It boils down to three things: clothing, routes and technique.
Inappropriate choices of winter clothing can really be a pain. Start out wearing too much and you’ll get very warm very quickly. Bulky clothing is difficult to take off and carry. You’ll need to experiment to find out what works for you and it’ll take a few runs starting out at different temperatures for you to learn what you need to.
I’ve got an outside thermometer and a quick glance at this and a look out the window before I start a run tells me what clothing I am likely to need. I like to choose items that are easy to take off and stow in case they need to come off as I warm up because I hate being too hot as I’m running.
For me full leg cover is a must in cold conditions. There are different thicknesses of leggings and it’s worth taking a look in a good running shop at the variety on offer. I have three choices, my normal everyday leggings, a thicker pair and a really thick pair that only get used in the very coldest and most harsh of conditions.
You might also want to swap your summer running top for a long sleeved variety or put a thermal base layer underneath. Take the latter option and you can remove either base layer or top if you find you warm up too much.
When it gets colder still the next thing I add is a pair of gloves. Mine are very old, thin gloves. I find woollen gloves too warm to wear. Most of the time, even in the coldest conditions, the gloves come off after ten minutes or so, and they are easily stuffed into a leggings pocket or even down one leg where they may look strange but don’t cause any running problems.
The next thing that gets added when the weather becomes even colder is a hat. I’ve two options here. A very thin lycra skullcap is often all I need. This is crumples up very small if I want to take it off, and will sit with the gloves in leggings pocket or stuffed down a leg. My other hat choice is a thicker beanie that’s harder to stow. When that comes off during a run I tend to carry it in one hand, so it is only used when things get very cold indeed.
Dealing with rain is relatively easy. I’ve got a waterproof Gore-Tex running jacket which is superb and protects my upper body. This can come off and be tied around my waist if the rain stops, I get too warm or I don’t mind getting wet. The interesting thing about running in the rain is that often it feels bad for the first few minutes then you get used to it and it is actually quite enjoyable to be soaked through. With that in mind, I never bother trying to keep my legs dry.
One thing I would add here is that it is not a good idea to wear a cotton top for running in the rain. They simply sponge up liquid and don’t let it go again very well. You’ll get cold and feel uncomfortable. Modern wicking materials really are best so if your summer running has been based around an old cotton top now is the time to invest in something new.
Some people are reluctant to run across parks and other open spaces in the dark worried about the lack of lighting or their own inability to easily see what’s underfoot. If that sounds like you, then you may need to work out new routes for runs you normally do. Bear in mind that concrete and pavement are the hardest, least forgiving surfaces to run on, and if you are used to running off road during the summer months your legs may notice the different surface and grumble a little.
You may also find your winter routes involve more road crossings because you aren’t taking shortcuts. Take your time at crossings and wait till traffic lights are in your favour. There’s no point in dashing out to cross roads for the sake of a few seconds faster run. Just accept that winter runs are different to summer ones.
However your clothing choices work out remember that it’s a really good idea to make sure you have some high vis elements in the mix. Just like a cyclist a winter runner needs to be visible, and not only to cars. You have to take into account pedestrians who might be surprised to encounter you running. The brighter your clothing, the better.
It is always sensible to think particularly carefully about pedestrians who are not facing you and have no chance of seeing your approach. Even in summer it is good practice to make sure you give them plenty of space, don’t hurtle past them and don’t make them jump. Think that people might have headphones on and be in their own world. It’s impolite to startle them and you can give runners a bad name in doing so. Older people can get very unnerved by runners going past especially when they approach from behind, and what you might think of as a wide berth and slowed speed they might think of as far too close and far too fast. Be ultra-considerate. While we’re on a politeness theme, it’s a good idea to thank people who move aside for you, with a smile, nod, wave or even, if you are not too breathless, a quick ‘thanks’.
It can be tricky running across road junctions even when the light is good. Cars coming out of a minor road to join a major one may miss a runner on the pavement. Your best position is to be on the outside of the pavement so as to give any car the widest angle to see you, and give you the best chance to look into the minor road.
Don’t hug the inside of the pavement where you’ll come into view of a car, and indeed see any cars, at the very last minute. Even then don’t automatically expect a car will stop for you to cross the road. I’ve been shouted at for running across a minor road by drivers even though they’ve been able to see me for ages and technically I have the right of way.
With all this fuss it might sound like winter running outdoors is just too much trouble. But don’t let any of what I’ve written put you off. If you do you’ll miss some glorious opportunities. Watching the sun come up as I run is undoubtedly a winter highlight. So is running in light winter drizzle and snow, seeing ice on the river I run beside and frost on the grass I run across. Winter mist in the park in the morning can be spectacular. Even running on a dark cold evening can reveal well known places in a new perspective.
And the reward of a warm shower and hot drink after a run is pleasant too.
Who needs the gym?