By Christopher Cudworth
Those of us who run and ride tend to spend quite a bit of money and effort trying to keep warm during cold weather. Fortunately, the evolution of cold weather running and cycling gear has led to fabrics that perform miracles in terms of heat retention and moisture wicking. The days of thick cotton sweats are thankfully over. All Hail Performance Wear!
Get your North Face on
To single out just one cold gear manufacturer, the entire North Face garment franchise has an underlying premise of stopping the cold from getting to your skin. Walk any urban street and you’ll see those North Face logos staring back at you from the shoulders of commuters. That’s a branding coup of course. At the same time it reminds you that cold weather is here to stay. Is North Face really on our side?
Winter lasts 120 or so days here in Illinois. That’s 120 days that will require you to organize coats, mittens and hands whenever you go out.
We must recognize that winters have not been as severe here in Chicago as in the recent past. Last winter we never got temperatures below zero. We did not have that much snow cover for much of the winter either. So the perception of winter is not so dramatic when there’s less harsh cold and deep snow.
As a runner and cyclist the past few winters have felt like something of a reprieve. Other than some occasional icy roads it has been possible to get out for regular runs and rides. I much prefer outdoor training to running on a treadmill or riding on a trainer. The Computrainer thing is legitimate in terms of maintaining fitness, but I would choose an hour on the mountain bike over an hour on the trainer any day.
We’ve also been seeing extended thaws the past few years. Instead of snow in January and February we’ve gotten rain. Yes, it’s a sloppy mess if there’s already snow on the ground. There were lakes in our yard and the streets ran like rivers sometimes. So you need waterproof shoes in those conditions.
But you compare that to -12 degree temps and 16 inches of snow in terms of getting out for a run and the warmer temps make it easier.
A cold lover
A part of me relishes runs in really cold weather. But it does make me think of an old Playboy cartoon in which a young man erotically engaged with a snow bunny looks into her eyes and say, “You may think I’m a great lover. Actually I’m just frozen stiff.”
There are tradeoffs, in other words, to outdoor activities in the cold.
My record run was in -27 degree weather. It was the early 1980s and the cold snap lasted a week setting multiple records for cold. My run lasted only 10 minutes before my eyelids started to freeze shut so I came home and warmed up with hot chocolate, two pairs of socks and a friend who was a snow bunny, if you catch my drift.
Giving voice to the cold
On another cold run at -13 a friend and I were chatting amicably when we crested a hill into the face of a brisk northerly wind. I turned to complain about how cold it was and my voice was gone. The cold air had sufficiently chilled my larynx to the point where the voice box would not work. We both lost our voices in fact, so we began gesticulating that we’d better hurry to the turn one mile ahead and get back down off the hill and out of the wind.
Cross country cold
As an avid cross country skier, there are days when it seems ridiculous to be out but it is still far better to exercise for an hour in cold weather than just sit inside and get fatter. On one long ski my friends and I started at 9 in the morning and skied 15 miles making our own tracks. The day grew bright with sunshine and the temps warmed to 30 degrees. We kept on skiing while tying layer after layer around our waists until we had no shirts on at all.
Heading home I made a mistake on a turn and went down into the bright cold snow. But this time, it felt refreshing, not cold. Instantly there grew an appreciation for all those Scandinavians with their hot saunas and cold lakes. Your body can actually develop a craving for contrasts. Heat and cold in good measure.
There are times when cold air can actually be a comfort. On a long winter run you pull open the neck zipper of your gear and let some cool air reach your core. It is enervating.
But having good gear in all circumstances is a blessing. Many were the day that we ran with gloves stuffed down our crotch because the cotton sweats and shorts were not keeping the cold away from the crank. Not good. Frostbite down there would not be fun.
Recently I’ve needed to strike a balance between being comfortably warm and keeping cool enough that I do not sweat too much. The Picc line in my arm is sealed with a clear bandage designed to keep moisture and possible infections out.
So the trick is running in very little gear so that I get exercise without sweating sufficiently to undermine the whole Picc setup. It’s only 2 more weeks, with luck. But I’m learning the meaning of cold comfort. Sometimes cold can be your friend.
Learning how to chill
The trick is in knowing how to dress down in layers and still be safe. It is not wise to take risks on the bike in cold weather. If you get wet with a sudden winter rainstorm and have to ride 20 miles back into a biting wind, hypothermia can kick in pretty quickly. In those circumstances it is fine to be a Hard Man and gut it through if you know you can make it. But there is no shame in finding shelter and making a call home to request a rescue.
Running can be risky too. When you get sweated up running with the wind you must be prepared to turn around and manage your gear so that you don’t get too cold running back against the wind.
Many of your better judgments must come from experience, but there are smart ways to get it, and use it. That is, you are better off going out to do two 3-mile loops on a really cold day than one 6-mile loop. That way if you run into troubles after the first half you can either add layers or take them away. Same goes for cycling. Don’t put yourself so far “out there” on winter rides that you cannot get to safe haven quickly if the weather changes.
Making friends with the cold is a question of working with what it will give you. A good run or ride in the cold is a great way to celebrate a winter day. Just be sure you understand your Cold Comfort factors before heading into unknown territory. Cause baby, it’s cold outside. Maybe not like it used to be, but still enough to freeze your sorry but if you don’t take Cold Comfort into account.