For many Chicago runners, a few weeks of chilling temperatures, biting winds, and lake-effect snow can make the treadmill look mighty appealing. But for others, the winter weather is a challenge that invites an answer. These are the folks who take on the F^3 Lake Half Marathon—a race on January 25 that covers 13.1 miles along the frigid lakeshore. Top performers win medals that double as bottle openers, but of course, every participant receives the right to brag about showing up during the coldest month of the year.
A USATF-certified track coach and the training director for the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA), Megan Sullivan is currently leading 150 runners through the training program for the half marathon. We spoke to her about staying safe while jogging through the sleet this season, and she gave us her five rules of thumb.
Do a dynamic warm-up.
“I personally take about 10 minutes to warm up before every run, but especially in the winter,” Megan says. She and CARA work with physical therapists from NovaCare Rehabilitation to devise an ideal warm-up for wintertime runners: a series of stretches that she calls a “dynamic warm-up.” Instead of static stretches, which require an athlete to hold a single position for a set period of time, the group performs active movements that keep their blood flowing continuously.
One example is the Tin Man, where runners kick each foot up to meet their hand as they walk. It achieves the same stretch as simply bending down and touching the toes, but does double-duty by warming up the leg muscles. Check out this Runner’s World article for more useful exercises.
Don’t pile on too many layers.
“A lot of the running stores that we work with say you should dress for a temperature that’s 20 degrees warmer than it actually is,” Megan says. “People make the mistake of wearing bulky stuff to stay warm...but really, the key is to wear a few light layers.” For the upper body, she suggests a wicking turtleneck with a long-sleeve running shirt over it, followed by a windbreaker. Too much more than that, and you’re liable to get uncomfortably hot.
Get gloves, but not cotton ones.
A good pair of gloves is worth the money. “There’s nothing more miserable than your hands getting cold,” Megan says. “That just makes your whole body cold.” She suggests dropping $30–$40 on gloves with lining.
When the weather gets particularly blustery, you can pair those with a warm hat and a face guard—but make sure they’re all made of the right material. “Cotton is definitely bad because the sweat just hangs there and makes you even more cold. Most stores now have wicking material and lightweight stuff that doesn’t hold your sweat in.”
Know how cold is too cold.
“We cancel all of our training runs for anything under 0°—wind chill or temperature,” Megan says. “If [you do go out], I’d say to keep it easy and short. Try not to do any hard runs under 10° or 15°. It’s not going to be good.”
The reasons for this are many: runners can slip on the ice, muscles pull more easily in cold temperatures, and the icy air can strain your lungs, making it difficult or painful to breathe. Megan recommends doing your fast workouts indoors on the treadmill, and saving long, easy runs for the chilly outdoors.
Find motivation in a group.
Megan knows how tempting it is to stay bundled up next to the radiator—she, too, struggles not to skip runs in the winter. But she claims the idea of running in the cold is much worse than the reality. “Once you get moving, it’s not as bad as you think in your head. Push yourself out there and try it a few times before you just go right to the treadmill.”
She also has faith in the galvanizing power of a group mentality, and leads group runs to prove it. “It’s just so much better, when those mornings are really dreary, to have a group of people to motivate you,” she says. Even if you don’t participate in group runs, you can hold yourself accountable by scheduling runs with a friend a few days in advance. That way, the cozy comforter will have to contend with your running partner for your companionship.