Getting Old School on Winter

By John Halvorsen, Former Race Director, Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend

My first career in Ottawa was as a professional elite runner, which meant training all year round in tough winters like the one we’re having now. I thought I would share some of the things that I learned over years of twice-daily runs and logging 150+ kms a week in weather as cold as -30 (not including windchill). While some of these tips might seem a bit “old school” they worked for me and helped me achieve some great successes over the years. Taking a day off was not an option!

Cold Weather Gear

Everyone hears about layers and technical clothing that wicks the moisture away. This is true, and we’re lucky to have some great modern winter running gear, but the solution to staying warm doesn’t always have to be a technical fabric. Here are some of my “old-school” cold-weather dressing tips:

  • I always wore a wind protection layer on the outside, on both top and bottom. I know many runners today favour tight-fitting clothes, especially on the lower body. But even in layers this is not as warm as a loose fitting wind suit covering the body.
  • If you want to wear tights, consider wind-proof briefs (especially you guys!). Strategically placed sections of plastic bags held in place under the tights by safety pins also work. This may sound extreme, but you’ll be happy for the protection on windy day. I also used this method on my backside on days where there was a lot of slush around. With salt in it this water can be well below zero and hence dangerous.
  • I would keep old socks and cut off the toe section, and then use the leftover ‘tube’ underneath my wind protection to add an additional protective layer on more exposed joints (knees, wrist, ankles).
  • Today, you can protect the neck with a buff. An old-school method that I liked was to take an old turtle neck and cut away most of the shirt part, keeping the neck section.
  • When below -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) I always wore a thin balaclava covering my face (mouth and nose if needed). This served to keep my skin from freezing as well as heated the air I was breathing in – see safety below. Today this can also be accomplished with a buff. Protect any area not covered with a protective cream (e.g. Vaseline).
  • It’s important to wear a hat, not just a headband (ladies and men) as most of your body heat is lost through your head.
  • Finally, wear eye protection such as sun glasses to provide a small wind barrier for the eye region as well as UV protection in the bright sun & snow. At night wear glasses with clear lenses.

Winter Safety Tips

These tips are less “old school” than just practical ways to keep you safe when running in the cold. One of the important things to keep in mind is that if you are forced to stop for any reason (e.g. injury, sick, fall) you will get very cold very quickly. The sweat trapped in your clothes (even sweat wicking clothes) will freeze. Try it at home one time. Finish a run then stay outside and see how long it takes before you start to get a chill. Which leads to my first tip:

  • Consider running past places where you can seek shelter if needed.
  • Plan your route to be in areas where there are other people so if you fall you can get help….or run with a friend.
  • Start your run by going into the wind, which will give you a tailwind (and reduce windchill factor) on your return half.
  • Bring a phone so you can call someone to pick you up and bring just enough cash that you can take a taxi if you really need to stop a run.
  • In Nordic ski racing, races are cancelled when the temperature dips below -20 Celsius. At this temperature, a 100% effort can damage your lungs. Remember this if you have a hard workout planned on a very cold day. Switch up the workout for an easier run that won’t tax your lungs and cover your face with a balaclava or buff to heat the air up before breathing it in.

Hope this helps and enjoy the weather.