Canadian Winters (and the Dubious Joys of Running in Them)

Running in cold weather sucks.

I love my country, but with regard to my tolerance for the cold, the place of my birth sometimes seems like a bit of an unhappy accident. Let me be blunt: I hate the snow, I hate the freezing temperatures, I am not a winter sports person, and every day that goes by in the less salubrious months of the calendar here I pray for an end to the frigid horrors (which, I would surmise, makes me not unlike the vast majority of Canadians, if we’re being perfectly honest).

Now, the problem: I had just committed to myself that I was going to run the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon in May, and thus the training, or at least part of it, was going to have to take place in the winter. I therefore had to steel myself for the eventuality of heading out in, shall we say, rather less than perfect conditions.

This, it soon transpired, created a few logistical problems. As a rather extreme and unfortunate example, I had never heard of genital nip before I started seriously running. It is not a comfortable experience. Apparently there are shorts with a special lining designed to ward off just such a circumstance. This is one of the things no one tells you about cold weather exercise. (So, guys – be warned.) Also, it’s difficult to prepare for the effort involved in running when there is deep icy slush on the roads. The first 10 mile run I put in was not only slow, but my hamstrings hurt for days afterward from the effort of just lifting my feet out of the frozen quagmire. Trying to pick one’s way down a road that is a solid sheet of ice is no fun either. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have any serious falls, but I certainly slipped a few times, and again, extra effort is required staying upright that saps one’s energy and resolve.

The alternative, of course, is staying inside on the hamster wheel. This is what I tended to do when the weather got really cold, or the roads were slippery enough that I just didn’t want to bother with them. The running community on the internet has lots of things to say about treadmill running, and just like most things there doesn’t seem to be any consensus about it. The most damning criticism leveled at the treadmill seems to be “it’s not the same as road running.” Well, duh. In January in Canada, it’s a hell of a lot warmer, for one thing. I realize that it’s not a good idea to train for road racing entirely on a treadmill, but I would never do this, or advocate doing it. I have, however, found that mixing treadmill runs in with outdoor ones has allowed me to get mileage in and reduce the amount of wear and tear from repetitive strain, since the impact is much lessened with the cushioning a treadmill provides versus a hard asphalt surface.

I’ve had a few fellow runners who seem to feel this is anathema, and their reasons usually boil down to the following: lack of wind resistance and road surface makes treadmill running too easy (that’s why I mix it up, and I still seem to be able to go pretty fast on my road runs), you run the risk of overstriding during speed workouts and ending up with hip flexor and hamstring pain (funny that, but my hip, hamstring, and shin pain got better when I started using the treadmill), and using a treadmill all the time will screw up your ability to innately find your pace in the road (last 12 miler I did on the road I set 8:15/mile for my goal pace and wound up running within 5-10 seconds of that for every single one of my mile splits – enough said).

As for dealing with the crushing boredom of doing a two-hour run on a treadmill – well, I still haven’t figured out a strategy for that yet. Suggestions are welcome.

We runners are a crazy lot, and I’ve still found myself out there when the weather is insane. I’m not alone. Exhibit A:

That’s fellow Cambridge Harrier Mitch Free, after one of his competitions this February (photo courtesy George Aitken). All in a day’s work in the Great White North…

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