Run the Cold

November 14, 2018


A well documented aspect of sports training is "weather-denial" in which athletes will wear their shorts right up until the third snow of the season simply from the habit established during the summer.  For some athletes the symptoms are as light as not wearing gloves until they lose a finger to frostbite and for others it is as bad as not giving up on the swim at the local lake getting in the way of the kids hockey game.  The amneisa is seasonal and sometimes reminders are the only way to get athletes, especially triathletes, to transition how they train.  I'll mention a few things about clothing but that's really for another story.  Let's go to the bullets:

  • Even more important now then before is having that gym bag ready or having your gear laid out so you're ready to go without having to think.  The hardest part of a winter workout is the first 10 minutes indoors.  Once you're out and about you'll do it.  If you haven't made it out there it's a 50/50 proposition.  Sleep walking through your prep works.  Waking up at mile 1 of a run is the way to go.

  • I said I wouldn't mention clothing (see later in article) but this one is the best way to assure you get out there: OVERDRESS.  If wearing your Everest Assault Sub Zero Heavy Coat gets you to the pool (or run) wear it.  Wear it during your run.  Yes, you'll hate that you're melting into your shoes at mile 2 but that's a concern for the next run.

  • Those first few runs/rides don't worry about power delivery, speed, HR, or pace.  Riding and running through winter is one of those special things set aside for very special people.  But an allowance has to be made for the effect cold air has on your aerobic system.   An adaptation period of up to a month can be expected.  Muscles take longer to warm up, lung mucus and delicate membranes take longer to adjust (especially with age),   Don't be discouraged.  We were made for the cold.

  • Hydration is as critical now as ever.  Runners love winter training.  They're naturally cooled and by mile 2 they feel like they're in the tropics while everyone else is wearing 10 layers.  But your body is actually working double time: it has to generate energy for the run and to keep your body warm.  You'll be dressed just right , but because you're expending so much energy you'll need to hydrate as much as during the summer though you'll feel less like it.  And, yes, you're sweating like a 300 pound hog in Hawaii, it's that your layers are wicking it away quicker into the cold air.  When I train marathoners through the winter for the Boston Marathon I weigh them before and after a 12 mile run.  The loss in weight will inform us about their hydration requirements.  You may want to try it and then chat with a coach about what it means.

  • Perhaps the most challenging thing about training in cold weather is how small things get magnified: bike flats become epic, a twisted ankle becomes life and death, getting lost more so.  Any of these under the shade of a nice tree in summer means all you have to do is wait for a teammate to answer the call.  In the cold weather its a different story and we all forget every year.  Addressing this is simple: PLAN every route making sure there are safe stops at intervals (Starbucks, Dunkin) and that you KNOW the route well.  Exploring in cold weather is best left to google maps and a hot cup of cocoa.  To really wuss it up: don't go that extra miles(s) even when you feel good.  Call it a day and get home.  And most important of all make sure someone knows what you're doing and what your route is.  If you get a flat walk yourself to a warm place.  Bring the bike into the Starbucks.

  • Shorten the intervals between fueling.  That easy 5 miler in cold weather now means you should probably take a sip of something at about mile 2.  Miles 3 through 5 are not a given and you're fueling your body's ability to heat itself never mind a run.

  • Yes, your bod is loving life at mile 2 of a run as you're sweating and everyone else is shivering.  Open and close layers as you need to but make sure not to remove layers unless the temperature is going up accordingly.  Once you take off that top layer and wrap it oh so sexily around your waist mother nature is going to turn it into a freeze pop.  That's for starters.  What's keeping you warm is not the fabric but the layer of air between layers.  Once you take off a layer boom there goes all that warmth and you're going to feel it.  Zip, unzip but think twice about taking it all off.

  • By now you've learned that you don't actually lose 90% of your body heat through your head.  That's an old runner's myth.  What's not a myth is that your brain is in your head and sudden cool downs and heat ups can give you vertigo or some other wacky thing neurologists enjoy doing to athletes at labs.  Take the cap off and wipe your forehead then put it back on.

  • Face masks. Yeah, if you're wearing face mask then either you're on a bike or an epic run.  Removing a face mask means your boogers are now a real mess or you're done with the workout.  On a bike it stays on.  On a run it comes off because the EMT needs to give you CPR.  Keep this stuff on guys.  The exception of course is when you need to take a sip of something.and only for a second.

  • Gloves are the number 1 thing runners forget.  But they never forget again.  Running mittens and cycle lobster gloves are how you keep warm.  Everything else is just for looks.  Get into the habit of gloves early: tuck them into your helmet or running shoes.  NOTE:  A VERY DISGUSTING NOTE - running gloves are for blowing your nose and as toilet paper in emergencies.

  • After pool swims make sure to dry and wrap that head up in something uber warm.  Head colds are the #1 cause of training plans going awry.




We have reached the point where the polyester weave has enabled tight's manufacturers to weave see-thru panels into winter running tights.  The functionality is that women enjoy wearing their workout gear more than ever but has no advantage when it's 2 below zero and you have to get that 12 miler in.  And that is one of the themes apparent in 2018 and the major changes in what we wear and how we wear it: some is for looks and some improve how we feel in a cold workout. But first let's go to the bullets and the basics:

  • Exposed skin at or near freezing temperatures will get damaged.  While indeed we were designed for the cold, or rather evolved for the cold, our skin continuously runs the risk of being damaged to exposure.  It has more to do with the rate of air flow across the skin, temperature, and duration which is why everyone riding a bike in February looks like Batman.

  • Your sweat has to get to the air and away from your skin. 

  • Even in 2018 we have not reached the point where a single layer can do the job in sub-freezing weather.  Layers is still the rule.

  • 100% cotton is evil.  It is He Who Shall Not Be Named, The Lord of the Rings, The Empire, Thanos, 

  • All materials eventually fail.  Mother Nature wins in the end.

  • Never use fabric softener with your tech-wear.  Never.

  • You reek.  Yes, after your long winter workout you stink.  Think week old diaper microwaved with vomit.  Just an FYI when you think you look so cool and decide to wander into the Starbucks after a 10 mile run and people start passing out.  It's how your winter gear works but more about that later.  You can't smell yourself else you'd have stopped at mile 8.

  • Astronauts have ventilated heat flow through their suits which is why they get away with wearing fingered gloves.  You on the other hand should wear mittens to help your fingers keep each other warm.

  • The rule: the layer next to your skin should be the lightest and most high tech to get sweat off your body.  It's all about getting the water from your sweat into the air.  The other stuff in your sweat?  That stays on your clothing and the smell could kill a small animal.  Your second layer is to continue wicking the sweat into the air and to create a layer of air (that is what is actually keeping you warm. Kind of like when you pee in your wetsuit and everything feels warm and funny. But you smell better.)  The third layer is most likely your bike or running jacket.  This layer is shielding off the cold wind, creating another layer of warmth, and wicking the sweat out into the air.  Much more about this later.

  • Your tender bits and your legs.  Both men and women have sensitive tissue down there and the two layers you're usually wearing have to keep cold air away - never mind the wicking.  Some athletes decide to wear one layer tight against the skin and another loose layer over it: the famous running tights with shorts over them.  A word about running skirts would be appropriate here.  Unless you're wearing a skort with built in running panties you'll be doing the hooch some damage.  Remember the intent is to reduce cold air flow to your lady parts.  Gents and ladies, cycle pants are meant to be worn without under wear so that you can wick sweat out quickest.  But all bets are off if the temp goes below 20 F.

  • Sports Bras - Your summer bra will do fine but it does not count as a layer!  The bra is support not a layer.

  • Socks - of all the things which have evolved the least it is a good pair of thick wicking socking made from polyester.  Just don't get them wet.

  • Head gear: ditto.  A wool cap, a good polyester tech weave, even something sporting a Red Sox logo.  Make sure it covers the ears.

That's a lot of basics.

The biggest advances in tech wear in 2018 has been clothing.  Now that many people commute to work by bike or live in areas where the humidity is at 98% daily or are too lazy to change into running gear to get that lunch time 3 miler in most of the evolution has been in business shirts and suits.  The weaves and materials tested and evolved for triathlon are now in $165 button down shirts.  Ministry of Supply even has pro runners running marathons in two piece suits and ties.  So how does this help you? You may be able to get that 10 mile brick in and get to the job interview in record time.

Alas, in 2018 if you google "best workout tech", "running materials", "best gear", you will most likely wind up with lists of things to wear on your wrist.  Materials science in sports is either the domain of the really really nerdy or esoteric and meant for clothing sales executives.  It's a shame.  Back in the day each brand would brag about its materials, processing, and treatment: Climate Fit by adidas, Dry-Fit by Nike, and a whole assortment of names for what is woven polyester.  Today you'd be hard pressed to find what your favorite gear is made of aside from a marketing name on a tag.  And that is a good thing and bad.  The good is that tech-wear has become quite advanced and low cost, the lack of marketing proves it.  You can purchase very low cost workout gear from Target and Old Navy that ten years ago would have cost hundreds.  We've also learned how to process, treat, and weave materials we once thought unusable such as cotton.

  • Cotton is the new Cotton - cotton woven and treated with anti-absorbent chemicals can work as well as polyester woven materials.  The cost can be either very low meaning it is treated for temporary effect or very high cost meaning the weave of the fabric is what is allowing sweat wicking.  But the benefit of cotton, its softness, is there in both.  Great for 3 to 5 mile runs but still not good enough for longer workouts.

  • Wool-polyester hybrids which have been in development for some years are as good as any fabric today.  Most wool only gear can be the best mid or top layer as anything else.  Unfortunately only small boutique workout companies have been developing these materials.

  • Chemically treated polyester - you're wearing it right now most likely.  Soft as cotton, great at wicking, abut has a limited life.  Over time continuous use and wash will degrade the materials.  The good news is  the materials are cheaper than ever.

  • Classic polyester based workout gear is as good from Target as Marathon Sports.  It really is all about style now.  That is what you're paying for.

  • In the late 90s Nike tried to create materials and weaves that replicate the warmth pocket created by two layers in a single layered fabric.  This has progressed today to bike gear for winter riding in which different types of materials are used to provide wind shielding, wicking, and warmth containment.  New Balance has created a waffle weave that also replicates the warmth pockets.  The cost is yet prohibitive in some cases for many (Nike has a $300 light waffle weave running top) and several cycle gear manufacturers have their top of the line gear built this way.  As has been the case others will find less expensive approaches to replicate these materials and weaves.

  • Tech is no longer the driver.  Style is.  Be it wetsuits or running shoes most companies cannot compete on technology alone.  People have won the Boston Marathon in Skechers.  Wetsuit manufacturers who once drove on how thick or thin or the placement of neoprene layers in special areas now really have to focus on comfort and looks.  For cycling and running manufacturers it is all style.

No, materials sciences haven't run out of magic tricks or gimricky but we have reached the point where athletes are benefitting from the advances of the last 30 years and improving materials doesn't help the bottom line.  For you its all good.  Small companies can make some very cool things with the latest tech.  You can enjoy a very personal journey looking the way you want to look.

But what are the next advances?  In our next issue we'll look at clothing that can actively cool you down, gear that can sense muscle injury, monitor your heart rate and body temperature - not gear but clothing.  Bike gear that can sense an impending crash and blow up like a safety bag.  The next stage in clothing development will have much more to do with health.  But don't worry.  Looks are everything.

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November 14, 2018

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