Friday, January 1, 2010

Dangers of Overdressing for a Cold Run

The forecast combined lows for the next seven days is 4F. And today is New Year's Day. Maybe I don't have any New Year's Resolutions, but that doesn't mean I am not quite determined. I just couldn't face the treadmill yet one more day. Not after yesterday's eleven miles on it.

My general rule is if it's below 28 F, I run indoors. But even though the temp was somewhere between 2 F and 11 F this morning (depending on the t.v. channel), I decided to give outdoors a spin. I am not an experienced cold-weather runner, and I don't like being cold. So, my theory was to just pile the layers on. I only had six miles, so this was something of an experiment. Maybe if I could be mostly comfortable for this run, I'd run more of what is appearing to be a long, cold winter--outdoors, and off the treadmill.

I pulled on two layers of socks, two layers on the bottom, four layers on the top and then a heavy fleece vest. I topped this off with a balaclava and two layers of gloves, one thin, one thick. I figured I should be pretty comfy. I stepped outside, trotted up a long flight of stairs and started out nice and slowly, to get a feel for what it was like to run in such cold.

Surprisingly, I felt comfortable. Warm, even. It seemed quite pleasant, and was surprised that by even a half mile I was not cold. For a moment at that point, I considered unzipping my vest... just to let a little cool in. But it was so cold intellectually, that I decided to wait, and that over-warm feeling never returned.

By the time I'd turned around, my entire back side from shoulders to mid-thigh was feeling quite chilled and my chest was also beginning to feel cold. And rather than feeling more energized, which I usually do once I turn around at that point, I was feeling sluggish, almost "out of it." I didn't immediately equate what was happening to me, but remember thinking that if I didn't perk up, the next three miles were going to be long ones. From here, I usually run a strong negative split. But, I definitely wasn't feeling it.

As I ran along, the cold became almost painful on my body, switching between stinging pain and aching pain. And I remember being surprised that I was getting colder and not warmer. I thought maybe it was because my granny pace was slowing and not getting faster. That must be why I was getting so cold. Oddly, my breathing was shallow and my vision becoming blurry. I wondered if there were smoke in the air. Then, even more oddly, I started to feel less cold as I got closer to home.

At last, I made it to my house, and gingerly made it down the stairs, feeling nauseated and confused--drunk almost. And no, I was sober and asleep by 10:30 PM last night. In the door, heading upstairs to the shower, ascending the stairs was akin to crawling in molasses. As if I were in a dream and my feet were sticking to each step. I unzipped my vest, and it was saturated. I held it puzzled, trying to recall if it snowed or rained on me while I ran. I could not for the life of me recall if it did or did not at the time, though I stood there and tried to think about it. I couldn't quite put my finger on why my fifth layer--a heavy fleece vest was so wet. Each subsequent layer was drenched, and it slowly dawned on me what had happened. It was sweat, yet I never once had the sensation of sweating. I expected all five layers to be bone dry.

I climbed into the shower... not feeling the hot water. Letting it all run out until it was cold again. And my mind was clearing. I thought I might take my temperature after the shower, and fumbled for the thermometer. Finding it, letting it register, it was 96.0F. I can only imagine what it was when I walked in the door, most likely below 95.0F.

The most important valuable lesson here is that I did not realize how cold I was. I never once realized I was sweating early on. Had this run been a few more miles, it would have been quite dangerous. So, while these temperatures can be run comfortably and safely, it is just as dangerous to overdress as it is to underdress.

I will now learn to appropriately dress for my cold runs and recognize the signs and symptoms of hypothermia.


  1. Came here from Frank C. of RunDangerously (although he needs to update your link).

    You learn about what works through experience. I can't think of a time when I've worn more than two layers. If it gets really cold, down to 0 F, I'll wear a breathable t-shirt and a shell. No more, because I'll be pretty warm after a bit. North of that, at most a long-sleeve with a t-shirt on top. In the winter, I want to be a bit chilly as I go out the door, and am generally nice and toasty by the end.

    It's crucial, though, to keep the layers on the extremities, esp. the hands (e.g., gloves and mittens), and maybe a pair of shorts over the single pair of tights, and, of course, a hat. (Some of these things can be taken off and stowed in a waistband if necessary.)

    And never head out with the wind, which'll have you heading into the wind when you least afford it.

  2. I'm glad to hear that you had a short run. Imagine if you had been out there longer.

    Even as low as 20F outside I will only wear one layer of everything except for my tops. SmartWool socks work great, it's really the only time I wear mine anymore. Heavier weight running pants (today I have on my fleece lined ones and I'm sure I'll regret it, it'll be about 25F out there.) For my tops, instead of a running bra I'll wear a racing tank with one or two long sleeve tech shirts over that. Instead of gloves I much prefer the shirts with the thumb holes. I even have a shirt with a fold-over mitten at the end of the sleeve. That's a great one as well.

    I start sweating between 1.5-2 miles so I know I can tough out the cold air until my blood starts circulating. Don't give up on the cold weather runs, they are so invigorating and fun to remember back on in the dead of summer.

  3. Runwestchester, Thanks for the post! I enjoyed reading your "talking to myself" blog entry. I learned much out there yesterday...funny how it takes a nice mistake to drive home a point. --Alex

  4. Sneakersister, Thanks for the visit! I checked out your new blog--Nice! I learned a lot out there yesterday. And will definitely try the cold weather runs again. I can't bear an entire winter indoors, and it's -4F right now. No real hopes of it warming any time soon. --Alex