In the biting cold of upstate New York, Ray O’Conor runs in snow, sleet, high winds, even subzero temperatures.
“Having fresh air in your lungs, even if it’s cold air, is better than stale indoor air,” he says.
Sometimes, he sees a shooting star or crosses paths with a deer. In the still of morning, he hears only his heartbeat and the rhythmic thump of his feet hitting the ground.
Runners and other athletes from colder climes brave the elements every day to pursue their passion, some looking for a competitive edge or preparing for spring marathons. Others just get a kick out of being the only ones exercising outside on a snowy day.
“It’s like having the whole town and world to yourself,” said 40-year-old Dave Taylor, president of the Traverse City Track Club in Michigan and a competitive runner for 27 years. “There’s a special quietness.”
To these road warriors, outdoor winter running is more than a sport. It’s a lifestyle defined by tumbling mercury, inclement weather and shorter daylight hours. The hardiest athletes are often tested by the frigid, stormy conditions like those seen Thursday in the Northeast — 31 below at Watertown, N.Y., minus 12 in Worcester, Mass. — and that’s without the wind.
'Use some common sense'
“Don’t be deterred to run just because it’s cold,” said Dave Watt, executive director of the American Running Association. “Just use some common sense.”
Experts say that with the right clothing and sound judgment, it’s OK to keep running outside even at 20 below. But they also tell runners to know their personal limits.
- Dressing properly is key. Wear layers but don’t overdress since your body will warm up when you run. Modern running gear is lighter and designed not to trap heat and moisture. To prevent frostbite, runners should protect extremities, and wear layers of wicking material like Lycra or microfiber. Avoid cotton, which tends to stay wet when you sweat.
- Don’t wear a light-colored outfit that will blend into a snow bank. Reflective gear and blinking lights make it easier to be seen. Always run facing traffic and against the wind.
- Start slow and work up to speed, making sure your footing is solid and take shorter strides. Several shoe makers have ridged or studded running shoes or attachments to improve traction.
- Warm up and stretch before and after each run. Run with a buddy or carry a cell phone when running alone.
- If you’re running for a couple of hours, remember to wear sunscreen and stay hydrated. Experts recommend carrying a bottle of water upside down to keep the spout moist and prevent the water from freezing or wearing a water pack so that your body heat keeps it from turning into ice.
An opportunity to cross-train
When conditions are too windy or slippery, turn to other sports such as skiing or snowshoeing — all of which build other muscles. Or move indoors and lift weights, use an elliptical trainer, stationary bike, rowing machine or treadmill.
“Winter is a good time to cross-train and build up strength in other parts of your body,” said Bill Roberts, president-elect of the American College of Sports Medicine and an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota.
One of the biggest obstacles in the winter for Alissa Schneider, a 40-year-old runner from Shakopee, Minn., is finding a safe route. A runner for nearly 25 years, she usually runs on cross-country ski trails before the first snowfall — then she defers to the skiers.
As for O’Conor, he supplements his running by snowshoeing with members of his running club, the Saratoga Stryders, every Saturday morning. He alternates running with cycling and weight training indoors.
During Thursday’s frigid blast, the 48-year-old banker was on his in-door stationary bicycle.
He used his treadmill only once last year — during an ice storm that socked this tourist region 180 miles north of New York City.
His one concession: He logs about 30 miles a week in the winter compared to 40 in warmer seasons.
“I feel that staying active during the winter helps me from suffering from cabin fever,” he says.