Menu

Fitness

Exercising through the 'polar vortex'? Best ways to avoid frostbite and frozen water bottles on a winter run

  • winterrunnerRavve.jpg

    Ruthe Ravve

  • runningclubsized.jpg

    Ruth Ravve

An arctic blast hit the country this week, causing temperatures to plummet nationwide.  

At one point, in some areas of the Midwest, thermometers plummeted to negative 42 degrees with wind chill, causing doctors to warn that a person’s face could become frostbitten within five minutes.

But that didn't scare 42-year-old Josh Spagolli, a runner from Cleveland, Ohio, who layered on his winter gear and hit the streets for a 10-mile trek. It’s what he does nearly every morning, no matter the weather.

"Running outside helps me think, and plan my day," Spagolli said.  "I don't care if it’s raining or snowing, I'll still do it. I can't imagine not running."

His sentiment is echoed by many endurance athletes who persevere on running paths, jogging over and through the frosty white snow.

Evanston Illinois Running Club members Bill Hague, David Miller and Patrick McHugh didn't let the bitter blast stop them from pounding the pavement before the sun came up.

Hague said he prepared by wearing, "three layers from the waist down and three layers above.”

Why do they do it?  For many outdoor athletes, it’s simply the endorphin-pumping joy of moving fast and being in the elements. But for others, it's ego that keeps them going.

“They take pride in the fact that they will run in conditions most others would not,” said Brendan Cournane, a running coach who trains people to compete in races all year round, in all types of weather.

"Some of these runners are streakers," Cournane added.

No, that doesn't mean they run naked.  

"They take pride in the fact that they have a 'streak' of consecutive days of running, which can extend for years," he said.

‘Streakers’ will hit the streets for a run even when the temperature is as low as negative 42 degrees – or as high as 95.

Jenny Hadfield, founder of CoachJenny.com, calls the hard-core winter runners "the type A's" who do it for "bragging rights".  But she agrees that being outside in the cool air is also exhilarating.

"It’s exciting, fresh, and one of the most tranquil times to run because the world is desolate,” Hadfield said.  
 
Surge of adrenalin aside, running outdoors in the winter comes with challenges, especially as the temperatures plummet. There's snow, ice, wind and fewer hours of daylight.

"You can slip and fall…especially in stormy weather when visibility is low," Hadfield said. "Muscle strains happen from running on cold muscles and tension from running on slippery terrain.”

Winter runners can try to combat the weather by dressing in several layers, with running gloves and hats. They can also seek out bendable metal devices, called Yaktrax, that fit on the bottom of running shoes to clamp onto ice and prevent slipping.  When running in the morning or evening, without sunlight, Hadfield and Cournane also suggest wearing small lights that clip onto arm bands or hats.  

Water carried in bottles can freeze, so they suggest starting out with warm water in the bottle, which will quickly become cool outside.  

When it’s really frigid, Hadfield suggests runners take special measures to protect their skin, too.  

"Protect your skin by lathering on vaseline or olive oil,” Hadfield said. “Always cover your extremities.”

Many agree running in the cold takes some getting used to, but eventually its feels natural.

Both Cournane and Hadfield know a little something about running in extreme conditions. They've each completed marathons in the ultimate frozen zone: Antarctica. 

Cournane admits if you’re going to do a race like that one, running in the deeply frigid temperatures of places like Chicago is actually good preparation.