The Art and Science of Fitness | A guide to running in the cold
Most people dread running in the cold. And when they do, they overdress and take shallow, rapid breaths. Here, I take you through the basics to help your run safely during the winter season
As much as the snow is associated with festivities and makes for amazing postcard photographs, the cold has always been associated with darkness and gloom. To then force yourself to feel excited, you get out of bed and perhaps go out for a run. And you notice your posture changing too. You shrug your shoulders, slouch and shiver.
However, if you step back and think about the situation in the third person, it will all make sense. And you’ll also know how to go about it.
A few days ago, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was asked how he manages to walk only in a half-sleeved t-shirt in the winter. People wondered, does he not feel cold? When talking to a journalist, Gandhi asked, “Why are you wearing a jacket?” The journalist responded, “because I am feeling cold.” His response was interesting. “No, it’s because you are afraid of the cold.”
It reminded me of the poem, The Cold Within, written in the 1960s by American poet James Patrick Kinney. I highly recommend you read it. Whether it be the soul or the physical body, how we respond from within is what affects us in the environment we are in. We always have a choice.
When on both social media and mainstream media we are bombarded with news about the extreme cold, we begin to shiver just at the thought of extreme temperatures. I am not saying that the weather doesn’t cause this. Of course, it does. But the fear is worse than the adversary. This includes pain.
When you feel cold, or you shiver because you are afraid of the cold, you curl up, slouch, shrug your shoulders, and get into the fetal position — instinctively a protective position as a response to pain or fear. We start to take shallow and fast breaths. You do so to maintain your internal temperature to the level that you think is comfortable and safe. That might work in the short term, but if you plan on going running, this is counterproductive. This response leads to a massive temperature difference between the inside of your body and the environment outside. The more the temperature difference, the colder you’ll feel.
The other mistake people make is that they have the heater on at maximum, whether it be in their cars or at home, and suddenly step out to run. They do this while wearing thick jackets. This is a recipe for disaster. You’ll notice that no matter how hard you try, you aren’t able to perform at the level you were used to in the summers or during pleasant temperatures.
So what do we do?
1. Breathing indoors: The first thing you need to do is sit tall and take long, deep breaths, taking in that cold air, feeling it passing through your nose, windpipe and then into the lungs. Take 4-6 seconds to do that. Then hold it for a couple of seconds. And then again, after 4-6 seconds, slowly exhale. For the first few times, you will feel cold, but when you do it for a minute or two, you’ll notice that your shrugged shoulders are starting to relax and your posture is becoming more natural. Your muscles, from being cramped up, will loosen. What you’ve done is reduced the temperature difference between the inside and outside.
2. Breathing outdoors: You need to do the same when you step out and are about to begin your run. Your deep breathing will not only make you feel comfortable as far as the temperature goes, but will also help calm the muscles. That will help your limbs to start moving more freely, and your strides soon becoming what they usually are.
3. Smile: We all tend to grimace at the thought of cold. That tenses up our facial muscles, and other muscles in the body. Smile, let it be artificial, to begin with. But when others smile back at you, you will start to smile from within. This will help you breathe well and move naturally.
4. Cream and layers: People make the mistake of wearing thick warm clothes during the run. If you are overdressed, you’ll sweat, and in cold conditions, sweat is your biggest enemy. When you are cold from within, it becomes extremely difficult to manage it. First, apply petroleum jelly, lotion or any other cream all over the body — arm, legs, chest, back, and also face. This will work as the base layer and will make you feel warm. While running in winter, it is important not to wear loose clothes, no matter how thick they are. You need to be wearing multiple layers, and all layers needn't be woollen.
5. Cap and gloves: Always cover your head as we tend to lose a lot of heat from there. Our extremities — our hands and toes — tend to feel colder than the rest of the body, and then we compensate by shivering all over. It is because we want to keep the core temperature high, we rush blood from all the body parts to do so. Wear gloves, thin ones that usually do the job in the plains, and wear warmer socks than usual.
6. Warm-up: Start with spot hopping and jogging indoors, and do the same when you step out to run. Do this for 2-3 minutes before you starrt. In any case, in winter, don’t attempt to start running at the same pace that you are used to. For the first few minutes, just get used to the conditions. This is a far better trick to increase the body temperature, rather than shallow rapid breaths.
7. Keep moving: The biggest mistake people make while running in the cold is that they stop and take a break. That makes you sweat. Whether you are tired or stop at a water station, please keep moving. You don’t want your body temperature to suddenly fall. That will lead to sweating, and then you won't be able to recover from it and will shiver to the finish. Besides poor performance, you might fall sick too.
8. Change wet clothes: If you do end up sweating or your clothes become wet because of rain or misty conditions, please change your clothes, including the underwear and socks as soon as the run is over. Just a change of clothes helps raise your body temperature to a comfortable level.
At all times, remember, the fear of something is worse than the adversity. Do these basics and you are good to go, no matter how inhospitable the conditions are.
Keep miling and smiling.
Dr Rajat Chauhan is the author of MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days
He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.
The views expressed are personal
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