How should you dress to run in spring thaw conditions?

Here in the western prairies of Canada winter is usually a deep, frozen trio of months shouldered by an unpredictable autumn at the front end and a sloppy, scattered mess of thawing weather on the tail.

It’s Sunday, Runday, and this morning we ran a ten kilometer spring run through that some of that scattered mess of weather.

The thing is, I know how to dress for cold. And I know how to dress for summer. But this Spring thing is so unpredictable I still almost always get it wrong. So what’s my (modest) advice?

Flexible Headwear. I have this spring hat trick using a buff, one of those thin and multipurpose tubes of fabric. You can make a half-twist in the middle, invert one end over the other, and voila: you have a light touque. And then half way into the run when the touque is too hot, you can untwist it, make it into a single layer tube. Or if the wind picks up, you can pull it down around your neck. If you’re still too hot, you can scrunch or fold it up and stuff it into a pocket. And when you all stop for coffee at the end of the run, you can double it up again and pull it over your face for a makeshift pandemic facemask. The point is, it’s a flexible piece of clothing. The borderline weather of spring requires you to be ready to add, remove, add, then remove again anything and everything you’re wearing.

Waterproof Traction. Today our run wasn’t too wet, but last weekend the temperatures were a just the right temperatures that the paths were about one-third packed snow, one third overnight ice slicks, and one third ankle-deep puddles (in the sunshiny spots). This means if our feet weren’t slipping on slick patches of mirror-finished frozen puddles, we were sloshing through their thawed cousins. The thaw season is too short to buy special shoes for this, but double layer socks help, and it doesn’t hurt to keep the “winter tires” (those shoes with a little extra traction and a little less venting) out for another couple weeks until things dry up.

Light Gloves. No one ever regrets a pair of light gloves this time of year. What else is there to say? Warm hands are the best and no matter hot warmed up you get, the fingers are usually the last to benefit from increased circulation. And more importantly running with your hands in your pockets down icy trails is the quickest way to smacking your face into the still-frozen ground. You’re going to need those hands ready (and warm) to catch you when you inevitably fall.

Vents & Zippers. Long pants or shorts? Long sleeves or jacket? The temperature changed by five degrees during our one hour run this morning, and then between the sunshine and the shade it was another five degrees. Factor in body heat and that’s a lot of temperature variation. Jackets with zippers that can be unzipped and re-zipped are useful. Clothing with breathable air vents are handy. Light coats with big old armpit zipper vents are amazing and were made for mornings like today. It you can find a pair of running pants that somehow become shorts half way through your outing, you’ve struck it rich for a spring run.

Sunglasses. It can be sunny (and thus sunglass season) for much of the year, but there is something about that low spring sun poking between the tree branches that just begs for eye protection. Also, if you’re anything like me, you wear a brimmed hat in the summer which helps with the high sun, or you run mostly in the dark in winter when a headlamp is more useful. In the spring, especially at our latitude, the sun has just poked up out of the east when we’re setting out on the trails, and it takes the better part of the morning to climb out of that annoying band of the horizon where looking forward somehow also means you’re staring at the blinding glare of our nearest star. I could go without shades for ten months of the year, but spring has one of the months when I don’t run without them.

How should you dress to run in winter?

The saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad wardrobe choices.

Yet, as I prepare to post these words on this Sunday Runday it is -34 degrees Celsius on the other side of my front door and this morning I’m leaning on the fallacy of that statement: that’s actually pretty bad weather.

I do run in the cold, frequently.

When I run in the cold a few simple rules apply.

Layer. Head to toes, it’s generally seems more effective when I have multiple varied layers of clothing than fewer. Layering not only traps warm air in the spaces between the layers, which is what keeps you insulated and warm, but it provides opportunity to select different fabrics for different jobs: insulation, wicking, wind breaking. It also allows you to shed a layer as you warm up.

Tuck. As valuable as lots of layers are, I find they are even more valuable as things are tucked into other things. Sock cuffs pulled over long underwear legs. Shirt hems slipped between skin and the underwear band. Neck buff squeezed under the shirt collar. Half way into your winter run is no time to figure out that there is a freezing breeze sneaking through a gap in your clothing defence.

Head. I often apply the layering and tucking rules to the head and neck as well, but I call it out here because getting the right gear on your noggin is a specifically important point worth mentioning. Ears get frostbite very easily. The neck line and face are tough to work around with the need to breath and all that. And you can make a snug-fit inner hat by turning a buff inside out, twisting it a three-quarter turn at the 60/40 split point, then inverting the longer side over the shorter.

Traction. Often overlooked in cold weather running is proper footwear. Ice is everywhere when the weather turns cold, and deep snow can slip into the air vents of shoes quickly freezing toes and packing into the tips of toes leading to injury on long runs. Specialized shoes are a great investment if you’re a dedicated winter runner. Or, if you’re only sticking to cleared pathways a pair of pull-over traction grips like Yaktrax will last you multiple seasons and store conveniently with your winter gear or in the backseat of a vehicle.

Support. Having a support line is too often taken for granted in cold weather running. If your winter wardrobe doesn’t include easy access to a running partner, or a phone if you’re going out solo, don’t go. Someone always knows where I am on my winter runs. Things can go bad so much more quickly in the cold, and after a few kilometers of sweaty exercise, a damp runner who slips on the ice or twists their ankle in a snowbank can be in huge trouble.

Gear: Garmin Fenix 3

I’ve owned and used my current GPS watch for the better part of four years.

But before you read this know that the Fenix 3 is far from the latest model of Garmin’s multisport watch. Also know that I’m not a “latest and greatest” kind of guy, usually sticking with the “tried and true” until I absolutely need an upgrade.

Still, of the three models I’ve used, the Fenix has by far been my favourite.

It’s climbed mountains.

It’s competed triathlon.

It’s logged half and full marathons.

It’s plotted a thousand and more runs, rides, and other sports.

It’s been a couple years since, but I used to get pulled in to our local running clinics and asked to give a talk for new runners about effectively using technology while running.

Watches, apps, software, etc.

When I started this there were only a small number of sport tracking watches on the market and I could easily answer the question of “which one should I buy?” Today there are multiple brands and as many as a dozen current models per brand. That’s a tougher question.

I look for a few simple things, and would want similar features in an upgrade:

Fast start-to-running time. From when I turn on the watch outside to when I can start running needs to be quick. Pre-pandemic, when I still ran with a sizable group, there was a clear difference between the good watches and the cheap watches. Solo, this just means waiting around on your own to start. In a group, it could mean the group is waiting around on you.

Connectivity with my phone. I used to need to plug in my old watches to a dock and upload the tracking files to a computer. This was only something I could do at home. The Fenix has let me upload wirelessly via my phone, which is not only precious ability on those Sunday morning runs sharing our route over coffees, but while traveling the world has let me log hikes and walks and races long before coming home to rest.

Long battery life. The photo in this post was taken while backpacking near Lake Louise, Alberta, on a day hike circumnavigating Mount Skoki. If I recall, this took about six hours with breaks. I had used the watch in the days before on our fourteen hour ascent up the mountain and on another six-plus hour hike. A cheap watch will get you through the four or five hours of a slow marathon. A better watch will take you up an all day mountain climb.