There's No Bad Weather, Only Bad Gear
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. While it is important to have gear that keeps you cool and protects you from sunburn in the summer, good cold weather gear is even more critical. Even in places that normally experience relatively mild winters there are days that are brutal. And if we don’t have the right gear we have a couple of stark options. We can either: a) skip the workout, b) do the workout inside on a treadmill or bike trainer, or c) do the workout as planned and suffer through it. Needless to say these are all bad options, and really only the indoor workout is an option.
Different weather conditions require different gear. When it’s simply cold outside the biggest priority is trapping body heat, but not so much that we get overheated. Being able to adjust how much heat we’re losing on the fly is the important part, which is why several thin layers are a good idea. This is normally best achieved by having multiple layers of shirts, a hat that can be rolled up a bit, or sleeves that can be pushed up or ditched. If you know you’re going to be shedding layers and won’t be staying at the same location (e.g. a track workout), then shorts with pockets for shed hats and gloves are a plus. A pack is extremely handy if you are going to be out long enough that you’ll be shedding multiple layers of shirts, but it probably isn’t needed for most of us.
If it’s a day when it’s cold and the sky opens up or the trails are super sloppy, then staying dry can be a bigger concern that simply trying to trap heat. If we’re getting wet, multiple layers may not be enough to maintain a comfortable core and extremities. The extra layers may even just trap more cold water and become a heat sink, cooling us down even further. So gear that is going to keep us dry(er) is key. A windbreaker or shell can help prevent our core from getting too drenched, wicking socks can help get cold water from puddles and slush away from our feet, and water resistant shoes can help prevent it from getting to our feet in the first place.
The days with high wind chill factors can be brutal. Especially if we’re on a bike, amplifying the wind chill effect because we’re moving faster. You can be working really hard, sweating up a storm, and then as soon as you turn a corner and get knocked over backwards by a strong wind all of that sweat feels like it freezes. In this situation, there are two things we need to be monitoring: how much sweat we’re producing, and how much the wind is going to be getting to those sweat soaked areas/fabrics. If we’re a heavy sweater, there’s not much we can do about that. But what we can do is make sure we’re not exposing ourselves to the wind as much. A shell, windbreaker, and even a pair of track pants can make all the difference in the world. We don’t necessarily have to bundle up like we’re hiking Mount Everest, but as long as we have that barrier between our body and the wind we’ll probably be comfortable.
Icy or slushy conditions present their own dangers. This is where good footwear really comes into play. You need to make sure you have something on that will help provide some traction on those sections of sidewalk, road, or trail that are covered. We can either wear shoes that have some gnarly tread and soft rubber, or we can invest in a set of moose tracks or put sheet metal screws through the bottoms of an old pair of shoes. These shoe modifications come in a wide variety of styles, from cleats to springs to rubber knobblies. Be aware though, these adjustments to the outside of your shoe will probably change your mechanics a bit as you are changing how your foot interacts with the ground. Also, if you are wearing moose tracks (or any other over-the-shoe type traction device) that it can result in slippery conditions when you get off the ice and onto concrete where the harder bits can’t bite into the ground.
Not all “good” gear is expensive. Sometimes the good gear is really just multiple light layers that can trap some air in them and be shed one at a time if you start getting too warm. I personally really like my Mechanix brand gloves for the majority of my winter running. They are enough to keep the hands warm, stout enough to stop the wind cutting through them (though they still breath), are soft enough to not chap my nose and upper lip, and only cost me about $15. A good lightweight hat is also a must. It needs to be enough to cover the ears and head where most of our heat escapes but not so stout that it gets heavy with sweat and you end up wearing a helmet made out of ice.
The next most important pieces of gear are a windbreaker or shell and a pair of tights. Having something to keep the warm air in the light layers we wear is key if you live somewhere windy. Not only does it mean you don’t have to wear as many light layers, but it’s a lot easier to adjust your cooling by unzipping one layer than having to doff and don layers as you go through your run. As for tights, I’ve had a lot of guys over the years look at me like I’m crazy. But my running tights have been one of the best running purchases I’ve ever made. I may only wear them when it’s below 40 degrees, but they make all the difference in the world.
Shoes can also be important if you are running on compromised surfaces. Trails that get muddy when wet can be tricky to navigate without decent traction on your shoes. The same thing goes for sidewalks and roads that get covered in snow, slush, and ice in the winter. I’ve had a few runners over the years that were put out of commission for a week or two because they tweaked something catching their balance when they slipped. If you live somewhere that is cold and wet during the winter, it may be important to have waterproof (or at least water resistant) shoes or you’ll potentially run the risk of cold based injuries on those long runs. This can be mitigated with good socks (i.e. wicking socks like wool), but preventing the freezing cold water from getting to your feet is a good thing to do as well.
Another type of gear that we may need to think about when there’s extreme weather conditions is lights and reflectors. It’s pretty common to be out before dawn during the warmer parts of the year, which means we’re hard to see. It’s also pretty common to be running or cycling in the dark during the winter simply because the days are shorter. Either way, we’re at a higher risk of getting hit by a car. Take it from me, getting run over normally results in having a bad day. So if you’re going to be out during the dark parts of the day, be sure you can be seen. Lights, reflectors, and smart choice of route are all things that can keep you safe. And none of those cost an arm and a leg.
Assuming safety is our highest priority (which it should be), not having the proper gear should result in having to change your plans. The gear we need will depend not just on the weather but the workout. Harder track sessions will require different gear than a long run where we need to retain more of the heat we’re generating or a bike workout where the wind is a bigger factor. It’s not a big deal if you just have to push a workout a day and do something else on the bad weather day. But prolonged extreme weather conditions (i.e. winter or summer) would force us to simply not train if we don’t have the right gear. Having the proper gear can make all the difference in the world between being safe and not getting your workout in.