Tips for Staying Warm When Running in Chilly South African Conditions

Tips for Staying Warm When Running in Chilly South African Conditions

Winter is no longer coming, it is here. Fortunately we don’t have to deal with white-walkers but it does present some challenges to our running training, even if they are not life and death as it was for John Snow and his friends in Game of Thrones. 

The primary focus for most South African road runners is the Comrades Marathon in June. Training for that will have started in thirty-plus temperatures and with humidity well above eighty percent in December. So it seems a bit cruel that the highest mileage period of the Comrades build-up coincides with the change of seasons into Autumn and then Winter.

There is a worn-out adage that states that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing and this is true to come extent. What that doesn’t take into account in a South African context is that our Winters are not as severe as they might be in Europe. Starting our runs at five in the morning may require long tights and a warm jacket but, by the time we finish our session, the sun is up and the temperature has climbed considerably. It is aggravating to have to carry anything while running, even more so in a harder run, so what do we do? Suffer the cold at the beginning of the run or suffer the heat or encumbrance of the additional clothing at the end?

First let’s consider what we need to focus on to stay comfortably warm on a winter run. Our main priorities are the extremities. Heads; hands and feet. After a few minutes of steady running our core temperature will have risen sufficiently that our torso will be warm. So, in most South African mornings, we can start our runs feeling a bit chilly and can allow for some warming up after we start. Some light gloves for the hands and a thin beanie, which can be pulled over the ears if we need for the head, should take care of those ends but the feet are trickier. Adding thicker socks will not work with the precise fit of our shoes unless they were purchased taking into the account the need. For most, the feet will however warm up with activity but if you are one who battles with cold feet, buying your shoes in a size that allows thicker socks for the Winter training period is probably the way to go. Gators, which fit around the ankle and over most of the top of the shoe can be purchased. These are aimed at trail running in wet conditions but they do provide a warm layer over the shoe, without affecting the internal fit or necessitating thicker socks.

In most conditions the legs will generate enough heat to not require any additional insulation. If you find that you need to keep the pistons warmer, a thin pair of tights will normally do the trick. Even a thigh length, cycling type tight will keep the chilly wind off the quads and hamstrings, which are the main drivers of our running. It is more often the case that we need to keep the legs warmer for an interval session, where there are changes of pace and opportunities for the legs to get cold during recovery periods. Easier, longer runs where the pace and effort are more constant, normally don’t require it in most South African conditions.

In conditions which are very fresh to start we would need to look at keeping our upper body warm. There are light jackets available which, once it starts to warm up, can be rolled into small balls and stuffed into the waist band in the small of the back. In my opinion, a more convenient option is a cycling type gillet, which is a sleeveless jacket and a pair of arm warmers. This gives us options when regulating our temperature. We can take the gillet off leaving the sleeves in place or vice versa depending on temperature and windchill. A gillet is also much easier to put on and take off whilst running. The tight sleeves of a jacket are always tricky to negotiate on the move. Both the small gillet and the arm warmers can be tucked into the back of the waistband of our shorts when not needed.

These are all things that relate to longer, easier intensity sessions but interval training or tempo running have other things to consider. Interval training requires the body to be sufficiently warmed up at the start of the first repetition. During the first interval, our temperature will rise quickly as the work rate rise is very rapid. In these instances it will always be best to warm up in sufficient clothing to have the body at its optimum and ready for the hard work of the intervals. Ending the warm up back at our house or parked car is a good idea. Here we can stop, remove the extra clothing, dump it either in the house or car boot, and then start our first interval. Recovery periods are never that long that they will require additional clothing. It is also a good idea to end the last interval back at our clothing so that we can put it on for the cool down period of the session.

The key to controlling our body temperature is much like hydration and nutrition. We don’t want to leave it too late to take off an item of clothing. Working up a serious sweat and soaking the under layers of clothing and then exposing those to a cold wind, will have us reaching for the jacket again in no time, before repeating the process once we start feeling uncomfortably clammy again. It will be very rare in SA conditions that we run the whole way with an outer layer. So timing the disrobing is something to keep in mind and will probably take some trial and error. 

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