Lessons learned running at -40f

Living in Embarrass, Minnesota can be a little challenging in the winter for people who love the outdoors but can’t tolerate the cold.  It has the infamous distinction of being the coldest spot in Minnesota and many times is referred too as the cold spot of the nation.  The unofficial low temperature of record is −64 °F (−53 °C) in February of 1996.  The thermometer that measured this temperature was verified for accuracy by Taylor Environmental Instruments but as it was not recorded at an official National Weather Service weather station so unfortunately it remains an unofficial record.  For cardiac patients, cold weather presents many additional challenges …and for cardiac patients participating in winter endurance sports it can present a myriad of issues. Following are a few things I have found helpful while pursuing my winter running endeavors.
  1. The most important thing I have learned so far is the importance of correctly  dressing for the temperature!  Wearing multiple layers tends to produce the best results for me.  The colder the temperature, the more layers you need.  If you don’t wear enough layers you will get cold but at the same time if you wear too many layers you will sweat too hard and that will make you cold.  When its negative 20 or colder, sweating hard is a bad idea because it leads to getting chilled and cold as the sweat cools on your skin and wicks away body heat.  Personally, I like to error on the side of caution and dress a little extra warm but I’m always ready to slow my pace down in the event I start sweating too hard because of overdressing. In the event I accidentally  dress a little too light and start getting cold, I can usually  run faster to generate more body heart so I can make up the difference.  To give you a better idea of what I wear in these bitter temps, I have attached a picture of what I wore for a 10-mile run today.  It was -27 when I left the house with a wind gusting to 15mph.   On the bottom half of my body I wore two layers of under armor; a 4.0 cold weather compression for the base layer and a Nike medium weight winter running pants as the outer layer. One pair of medium weight socks and studded ice bug shoes for the feet,  accompanied by  a pair of Solomon ankle gators to keep the snow out of my shoes.  On my upper body I used four layers beginning with under armor 4.0 base layer, followed by a long sleeve dry-tek running shirt as a first mid layer, a long sleeve pullover as a second mid layer, and topped those layers with a windproof/water proof, light marmot running jacket for the outer layer.  Finally, a lightweight running hat for my head and a light weight neck warmer  I can pull up to cover my face along with insulated cross county ski gloves.  (NOTE* Gloves not pictured because they were in the dryer at time of picture.)   As it was at -27, the neck warmer soon ended up in my pocket after a couple miles because I was getting too warm.
  2. Keeping your phone alive in extreme temps! This is important to me as a cardiac patient who runs in rural areas.  I feel safer when my phone is working but I found my iPhone 7 generally will only last a few miles when the temps are below zero even if kept in an inside pocket but I discovered if I placed a disposable handwarmer between the outside of the pocket and the phone the problem is resolved!  One hand warmer can keep the phone alive for up to 7 hours even on the coldest of days.  Since I don’t run for seven hours, I place the handwarmer in a zip lock bag and force the air out of the bag before zipping it shut, which essentially turns the handwarmer off, when I finish my run.  To reuse, all you need to do is remove it from the zip lock and it will once again heat back up. I am usually able to get three-four runs per handwarmer.
  3. Proper footwear. This is so huge.  It makes all the difference in the world.  It’s hard to run with confidence if your feet are slipping and sliding on the terrain. For running on snow and ice in temperatures above zero I prefer studded running shoes designed  specifically for winter running.  YakTrax and similar products are great for general winter runs but when you want to run a faster pace, such as a 5k or 10k pace; nothing compares to studded running shoes. They stick to slippery surfaces like glue while feeling as light and nimble as your favorite running shoe.  So far, I have used both the Solomon Spike Cross and Ice Bug Runners and both seem equally good as far as traction goes, but I do prefer the feel of my Solomon’s.  Here is an interesting fact for you; once the temperature gets much below zero, the snow and ice become dry enough from the cold that it ceases to be slippery so for running in subzero temps, there really is no need for studded runners and I just grab whatever summer trainers I feel like using.  At this point, cold feet are not a problem as long as you are running.  Even at -40 Fahrenheit my feet remained nice and warm using only a medium weight running sock and light running shoes. Not sure I would try this if only  walking…
  4. Do a proper warm up! As every cardiac patient should know, a warming up before you start off is important and in the cold weather, it becomes essential!  One trick which doesn’t hurt is to throw your running clothes in the dryer a few mins. to warm them up a bit before you put them on but nothing works better than putting on all your layers and then run around the house or on the treadmill until you are just about to break a sweat.  Yesterday I jogged in place in my house for 5 minutes and that was enough to do the trick and when I headed out the door the temperature was more of a relief than a shock.  Failing to warm up prior to running in extreme cold weather is a huge mistake and can quickly lead to injuries, more so than in warmer weather.
  5. Have a set plan.  Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan on being back. Make sure you can call someone or can get ride in the event something goes wrong and you can’t run.   If something were to happen, such as pulling a muscle that forces you to walk, the combination of subzero temperatures in wet sweaty running clothes without your body generating enough heat will take you out fast.  This can be a dangerous situation for people running in rural areas but can be avoided with a little planning.
  6. In extreme cold, windy weather can make or break you.  Leaning into even a light headwind can really cool you down fast.  When I run, I chose to run into the wind for the way out so I have the wind at my back pushing me as I head home.  For longer winter runs on windy days,  I occasionally opt to have someone pick me up on the other end so I can run one direction with the wind at my back for the entire run.  At -20, the difference between having the wind in your face or on your back can be the difference between an enjoyable run or a miserable suffer fest… Wind is not your friend at these temps so avoid as best you can.

When I started running as a cardiac patient four years ago at the age of 46, I never ran anytime the temperature fell below freezing.  There were multiple reasons for this but the main reason was that it scared me to see how much higher my heart rate would get when I ran in the cold weather compared to when I ran in warmer weather.   The first year I began to run after my heart attack, I didn’t allow my heart rate to exceed 120 beats per minute while exercising which was pretty slow going but with the amount of heart damage I had experienced, proceeding with great caution was in order.  At that time, I always ran with a heart rate monitor so I learned early on how much of an effect cold weather had on my heart rate.  To explain, if I was jogging along at 5 mph with a temperature of 60 degrees, it produced an average heart rate of 120 beats per minute.  When the temperature was at 30 degrees, I could run the same route, at the same speed, and my heart rate average for the run would be closer to 130.  The colder the weather, the bigger the differences I noted.  Heart rate was the biggest reason I didn’t run in the cold back then but wasn’t the only reason.  The second reason I wasn’t ready to brave the elements at that point was because I could not physically tolerate the cold.  I would become cold almost instantly upon exposure no matter how warm I dressed.  My extremities would become painfully cold within minutes, even when I was being physically active.  Any exposure to cold temps, even just going for a short walk, seemed to have as fatiguing an effect on my body as going for a run on a nice day.  So that winter, Heidi and I drove 30 miles to town 6 days a week to use the treadmills, bikes,  and AMT’s at any time fitness.  We were crazy excited to see spring arrive so we could run outside again!  …There is nothing more boring than running on a treadmill.

Year number two rolled around and I seemed able to tolerate the cold much better.  I would still get cold hands and feet but not as bad as the previous year but the heart rate issue was still topping my list of concerns so running outdoors remained off limits.  However, I did begin running at a little higher tempo that year and allowed my average heart rate to hover around the middle to upper 130’s.  We bought a treadmill and put it in the garage to save us a daily trip to town but since I ran a little bit every day, a good portion of that winter was spent staring at the garage wall; spinning that tread mill.  Not sure how many miles I put on the treadmill that winter because I didn’t track them but it was enough to figure out I hated treadmills.  Once again I was really happy to see spring arrive and the temps finally warming into the 30’s so I could run outside again.

Year number three found me much more fit and somewhere along the way that spring I ran my first race while allowing my heart rate to reach its max.  I went on to run a few more short races that year (5k’s,10k’s) and when I wasn’t running I did a lot of biking.  I did run much later into that year, I even completed a few runs with temperatures in the 20’s, but the cold was still a big concern so once hard winter set in, I found myself back in the garage on the treadmill.

By year number four I was really feeling strong.  I ran a race almost every weekend that spring-mid summer and then I trained for and completed my first half Marathon that fall. I was biking and running pretty much every day that year right up until I ran my first half Marathon. After the Half Marathon I decided to give my body a rest, stopped doing daily runs and began strength training with a trainer.  I still ran a little off and on but did the majority of my cardio work on a stationary bike at the gym.  I planned to run my first marathon the next spring so planned to begin training for it in February.  I  decided to do as much training outside in the elements for it as possible so I researched and read as much as possible on how to do it safely and comfortably.  By the time my long runs were approaching 15+ miles, I was doing all my running outside except for a few storms that I weathered through on the treadmill.   I went on to complete not just one but two marathon that summer and logged over 1500 miles that year.  I never felt better.

As I write this, I am beginning my fifth year of running as a cardiac patient. I no longer fear the cold but instead enjoy all the changes that have taken place within my body which allow me to once again enjoy winter time activities.  My hands and feet now stay amazingly warm these days so I can actually enjoy spending time outside again.  Properly dressed for the conditions I now run distances beyond 15 miles in negative digit temperatures but just the fact I can run at -40f is reason enough to celebrate.  I celebrate because I am healthy enough to enjoy my time on this planet no matter what the weather throws at me; celebrate the transformations within my body which make it feel nothing short of miraculous.  As an example, today’s run was 10 miles at an easy pace with a temperature of -27 Fahrenheit, light to moderate winds; I not only felt warm, I felt great!  Even my face being left uncovered felt warm.  I have now run in temperatures falling below -40 Fahrenheit and enjoyed every minute of it.  These new-found health benefits don’t just stop with running either; they apply to everything from shoveling snow to bringing in the grocery’s.  The other day I was out for a snowmobile ride when the hand warmers on my sled stopped working.  Anytime in during the past few years, that would have been a painful disaster and ruined the ride but this time my hands remained warm enough to finish the ride despite temps around zero.  I was amazed!   To begin the 50th year of my life with such an awesome tolerance for the cold despite my cardiac conditions is something to be celebrated and shared with others suffering the perils of heart disease, as an example of whats possible for many… Life goes on after Heart Disease…

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One thought on “Lessons learned running at -40f

  1. Very good information…I have not run anything near -40F, but it sure felt like it once. I’m about to head out for a run in -12F here in Saskatoon, SK, CA, your site has given me some great insight. Just running for fun and for health!

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