Gear Up for Running in the Cold, Dark Days

Gail Johnson / The Georgia Straight

November 7th, 2013

When Lynn Kanuka represented Canada in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, she earned a bronze medal in the 3,000-metre event. She’s no longer a competitive athlete, but the Vancouver resident is still passionate about running.

“If I were to close my eyes any time I have a spare moment, I just see myself running along a trail in the mountains or along the ocean with mountains in the background,” Kanuka says in a phone interview.

“There is no finish-line vision. In this world of busyness, if I can go to my peaceful place, that’s what my vision would be. I’ll always be a runner.”

Lynn Kanuka

That means she runs several times a week in the middle of winter in Vancouver, when it may be cold, wet, windy, or dark – or all of the above. And just because we don’t face the same harsh winter hazards as those poor suckers in the Prairies, don’t go fooling yourselves about our mild climate.

“When it’s just a couple of degrees out and it’s pouring rain, it feels colder than it does in a dry cold where there’s snow,” says Kanuka, RunWalk program coach at SportMedBC and the Canadian record holder for the 1,500 metre race.

“But the weather, you can’t let it get you down. In the winter, we still need to be outside. When you’re running in the rain, the endorphins are released with all that beautiful oxygen in those raindrops. Your mental blues will go away as a result of activity. Make yourself take those first few steps. Call a [running] friend to be accountable. Arrange to meet at a specific time so you don’t let each other down.”

Whether you prefer forested trails or sticking to the cement, there are a few simple steps that runners can take to stay safe and injury-free.

A proper warm-up and post-run stretch are crucial, says Vancouver athletic therapist Jean-Sebastien Hartell.

“As the temperature drops outside and it’s dark out, people try to get it [a run] over with as fast as they can,” he says on the line from his office at SportMedBC, where he’s the program manager of safety and event services.

“They skip over stretching. But as it gets colder, you still have to pay attention to warming up and stretching properly. People don’t take that seriously enough and forget about their importance. They just want to jump in the shower after.”

A warm-up could include exercises such as walking lunges and knee lifts and it should incorporate dynamic stretching, Hartell says. Afterward, runners should stretch from head to toe, holding each stretch for at least 30 seconds. If you have a foam roller at home, you can use that during your stretch as well. He reminds runners to think about maintaining proper posture throughout their activity as well and to be careful of slippery terrain, whether it’s frost or wet leaves.

Runners also need to be well hydrated even when the thermometer dips.

“When it’s cold out, people can be fooled into thinking they don’t need as much water,” Hartell says.

“But you’re still using up your fluids and need to rehydrate.”

Wearing proper clothing is a must, says Kanuka, who is also a private coach, deep-water runner, and motivational speaker. She recommends a lightweight technical fabric next to the skin, then a waterproof shell over top. You don’t need to spend a fortune (check out off-price stores for gear or buy knockoffs), but you do need to be comfortable. And don’t forget a baseball-cap style running hat.

“Most people aren’t hat wearers, but, rain or shine, I never run without a hat,” Kanuka says.

“In the winter, when you look outside at the dismal, rainy day, get out there in your hat and it’s like your own private umbrella. You won’t notice the rain. Find lightweight protective clothing for dampness, rain, and wind,” she adds.

“On your lower half, it’s nice to have a tighter-fitting technical pant. That makes a big difference. A lot of beginners throw on an old pair of sweats. When those big cotton sweats get soggy, it feels like you weigh a ton.”

A good pair of running shoes is essential, and Kanuka recommends being properly fitted.

“If you’re hoping to do consistent running and walking, invest in a pair of shoes that’s technically the right pair for you, which will help you avoid injury,” she says.

For safety, most technical running gear has reflective material built into it, but there are other inexpensive options to make yourself visible in the darkness.

“Go to a dollar store and get blinking lights or get reflective tape at the local hardware store and put it on your sleeves,” Kanuka says.

As with any other exercise program, it’s important for people just starting out on the running path to approach it gradually.

“People do too much too fast too soon,” Kanuka says. “Then they get hurt and don’t stay with it. Running and walking shouldn’t be that way. To stick with anything, find a time that’s right for you,” she adds.

“If you’re not a morning person, don’t say you’re going to start getting up at 5 a.m.”

Especially in the middle of winter.

This article has been posted on with permission from Gail Johnson and the Georgia Straight. It appeared in the Georgia Straight on November 7th, 2013.

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