Dashing Through the Snow

Tips to Battle the Cold from Emily Setlack

When it comes to winter running, the cold can be the biggest challenge we face. While snow is pretty, and the dark can seem magical, almost otherworldly, the cold… Just. Plain. Sucks. You know you should get some miles in, your inner beast is even chomping at the bit, but the first blast of that bone-chilling breeze makes you want to go crawling back to bed.

With that in mind, we’re drawing on the wisdom of one who knows a thing or two about running in the cold. Emily Setlack is Canada’s Half-Marathon Champion runner and a Saucony Hurricane athlete. Until recently, she and her husband Matt made their home in Cold Lake, Alberta where, even if you’ve never been, you can imagine “chill” isn’t just a way of life.

The challenges of being an elite runner in Northern Canada are, to Emily, obstacles to overcome that only serve to strengthen her game when the stopwatches come out in warmer weather.

“If I let the weather in Cold Lake dictate when I ran,” Emily says, “I would likely never run. When I set a goal, I don’t want to let weather creep in as an excuse for not getting the work in. Winter running develops grit and toughness that will carry me through the rough patches on race day. I am always mentally stronger on race day after a winter of training in Northern Alberta.”

That’s not to say that sometimes she needs a little kick, as we all do, when the temperature dips.

“When I have thoughts of skipping a run due to weather, I try to remind myself that the weather always looks much worse through a window,” Emily says. “If I really don’t want to run, I put some new music on my iPod Shuffle and use the 15/30 rule. I start by running out for 15 minutes and if I’m still too tired or cold, I’ll turn around, making the run 30 minutes in total. I haven’t turned around yet!” 

To keep yourself out there past the 30-minute mark, Emily emphasizes the importance of forethought when dressing for cold weather. “There is no such thing as bad weather,” Emily believes. “Just bad clothing choices.”

And while it seems common sense to wear the woolliest and warmest gear we have when venturing out into the cold, Emily warns that that’s not always necessarily the best course. Rather, you want to stay aware, and give yourself options.

“It’s important to be proactive and thermoregulate. If you’re too warm when you start your run, you will sweat, and sweating in the cold is dangerous as you can quickly become hypothermic if your sweat freezes. As soon as I notice myself getting a little too warm, I’ll take a layer off.” Changing up your route is another good strategy as “running two or three shorter loops around your home gives you the option to toss or add a layer as needed.”

Sometimes though the weather can win (especially in a town with Cold right there in its name) and one’s best bet is to turn to other methods to keep the training up. Emily assures us that “the hamster wheel” isn’t necessarily something to fear.

“When it’s colder than -25 C I usually run indoors. As enjoyable as it is to run outside, risking frostbite is simply not worth it. I actually prefer to stick to the treadmill for tempo runs, intervals and long runs in the winter. It helps to keep running outside fresh and keeps me where I need to be on race day as my body stays used to running the proper pace.”

As Emily has proven year in and year out, cold weather running cannot only be effective training throughout the “off” season, it can actually be enjoyable.

“Embracing the opportunity in all challenges to run every day, and striving to get out the door regardless of the weather” is a true mark of an all-season runner according to Emily. “Get dressed, lace up your shoes, and take a step forward. It’s all history from there and I promise you won’t regret it.”

So go on and make some history.