Although there’s a hint of spring in the air here in the High Peak, the temperature is still hovering below zero and there are “snow bones” still stubbornly clinging on next to the dry stone walls on the hills. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this winter and you can never be too well prepared for the next. Here are my top ten kit, training and comfort tips for running, riding and racing through the worst of the winter.
When I raced the 120-mile Arctic 6633 Ultra in 2010, where temperatures got down to -40C, we were given a safety briefing by an ex Special Forces winter survival expert. Along with some gruesome pics of frost bitten genitalia from ill advised and overly long pee stops, the one piece of advice he kept on hammering home was never to sweat. If you sweat you get damp, if you get damp you get cold and, in extreme circumstances, that moisture can freeze next to your skin and cause frostbite. Even in more clement British conditions, that dampness can soon chill you and take you into a vicious circle of pushing harder to try and warm up and then sweating even more. To prevent moisture build up, wear less, ventilate whenever possible and adjust you intensity. Especially when you first head out for a run or a ride, you should feel slightly cold. If you’re too toasty, you’ll be an uncomfortable sweating mess in no time. Zipped layers that allow easy on the go venting are also key. Unzip when climbing and then zip up again when back on the flat or heading downhill. Pace and intensity should be adjusted to the conditions and to your clothing and, if you’re in a team race, this should all be governed by the slowest team member. Finally, for longer races or training sessions, pack a spare baselayer. Slipping into a bone dry base midway through a long cold day is a blissful morale booster.
It’s all about the Base
The most important piece of clothing for staying comfortable in cold or wet conditions is the one next to your skin. There’s a bewildering choice from super expensive luxurious Merino to good old polyprop synthetics. For the last few years I’ve been a complete Merino snob and, for long low intensity days on the hills, it's probably still my go to choice. Its wicking is fantastic, it doesn't develop a nasty smell even after a few days of unwashed use and it continues to insulate even when soaked through. However, Merino does tend to be expensive, can wear through quickly if used with a pack and it can tend to stay soggy if you're working hard.
Having recently tested a whole range of synthetic base layers, they've certainly come on in leaps and bounds and, when it comes to keeping you dry or drying off after a downpour, they probably out perform Merino. The nasty niff problem seems a lot better too and, although they're still probably not post-training pub friendly after a couple of uses, they no longer go permanently toxic after one use.
Make sure your baselayer is well fitted. It doesn't need to be superhero spray on tight but, in order to wick effectively, it needs to fit closely. Look for good length in the lower back, important on the bike and enough length in the arms. I find that a zip neck is probably the most versatile.
Inov-8 Oroc 340 orienteering shoe
Icy conditions or frozen snow can make running almost impossible but, these shoes from Inov-8, mean you can carry on logging your miles whatever the conditions underfoot. Orienteering is an obsession in Scandinavian countries and that obviously means dealing with snow, ice and fallen trees. To cope with these challenges, orienteering shoes have metal dobs to facilitate grip. The soles of the Orocs are incredibly aggressive and grippy to start with but, factor in the tungsten carbide dobs, and you’ve got 4x4’s on your feet. One of the biggest problems with many studded and spiked winter running solutions is when you hit hard trails or roads without snow or ice. However, with the Orocs, although you can hear the dobs, there’s no harsh feeling, skittering or instability. The dobs actually recess into the rubber of the shoe and only poke out when you need them to bite into snow and ice. In fact, although the Orocs shone off-road, it was the fact that they made it possible for me to keep up my road speed work even on treacherous frozen snow covered pavements, that made them invaluable.
The Orocs are great and extremely versatile but occasionally you want something with a bit more bite. Want to be able to run over sheet ice with confidence? Want to tackle steep upland terrain despite hard frozen snow? Throw a pair of these in your pack and snow and ice will hold no fear. Putting on and taking off takes just a few seconds and, for winter hill running, they can be a genuine lifesaver. I’ve happily trotted past hikers in full on crampons on neve slopes in the Lakes and Snowdonia wearing these but do exercise some caution when using them. They can tend to ball up with snow fairly easily and, if you’re tackling upland terrain, always carry and know how to use an ice axe for self arrest.
Look after your extremities
Head, hands and toes. Keep them warm and dry and you can get away with less layers on your body and avoid sweating. A close fitting skull-cup that can be worn on its own or under a helmet is a must-have and, for cycling especially, wind-proofing on the front can prevent that ice cream headache on long descents.
Windproofing is also very important for gloves and you also might want to consider breathable waterproof ones. Don’t go too small as they’ll constrict your fingers and make them feel colder. Silk liners can really improve the performance of gloves and mean, when you slip your gloves off to unfasten a buckle or unwrap a bar, your hands have still got some protection. Mittens keep your hands warmest but obviously limit dexterity and prevent shifting and one-finger braking on the bike.
For long days on bike or foot, keeping your feet warm is essential for all over comfort. Ice block feet are draining and can easily turn a fun training session or race into a misery fest. For running, I’m not a fan of “waterproof shoes” as, one dunking over the top and you’ve just got a pair of portable paddling pools. Waterproof socks, such as Sealskinz, work better initially but I’ve found they wear through far too quickly. I’ve found the best compromise solution is decent woolen socks and fast draining shoes. The wool insulates even when wet and the shoes make sure you’re not lugging unnecessary water weight around with you. On the bike, I go for wooly socks and a decent pair of winter booties. I’m not a fan of overshoes as I find they tend to rub annoyingly on the crankarms. I final trick for really cold bike rides is to wrap your feet in cling film underneath your socks. This really works and, for rides of 4-6 hours at steady pace, I’ve had no problems with clamminess.
Rub it all over
Rapha Winter Embrocation
The winter cyclist’s secret. Rub some of this potent mix of winter green, capsicum and vanilla on your ankles, knees, hips and lower back and feel the powerful warming glow for up to six hours. If you insist on baring your knees like some of the hardcore fell runners I know, it also gives some protection against the wind too. Don’t overdo it though as it’s seriously strong stuff. Also don’t rub it on your feet. It’ll keep them wonderfully warm on the bike but, when you get in the shower or bath, it’ll feel as though someone is taking a blow torch to them.
Fuel and Hydrate
It’s all too easy in the cold to skimp on eating and drinking but you’ll probably be using more calories to stay warm and to keep moving on sapping snowy, icy or muddy terrain and you’ll still be losing water to sweat. Keeping your energy up is essential as the repercussions of an energy bonk in the cold are potentially far more serious than in the summer. Eat early and eat often. As you’ll probably be working at lower intensities in the winter consider “real food” rather than bars and gels and even savoury options. The same applies to hydration and, for any session or race longer than 60-90 minutes, you should be taking on at least 500 ml per hour. Think about warm drinks in insulated bottles and, if you’re using a bladder, make sure it’s held next to your back, the tube is insulated and that you blow the tube clear of liquid after each use.
I’ve consistently found that the best kit for cold conditions comes from Scandinavian and Nordic brands such as Haglofs, Craft and Helly Hansen. They just get it right and you know that the products will have been developed in environments far more challenging than our own.
Another top Scandi tip for a hot drink to put in your thermos or to have as an instant boost when you get back from a tough session is Blueberry Soup. Not as weird as it sounds, it comes as an easy to mix powder and is like a thick “turbo-Ribena”.
We first came across this stuff on a cross-country ski trip and, if you’re wanting something super warming stashed in a thermos for post-run, you’ve got to try it. Imagine hot Ribena on steroids. It’s deliciously thick, super sugary and guaranteed to revive you even after the foulest run.
As well as encouraging us to train, including tyre towing, the organiser of the 6633 went on and on about your systems being in place. When it’s cold and wet and you’re tired, everything’s a hassle. A bottle that’s a struggle to get to, a bar that’s not to hand or your jacket that you have to stop and unpack your bag for, you’ll end up not bothering and then suffering a few miles later. Make sure that everything is as easy and facilitates you eating, drinking and continuously moving. This is even more important in a team Adventure Race as, with three or four of you, stops can easily become more frequent. If you do have to stop for whatever reason have one person on the team who’s responsible for encouraging everyone else to take advantage of the stop. A call of “Kit? Food? Pee?” is all it takes. I’ve seen teams in races stop to fix a puncture and then, less than a mile down the trail, stop again for someone to sort out their clothing. Not good for winning the race and a guaranteed way to get cold.
If it all gets too bad
If the weather gets just too bad or too dangerous to train outdoors, it’s time to head for the gym or dig out the turbo trainer. Both are pretty tedious but, if we’re honest, we could all probably benefit from some strength, core or flexibility work and the focussed bike training you get on a turbo is second to none. Share and reduce the boredom of both by dragging some mates along and making it a bit of a competition. Alternatively, if a few or you have turbos, set them all up together in a garage and have a bit of “Turbo Party”. Try the following hour workout.
0-10 minutes Warming up: Easy gear, low resistance but progressively increasing the load. You should have a good sweat going by the end.
10-20 minutes Spin-ups: Keep the resistance and gear fairy low and, staying seated, spin up to maximum cadence. Hold the cadence up to 30 seconds and recover at an easy spin for the rest of the minute.
20-30 minutes Mixed Climb: Crank up the resistance to high and find a gear that allows you, working fairly hard, to maintain 80-90 rpm. Climb seated for one minute and then, having clicked up a couple of gears, climb out of the saddle and keep alternating.
30-40 minutes Big Gear Sprints: Recover spinning easily for 1 minute at the end of the climb and then select high resistance and a big gear. From a standing start, sprint out of the saddle to get on top of the gear and then sit down and maintain the sprint. It should be a 100% 30 seconds effort. Rest completely for 90 seconds between efforts.
40-50 minutes Time Trial: At medium resistance and gearing that allows you to work hard, but sustainably, at 90-100 rpm ride a consistent 10 minutes. Try to make your effort constant without any tailing off.
50-60 minutes Cool Down: Spin off your legs easily for 10 minutes, give yourself a pat on the back, a towel off and set a time for next week’s “party”.