How I Get Through Outdoor Runs During the North Dakota Winter

I’m sure many of you know by now that I live in the warm and sunny state of North Dakota. Just kidding. It’s the beginning of October and there was a blizzard a few days ago. It’s the opposite of warm and sunny here. Despite the fact that I complain about the weather a lot, I love it here. I love the size of Fargo, the friends I’ve met here, the running community I’ve found, and most importantly, I love my job which is the main reason I moved here. One of the biggest events in Fargo is the Fargo Marathon which takes place in early May. For those of you who have trained for a marathon, or any race, you know that it takes a few months of preparation before hand. This means that each year I choose to run the Fargo Marathon I get to train in the DEAD of winter. While some days the arctic wind chills keep me inside on the treadmill, other days I run outside in the wind, snow, and cold. Am I crazy? Probably, but these conditions won’t ever change so I might as well adapt.

Winter running also means running over snow piles

Last winter was rough for a lot of us in the Midwest. Here in Fargo, we are not strangers to sub-zero temperatures, wind chill values almost 40 below zero, and blizzards. That means running in the winter can be unpredictable. When I started training for my first full marathon in December of 2018, I knew that some of my long runs would be able to be ran outside, and some would have to be done on the treadmill. I spend A LOT of time on the treadmill last winter and while I do need to be careful about running in cold temperatures because of my insulin pump and my continuous glucose monitor, I really tried my best to get outside when I could. Of course, that meant that I needed to make sure that I was prepared for running in extreme conditions. Here’s how I run during the winter in the Midwest.

Clothing

The first and most obvious thing to cover is what you would even wear when you go for a run in arctic temperatures. This may go without saying, but it’s important to keep as much skin covered, even if you think you’ll be too warm. I like to dress in layers because if I do end up getting too hot, I can take something off.

Base Layers

My legs stay the warmest during winter runs so I don’t usually double layer my pants. Instead, I opt for cold wear gear from Under Armour or Nike, or pants that are lined with fleece. (A lot of my workout gear is from Target and the brand Champion really works for me!) If there’s one thing I’ve learned from running in the cold it’s that there is nothing worse than having any part of my ankle exposed to the bitter cold. I wear crew length socks during the winter to make sure that my whole leg is covered and that I can avoid any unwelcomed breezes. My arms are a little bit of a different story though. Unless the temperatures are hoovering near freezing, I need to wear a long sleeve or short sleeve shirt as my first layer. On top of my shirt, I wear a fleece lined zip up as my arms aren’t doing nearly as much work as my legs, and they get colder easier.

Outer Layers

While I keep myself warm and cozy with my base layers, I still need to prepare for the bitterly cold wind and keep my hands and head warm. If it’s a particularly windy day on the plains, which is more often the case than not, I wear a wind breaker jacket over my zip up. It also happens to be neon yellow which helps keep me visible and safe during the darker morning hours and blowing snow. The sidewalks are usually snow covered during the winter months here which prompts me to run in the road. If I’m wearing dark colors or white, I try to wear some kind of bright color to keep drivers alerted to my presence. If it’s not terribly windy outside, I usually opt for a vest as an outer layer. It gives me an extra layer of warmth while running, but doesn’t make me feel overheated. I also never run without gloves! This may seem like a no brainer, but I’ve definitely walked out the door for a run without them. Having something for your head, and the rest of your face some days, is also a must. I have a larger headband that doubles as an earmuff, but I also have a hat that I wear if it’s windy or below zero. If the wind is really bitter, I’ll wear a scarf around my face to help keep me a little extra warm.

Fuel

I think the hardest part about running in the winter is fueling yourself. I normally use gels to help fuel myself during long runs, but I found out the hard way that they don’t stay in gel form in the cold weather, even under all of your layers. I had to adapt and break my runs into parts. Whether I stop halfway at my apartment or at Fargo Running Company, I usually refuel inside to ensure that my gels or wafers aren’t frozen. This is also how I go about re-hydrating. Water freezes at 32 degrees F. Add in 60 minute plus runs and you have a giant ice cube in your water bottle. Much like my gels, I try to make pit stops inside so I can drink some water.

Things to Try in 2019-2020

This past winter was the first time I tried my best to get my long runs in outside because the good majority of them were over 10 miles. Since winter has ended, I’ve brain stormed some things I’d like to try this coming winter.

  1. Hand warmers. Out of everything, my hands just never wanted to stay warm. For the first mile they would be frozen, by the second or third mile they’d start sweating, but then they’d just freeze all over again. I tried wearing multiple pairs of gloves and even mitten over them, but nothing kept them warm enough. This year I’m going to try putting hand warmers inside my gloves and see if that helps. There is probably nothing worse than running with frozen hands!
  2. Traction cleats. With snow comes ice, and there’s nothing worse than seeing your life flash before your eyes when you slip on it. Last year I got through running outside without falling on any ice, but I had some close calls. My worst nightmare is putting in all the training and then have everything fall apart because I slipped on the ice and broke something. Been there, done that. For my birthday this year my sister bought me a pair of traction cleats and I’m excited to be able to run outside with them in the snow and ice. (Did I really just say that?)

Cold Weather & Medical Devices

For those of you who are unaware, I am a Type 1 Diabetic. I wear an insulin pump which is a device that continuously delivers insulin to my body, and I wear a continuous glucose monitor which relays my blood sugar levels to my phone every five minutes. Some of you may be wondering how I run in such cold temperatures with these devices on me. First of all, I use my best judgement. There are certain temperatures that are just TOO cold for anyone to be running in, let alone someone who has expensive medical devices on them. If I feel it’s too cold, I will go to the gym and run instead. Secondly, I don’t usually run with my Omnipod PDM, the part of my insulin pump that I physically use to tell it to give me insulin. This is the part of my pump that costs the most amount of money. I can call and replace my pod, the part of my pump that is attached to my body, but my PDM is a little trickier so I chose to leave it behind on winter runs. (Don’t worry, I still get insulin!) I’ve also been asked a lot about how my insulin itself fairs in such cool temperatures because frozen insulin is not good insulin. My pod is usually covered under a few layers of clothing and I’ve never had insulin freeze in my pump during a run, nor have I had any issues after my run that would make me think that my insulin was frozen at some point. I’ve never had any issues with my phone, Dexcom, or watch while running in arctic conditions. I have, however, have had my headphones stop working because it was too cold.

8 miles in a winter storm

Running in extreme cold weather certainly isn’t for everyone. I run in the cold weather because I can only mentally last on a treadmill for so many miles. Winters in North Dakota aren’t going to get any warmer so if I want to avoid running on the treadmill, I had to learn how to love running in sub-zero temperatures. Hopefully after reading this post you’ll feel a little more prepared on how to run in bone chilling temperatures.

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