When she left home to go to university, Jessica Bassil wasn’t about to abandon her love of running. But living in Thunder Bay, Ontario, meant she had to make some adjustments: heading out for an invigorating jog in the coldest months of the year entailed bundling up for temperatures averaging minus 20.
“I’d have crystals on my face,” the 27-year-old local community health nurse recalls of her chilly postsecondary sprinting days. “I’ve acclimatized. I don’t think I could do that again.”
Although Vancouver has had an unseasonably warm winter so far—pity the poor Olympic organizers at Cypress Mountain—avid runners don’t always have it so easy here.
Former Olympic runner Peter Butler, who spent years living and training in Alberta’s ridiculously frigid winter weather, explains that outdoor-sports enthusiasts on the Wet Coast have their own challenges to deal with.
“Three degrees and raining can be just as unpleasant as minus 20 and clear,” Butler says in a phone conversation with the Straight. “It’s even worse when it’s windy.”
Nevertheless, there’s good reason to start pounding the January pavement. The benefits of running are tremendous. The sport improves cardiovascular and bone health, helps with weight loss, alleviates stress, and boosts mood—take that feeling of euphoria known as “runner’s high”.
There are other perks. Running is inexpensive: aside from buying shoes, there are no other costs involved, and you don’t have to pay to join a gym. You aren’t tied down to being anywhere at a specific time for a predetermined amount of time; rather, you can go when you feel like it for as long as you wish. It’s a social sport: countless clubs throughout Metro Vancouver allow you to meet new people and catch up with friends. And instead of staring at a wall or a TV screen while you take to a treadmill, getting outside provides sights for sore eyes.
Still, people who run at this time of year must take several factors into account to stay safe, healthy, and injury-free.
“It’s dark here at 4 o’clock, so reflective clothing is critical,” explains Butler, who founded Forerunners with his wife, Karen, also a hard-core runner. It’s best to stay on the sidewalks of lit streets and, if on a road, to always face traffic.
Even here in Lotusland, black ice is not uncommon.
“Footing is the other main concern,” Butler says. “You don’t want to slip on the ice.”
Besides having footwear with good traction, there’s a new product to consider called Yaktrax, which can be attached to shoes and provides a grip that’s akin to that of “a steel-belted radial”, according to Butler, who runs about an hour a day six days a week, rain or cloud.
Keeping your body temperature in check—not so warm that you’re sweating buckets but not so cold that your teeth are perpetually chattering—is also vital.
“It’s all about layering,” Butler says. The inner layer of clothing should wick moisture away, while outerwear should repel it. A breathable, lightweight hat and gloves can also help.
A common mistake people make at this time of year, he notes, is letting their enthusiasm get the best of them. They may have been inactive over the holidays and now, still clinging to their New Year’s resolution to get in shape, could overdo it. Overtraining can result in injury, and once you’re hurt, you might be less inclined to take up the sport again.
To help people run their best, Forerunners holds a range of clinics throughout the year, including a winter running clinic, one to help people prepare for marathons, a learn-to-run course, and a run-faster class, among others.
Maurice Wilson, technical manager of road and cross-country running for B.C. Athletics, a nonprofit organization that promotes amateur sports, points out that even if you’re out running in miserable conditions and don’t necessarily feel all that warm, it’s important to keep hydrated.
“Even though it’s cold out, your body is still sweating although you may not feel it,” Wilson says, noting that B.C. Athletics’ Web site provides training and race listings, including those for race-walking. “Wearing a belt [with a bottle holder] is better than carrying a bottle in your hands. You want to keep your hands free for balance.”
Warming up before a run is crucial in the winter, Wilson adds. “Your muscles will be pretty cold before you start, so you need to stretch and warm up before you get into any real exertion.” Not readying the muscles for exercise increases the risk of injury.
Another drawback to Vancouver’s notoriously dark winters, Wilson points out, is the way they can quash motivation.
“At this time of year, it can be a challenge to get out there when it’s so wet and dark,” he says. “It helps to run with a friend and to have a goal.”
Another way to boost the likelihood you’ll get outside is to try trail running, which provides stunning scenery.
Trail running is Bassil’s preferred way to run. “I love the variety,” she says. “You see places you can’t otherwise get to, and you don’t get the kinds of injuries that pavement can cause.”
Bassil has twice done the Knee Knacker, a self-explanatory 30-mile race along the Baden-Powell Centennial Trail from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove, and she’s a member of the recreational groups Club Fat Ass and Pacific Road Runners. Last summer she participated in the Canadian Death Race, a gruelling 125-kilometre course on extreme mountain terrain near Grande Cache, Alberta.
“Anybody can be a runner,” Bassil stresses. “I’m not a fast runner, but I can go for a very long time. I started out walk-running. A lot of people think you can’t be a runner unless you can run straight-out for a long time. When I started out, I couldn’t even run seven kilometres.”