January and February are what I think of as the “dog days” of winter. The lucky ones among us might have a week or two planned in Florida or some other sunny climate but for the most part, it’s up to us to keep ourselves sane when the weather outside is frightful. Back in the 80’s, I spent 4 years living in New Hampshire when I was transferred there for work. We moved in January and let me tell you, we flat-landers have no idea what ‘winter’ is. I was used to running on the boards every day throughout Jersey Shore winters with little concern about ice or snow. I went into shock when it became clear that NO surface up there is without snow or ice. Further, winter starts around Halloween and can hang on well into April. One of the ironies of my situation was that we were living in a beautiful area smack dab in ski country, the place where people pay to go on THEIR winter vacations and yet here I was, a non-skier hating every minute of it. My first 2 years up there, I did exactly what you shouldn’t do, waited out winter just trying to keep warm and sane. Unfortunately for my colleagues and family, I found it comforting to let everyone know how much I hated the place. I did nothing to try and enjoy the conditions, I simply waited winter out.
Proving that even a blind squirrel can find a nut once in a while, it dawned on me that I needed to change my tact and try to find something to enjoy about winter. Being a runner, I was drawn to cross-country skiing. It’s pretty easy to learn the basics, not particularly expensive getting started and a great compliment to my running. I invested in the equipment in early Fall and found myself looking forward to the first snow. A whole new world opened up to me when I got started. The golf courses up there would set XC tracks for anyone to use, there were cross country touring centers everywhere and for a trail fee of about $8, you could glide through acres of some of the prettiest winter scenes imaginable. I met some guys who set up a private touring center on their properties that adjoined and was invited to use the trails whenever I wanted. One of the local ski shops created a 1/2 mile oval which they groomed so I could work on my technique and strength doing intervals whenever I wanted…for free! I spent that winter skiing about 4-5 times a week and was never in better shape. The winter flew by! When Spring came, aka “mud season”, I was bummed. Another thing I noticed that winter was the fact that my outlook towards running had improved. I came to relish the brutal cold and saw it as a challenge. I remember running 6 miles on Saturday when the temperature was -14 and it was one of the best runs I’ve ever done. Looking back, I am sad that I wasted those first couple of years fighting the winter rather than enjoying it.
Fortunately for us at the Jersey Shore, our winters come nowhere NEAR the extremes up in Northern New England but there is still the tendency to hide from winter rather than find ways to enjoy it. Having gone for a run this past weekend just as the snow started falling, I can tell you that it was a treat. My run ended at the beach which gave me a chance to walk down near the water and enjoy the sites of an angry ocean with snow-coated jetties and sand dunes covered in snow. I didn’t do it this time but I’ve had the opportunity to XC ski on the beach after big storms. I have a couple of pairs of snowshoes that I use from time to time. One pair is designed for running. When conditions are right, a run through the snow using snowshoes is awesome. These activities may not be of interest to some but I mention them as an example of how opportunity always exists to try new things. By virtue of the fact that we have more ‘down time’ in these next couple of months, it’s the perfect opportunity to explore. You don’t necessarily need to be looking for new endeavors, it might be the opportunity to pursue activities that you’ve been meaning to re-discover. That Yoga practice that made you feel so good might be something to re-ignite. That neglected weight training program or Boot Camp class might fit into your winter down-time easier than the warm weather months that are filled with outdoor activities.
Try and look at these next couple of months as a period of ‘opportunity’. Plan some goals around these pursuits to keep you focused. If nothing else, keep repeating a mantra of “beach bodies are made in the winter”.
I’m one of those runners that just hates being inside. Don’t get me wrong, I like being warm and comfortable just as much as the next guy. I just enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to be comfortable outside while Mother Nature is at her worst or, in my opinion, her best. Dressing properly is a good start to winter comfort. That doesn’t mean throwing on multitudinous layers of thermals, sweaters, coats, hats and gloves. Bundling up like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” will have you sweating like a mule on the equator and make you just as uncomfortable as being under-dressed. Nope, the trick here is to dress specific to the day’s conditions. You want to feel just a tad under-dressed when starting out because as you begin to move and get into your flow, your own body heat will warm you up. Before you decide on what to wear, think about the temperature and the wind conditions on your planned route as well as how long you’re going to be out there. I know some runners that will absolutely not deviate from their daily route so their clothing choice must match up with whatever that route brings, weather-wise. On the other hand, having some flexibility allows you to avoid the worst of those conditions or at least being able to use them to your advantage. Having those blustery northwest winds to your back requires a lot less protection than does running directly into it. If you are doing an ‘out-n-back’ route, run into the wind first. This way, if you work up a sweat, it’ll be on the way home which saves you from having to run into a cold wind with damp clothes. This brings up the subject of ‘sweat’ and the challenges it brings.
Winter running doesn’t mean you’re not going to sweat, you will. It might not be much but even a little has the potential to cause discomfort if not transferred away from your body. This highlights the importance of proper base-layer clothing. Base-layer is the clothing item closest to our skin. It is crucial that this item be made of a fabric that wicks the moisture away from our skin, either to another clothing item or the air where it will evaporate. Another description of the process is “moisture transference”. Most of these fabrics are made in some version of polyester. Poly has two essential qualities; it can not absorb and hold moisture, it transfers it. The clothing item will retain some dampness but it will not be soaking wet. The other important quality of polyester is it will still retain thermal properties when damp so it will still keep you warm. The one fabrication you do NOT want next to your skin is cotton. Cotton is like a sponge when it comes to moisture, it sucks it up and holds it. Making matters worse, wet cotton has no thermal value so you’ll quickly get chilled and stay that way. Wool is not ideal in the sense that it, too, will retain moisture although even when wet, it will keep you warm. This brings up the next important clothing item, the outer layer. Usually, this is a jacket or shell, depending on the temperature, wind, etc. Here again, this needs to be constructed in fabrics that will continue the moisture transference. The fabrics used in high-end jackets and shells are woven in such a way as to allow the smaller molecules of dampness to travel to the jackets’ outer surface where it can be evaporated but tight enough to keep rain out. Some jackets are water-proof while others are water resistant. The other role these jackets or shells serve is that of a wind breaker. When it comes to what we wear on our legs, we have some options based, again, on the conditions. A lot of people will go bare-legged even on the coldest days. I’m not a fan of doing this because while my legs may be able to withstand the cold, they get chapped and raw. Running tights follow the same principles as base layer tops in that they will wick moisture away from the skin. Tights aren’t for everybody, especially guys who are self-conscious wearing something that form-fitting. They might prefer running pants that are, shall we say, less revealing. Gloves and hats are another crucial aspect of winter comfort. Here again, you don’t want a big ol’ bulky knit hat soaking wet from sweat. Look for ones that have wicking properties. Gloves are fine on most days around here in the winter but on those super-cold mornings, mittens will provide better warmth.
As mentioned above, flexibility in choosing a course or a time to run plays a big part in winter running. We do the same thing in the hot weather. Have a few different course options that will allow you to minimize the time exposed to strong winds or wet, slushy surfaces. One word of caution when it comes to winter running, ice. Ice is the one factor that will keep me indoors, especially if I’m planning on a run in the dark. If you are not 100% sure that your course options are ice-free, you probably want to stay inside. In cases like that, I’ll switch around my schedule to do some weight training or Yoga and save the run for better conditions. While avoiding a run on icy surfaces, I absolutely love running in snow. As long as the roads aren’t slippery, I love nothing more than a run as it begins to snow. It goes without saying that particular caution needs to be paid to running on snowy roads with heavy car traffic. As a rule, I’ll hit the boards for a snow run. Try it, you’ll love the experience. I also love a run on those days where the weather reports are warning everyone of record low temps and eye-watering winds. I may not be out there long but I love the thought of people seeing me thinking, “look at that idiot, he must be out of his mind running on a day like this”. I’m not going to tell you that running on brutally cold days is all peaches and cream cause some days, it’s downright unpleasant. I always give myself the ’20 minute rule’ which basically says that after 20 minutes, if I’m not getting comfortable and enjoying myself, it’s time to call it a day. A word of advice; if you’re going to use the 20 minute rule, make sure you’re back at your starting point at 20 minutes!
>> Lose 30 pounds…check
>> Stop keeping the breweries in business…check
>> Qualify for Kona…check
>> Come up with a Middle East peace plan…check
>> Well, come the latter part of January, reality sets in and the only resolution still in place is the old standby, “next year I’m gonna do better. I’ll use this year to get it all out of my system”.
>> So now what, how do we keep our sanity for these next couple of months.? After all, spending the next two months doing nothing but wishing them to be over is tantamount to wasting 1/6 of our lives! Well, here’s what I think.
>> Aside from those of us that are skiers, most people find the biggest challenge of cold weather is to maintain their fitness programs. It’s REALLY easy to postpone a run or walk when faced with wind chills in the single digits coupled with icy sidewalks and roads. Postponing things until tomorrow is one thing but postponing them till May has its drawbacks. With all the new clothing technology out there, it is a lot easier staying comfortable while running or walking but let’s call a spade a spade, it’s still cold out there. Biking loses its appeal when you have to put enough clothes on to look like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. I used to surf and paddle board in the winter but as I’ve gotten older (and wiser), just the thought of that cold water diminishes my enthusiasm.
>> The first thing I suggest is to accept the fact that with very few exceptions, most people’s activity levels in their chosen sports slows down. In some ways, I theorize this to be a good thing. It gives our bodies a chance to recover from any nagging injuries. After all, rest and recovery are known to be just as important as training and proper nourishment. For many serious athletes, ‘rest’ is the hardest of these 3 components. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we do nothing for 2 months, not at all. I’m simply saying that once you accept the fact that your training plans will be altered, it makes it easier to accept the next step.
>> These couple of months are the perfect time to add activities that are not only done indoors in the comfort of that thing called “room temperature” but in addition are great compliments to our chosen sports. There is not a runner or biker out there that won’t admit that they wouldn’t benefit from more stretching. As we get older, stretching ceases to be something we ‘should’ do and evolves into something we ‘must’ do. Runners and Bikers have significant imbalances in their lower bodies based on the primary muscles used for their sports. Our Quads provide the majority of power in running and biking while our glutes and hamstrings more or less go along for the ride. Over time, this imbalance will result in weak, tight hamstrings and glutes and that causes many of the chronic discomforts that comes with age. Right at the top of the list is the dreaded calf strain that so many older runners experience. Yoga provides a way to help offset these afflictions while adding strength and balance. There have never been more places to learn and practice Yoga than now. Pretty much every gym and health club has classes available to all levels. In addition, Yoga studios are popping up everywhere. I strongly suggest anyone interested in trying Yoga to do so initially in a class with a certified instructor. Sure, you can find an infinite amount of videos and you tube demonstrations but having an instructor means you’ll learn the basics while insuring proper form. Injuries can and do happen from poor form but an instructor will make sure you avoid many of the mistakes that cause problems. The beauty of Yoga is that with the proper instruction, you’ll learn poses that can be done pre and post workout that will help in avoiding injuries.
>> Those who have read my ramblings know of the importance I put on strength training. I will not bore you any further with one of my typical diatribes on strength training other than to say EVERYONE needs it, everyone. Find a gym and have someone walk you through the basics of lifting weights. Its warm in those gyms and your body will love you for it. In addition, it’s kind of cool when you put a bathing suit on for the first time and someone says “wow, you look great, what have you been doing”.
>> If you’re lucky enough to have access to a pool, swimming is an ideal cross-training activity. The benefits of swimming and water exercises are well known. You may not be too amped up swim laps in an indoor pool when the weather is nice but when it’s freezing outside, that warm water is inviting. Knocking out laps in the winter will allow you the fitness needed to swim jetties in the summer, a great mid-day workout when you’re at the beach.
>> I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the many indoor fitness classes being offered like “Boot Camp”, “Boxing”, “Cross Fit” and any number of other group activities. These class are based on multi-functional exercises as opposed to one dimensional movements. These classes are hard, make no mistake about it but they do give dramatic results. One word of caution: leave your ego in the locker room when you start one of these programs. No matter how fit you think you are, you’ll be doing movements you’re likely not used to and trying to push beyond your current capabilities will cause injuries, sometimes bad ones. When people of differing abilities are in the same class, it’s easy to get competitive. You want to push yourself to the max but understand, that can come with risks. Be patient, whatever the next guy is doing that you can’t, you’ll get there and beyond in time.
>> These next couple of months are tough on those of us who prefer outdoor activities but the days are getting longer and there’s light at the end of tunnel. In the meantime, adding something new to your fitness regime is a great way to keep active while getting you ready for the warm weather ahead.
DO YOUR RUN OR WALK AND SEE THE SUNRISE
No suggestion conjures up more fixed feelings than that of an early morning workout. Seeing the sunrise at the beach while walking or running always sounds good the night before, especially if you're considering it with an adult beverage in your hand and a few more under your belt. Come 5:00 AM when that alarm goes off, the idea of going for a run ranks right up there with your idea of getting rid of that Wasp nest by whacking it with a tennis racket.
Making a commitment to run or walk in the early AM is a recipe for abject failure. It ain't gonna happen! Rather than pre-planning a whole new routine, try simply committing to do it one time, period. Better yet, find some like minded soul willing to give it one shot and agree to meet at a prearranged time and place. It is only after experiencing the beauty of sun rise over the ocean and all the things that happen before most people wake that you can even BEGIN to think about doing it regularly. Chances might be that you never do it again but I'm betting that won't be the case.
By now, you'd have to be completely oblivious to what's going on in the world of fitness and health to not know how important strength training is. It is necessary for everyone who wants to lead a healthy, injury free life. It is ESPECIALLY important to those of us who've reached the dreaded "middle age" territory.
Someone contemplating the need to add weight or strength training to their routine immediately envisions a gym filled with men resembling an NFL linebacker making loud, otherworldly noises while raising a prodigious amount of iron plates. Visions of some insanely fit person putting you through a workout worthy of an Olympian followed by a week of being so sore, you look like a character from "Night of the Living Dead" trying to walk fills your mind. Even worse, just walking into a gym means you'll be accosted by a salesman that should be selling used cars.
Forget all that, all you have to do is knock out a pushup. Notice I said A pushup. Truth be told, a pushup is one of the most effective exercises known and if you haven't done any in a while, they're not as easy as you remember from 7th grade gym class. A pushup brings into play numerous muscle groups in your chest, shoulders and triceps. Further, by maintaining good form, you are giving your core muscles in your abs, back and legs a super workout. To do this little ditty, you need go nowhere other than your home. If you're worried about your teenage son laughing at you, do it on your bedroom floor...with the door locked. If you can't do them the "official" way, do them from your knees. Who cares, no one can see you! There are many other body-weight exercises that can be done at home with little or no equipment but start with the good old, all american pushup.
This one gets me. I have a tendency to eat anything that doesn't eat me first...in LARGE quantities. Sometimes I have this out-of-body experience where I witnessing myself stuffing my gob while thinking to myself, "good heavens, that food isn't even touching the sides as he swallows it". When I first started running, one of the appeals was the presumption that a runner could eat anything without having to worry. My favorite theory from those days said that anyone capable of running a marathon was pretty much immune to any form of heart disease. Modern science has since set us straight but correcting all these bad but enjoyable eating habits has become a real challenge. Every now and again, I commit to "eating healthy" which means eating NOTHING that I like while washing it down with all manners of fluid containing no alcohol or sugar which is EVERYTHING I like. Needless to say, it doesn't take long before I walk into a bar or restaurant minus my self control and soon utter words to the affect of "what's holding up that pizza and fries, I'm almost done with my Nachos" while experiencing a near panic when I hear the bar tender say "I think we're running out of beer".
Doing a 180 in the eating department and sticking with it is a challenge I'm not up to. What I do find that can work is simply picking one or two habits that can be reduced or eliminated and aiming for that. I've always felt that one day, modern science was going to announce that vitamins are bad for us and should be avoided at all costs. While I'm still holding out hope for that, I think I might benefit from sampling a vitamin or two. So as not to shock my system, I've introduced nutrition gradually and I've found that drinking smoothies containing copious amounts of fruit along with a protein supplement is an easy way of doing something right for myself. Even if I resort to eating like a 5 year old at a birthday party the rest of the day, I've accomplished something. The hope, of course, is that that one healthy habit convinces me that there is benefit is trying something else. Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking with it.
The list goes on and on but the point to all this is that the only commitment you need to make to yourself is that of being open to trying new things that complement your healthy life style and trying those things without any thought other than "hey, I want to try this". If you try it and hate it so what, you tried. On the other hand, you might find you like it. Kinda like my mother used to say about trying Brussel Sprouts.