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January 01, 2010

Cool runnings

It’s not exactly an extreme sport, but the best way to stay fit and healthy in the winter is running outdoors

Pepper Rodriguez

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Staying fit in the winter is a challenge, especially after all that holiday binge-eating, but staying active and eating right are the easiest ways to keep in shape when the weather gets colder. And nothing beats running outdoors to fight off the winter doldrums – at least according to some.

For many people, the first thought that occurs when told that people still run through Calgary’s extensive pathway systems even when the temperature dips down to Arctic tundra lows is “Are you crazy?”  But apparently the runner’s passion for the sport far outweighs what some may consider an act of self-preservation.

To the avid runner, however, their sport is their life and they couldn’t be happier than running in sleet, snow or sunshine.

According to veteran runner Gord Hobbins, there is no better way to keep fit in the winter months than to strap on the old running shoes and hoof it outdoors through Calgary’s 635 kilometres of pathways.

“On a good day around the noon hour, you would almost need a traffic light to control the crowd of runners using the downtown’s pathway system, it really does get crowded,” says Hobbins. “In fact, city crews do an outstanding job of clearing the pathways of snow, much better than they do the streets,” he adds.

Hobbins runs Calgary’s popular Gord’s Running Store on Centre Street and has been pounding the asphalt (or cement, or mountain trail, or what-have-you) regularly since 1984. The store itself has been a fixture on the Calgary running scene for the past 20 years.

“It is a very accessible activity for a lot of people, and our store is designed to make it an even easier sport for people to get into,” he says.

Melody Switzer, a board member of Calgary Roadrunners running club, says the sport attracts more people in the city every year. “We have 380 members right now and we continue to grow,” she says.

“Members range in age from teens to people in their 70s,” says her fellow Roadrunner, Kathy Taerum, who has been running for at least two decades as well.

Hobbins says the lure of the outdoors is inescapable to them and once you get into it, running can be every bit as addictive as oxygen. “It just becomes something you have to do.”

Switzer feels the same. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years now and I don’t see myself quitting anytime soon,” she says. “I used to work downtown and every lunch hour, I like nothing better than to take a short, brisk run through the pathways — like what a lot of other downtown workers do. Running gives you a release, a way to relieve the stress, and for me it didn’t really matter if it was cold outside or not.”

Taerum says the Roadrunners hold 10 eight-kilometre races in the winter all over Calgary’s parks and pathways. “It’s a great way to foster a sense of community and camaraderie, we share soup meals and hold pot lucks after races and this fosters an even stronger bond.”

Gord’s Running Store holds the annual Frozen Ass 50 ultra-marathon in February, running 50 kilometres from the Bow Waters Canoe Club in Calgary and follows the frozen irrigation canal to Chestermere and back. Switzer, who has participated in the race says it’s very exhilarating. And a lot of fun.

Carrying the motivation throughout the year, however, is the challenge.

“Whether in dieting or in exercise, it’s finding the motivation to carry you through that’s the first step,” says Lindy Kennedy of Preventous, a private medical clinic that offers a total health and wellness package from a complete medical diagnosis to nutritional and exercise plan. That’s why she recommends professional one-on-one consultations to set goals.

“Having someone work with you personally is the best way to achieve success in any diet or exercise plan, following fad diets just doesn’t work because they’re too general and everybody has different needs,” she adds.

As for winter running, all you really need is the will. Hobbins says there really is no special gear you have to wear for winter running, but it is important to note the temperature outside and to dress appropriately for the length of time you want to run.

“If your running for less than 45 minutes, you can wear whatever you deem necessary,” he says, but beyond that you might want to take some extra precautions.

As a general rule, Hobbins says layering is the way to go. For the first layer, he advises a synthetic fabric that can wick away — or does not retain — moisture. This fabric keeps sweat off the body — popular brands include Under Armour and Helly Hansen – and can be worn by themselves for temperatures above 0 degrees Celsius.

For temperatures from -5 to -15 Celsius, he says to put a light windbreaker on top of the first layer, and for running in -10 to -20 Celsius, he recommends putting a third layer of clothing (could be wool or fleece, Switzer swears by Merino wool for its wicking abilities). Some face protection like a mask or balaclava is also recommended. “Put on a thin layer of Vaseline over your face to prevent frostbite,” he adds.

“Never, ever put on cotton, because that will retain moisture and you will freeze,” Switzer cautions.

Hobbins says running shoes you use for summer can be used for winter as well, except when you run mountain trails, for which he suggests trail shoes with more aggressive treads. There are cleats and coils available that can be strapped on to your running shoes for extra traction — sort of like putting tire chains on your car — but Hobbins says some runners don’t like them because they can affect your balance.

“The one thing to remember when you find yourself running on an icy patch is not to change your speed or direction and stay relaxed as possible. Change your speed abruptly at this time and you’ll be down before you know it,” he says.

Another tip Hobbins has for starting to run in those cold, windy days is to run headlong into the wind. “First take the direction of which way the wind is blowing then run towards it for the first half of your run, then turn your back to it for the second half. This is a good way to quickly acclimatize yourself to the cold.”

For a diet, he follows an 80/20 rule — make good dietary choices for 80 per cent of the time and leave 20 per cent for not so smart choices. “As long as you make good choices for 80 per cent of your diet, then you don’t have to worry about the 20 per cent. Just don’t get those two backwards.”

He says to find a happy balance of meals that work for you before you run. But just remember, the heavier the meal the more time you have to give yourself before starting a run. Taerum says she has a bowl of bran cereal prior to a run. “It’s different for everybody, my husband can’t do what I do because he says that bran will just sit in his stomach for the entire run.”

In the end, its all about keeping fit mentally and physically. “It’s really all about fun and feeling good about yourself, it’s the challenge of being able to just go out there and do it that keeps me going,” Hobbins adds.

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