Achievement unlocked: Winter running habit

Every year I try and fail to establish a winter running habit. This year I managed, and learned a bit about why I usually fail.

In my imagination, the key has always been to keep running through the fall. As it gradually gets chilly and then cold I’ll gradually adapt.

That never works.

The main reason it never works is that seasons don’t work like that. One gets frequent warm days in early fall, then infrequent warm days in late fall, and then at some point—identifiable only in retrospect—there’s a last warm day, which is then followed by months of winter weather.

But it’s even worse than that, perhaps especially so for people like me who don’t have a regular job. Since I have pretty complete control over my schedule, I’m able to get out for my runs whenever the weather is optimal. In the summer I can run in the morning or evening when it’s not too hot. In the fall I can gradually shift my runs toward mid-afternoon when it’s not too cold.

The upshot of that is that I’m never confronted by gradually cooler temperatures when I go out for my runs. Rather, I get to run when the conditions are perfect right up to the last day of perfect conditions. Of course, there are days when conditions are imperfect all day, but I can adapt by just shifting my run to the next day or the day after—a strategy which works fine right up until late fall, when all of a sudden conditions are imperfect every day.

This fall as usual I failed to establish a running habit. I ran into mid-September, and then quit running for two months. But somehow I managed to get started again in mid-November, and proceeded to get in 24 runs from then until April Fools Day. Why this year and not other years? The answer comes out of looking at the reasons why I don’t run in the winter: Cold, dark, and ice.

For ice I have to chalk this success up largely to luck. We had an ordinary amount of snow this year, but the size of each snowstorm and the timing of warm and sunny bits after snowstorms meant that it was rarely more than a week or so before the sidewalks were clear enough that I could get out for a run. (In my running log I only spot five weeks with no running, and only one spot where two of those weeks are consecutive.)

For dark the credit goes back to my not having a regular job. There’s no boss expecting me to spend my daylight hours sitting at a desk. I can run whenever I want.

So it comes down largely to cold.

I have always been of the opinion that dealing with cold is just a matter of having the right gear, and I had some of it—a pair of very warm tights, a half-zip capilene top, some sweat pants, some mock-Ts, some sweatshirts, a silk baselayer, and a bright-red buff with reflecty bits.

To this I gradually added a machine-washable merino wool hat in high-viz yellow, a pair of high-viz yellow gloves, and a pair of lighter-weight tights suitable for wearing in moderate cold.

That little burst of consumerism turned out to be highly effective. First, it meant that I had the right clothes for the conditions, from pretty cold up to just barely too cold for shorts and a t-shirt. Second, because I wanted to give my new gear a try, I got out for at least three (probably more like six) runs that I’d otherwise have skipped, just because I wanted to wear my new tights or my new hat.

And so, for the first time since 2004 I have come into spring with a running base that prepares me for serious training right off the bat. I can comfortably run 10k, so I could compete in any 5k or 10k race this spring. I could easily be in shape for the 7.1-mile Lake Mingo Trail Race in early June. I’m probably within striking distance of being in shape for a half-marathon (although not the Illinois Marathon half-marathon in less than three weeks).

Mainly though, I’m in shape to just keep running on through the spring and summer. And maybe, just maybe, next fall.

Behold a gallery of running-related images from the winter, most of which were shared to my twitter feed sometime along the way:

Making things better with oil

There’s something—maybe just something cultural, maybe something embedded in the human genome—but something about the cold dark days of winter prompts me to want to preserve and protect things.

I have a wooden spoon that I use to stir up Bubbles, our sourdough starter. (Folk wisdom is to avoid using metal tools with a sourdough starter.) I’ve used this spoon for many years now, and after all those years the wood was getting a bit furred.

So last week I got out some sandpaper, sanded down the rough bits, and then treated the wood with oil. I did the same thing with the wooden cutting board we use for the bread loaves. 

With this task in mind, I got some flaxseed oil at the grocery store, with an eye toward it being a pretty finishing oil, as well as being food-safe.

I also have a leather jacket that I got more than 25 years ago when I was learning to ride a motorcycle, and that was similarly showing its age, and also needed a nice rubbing down with oil.

For the leather jacket I used neatsfoot oil. (It’s worth following that link. Neatsfoot oil is interesting stuff.) As long as I had the neatsfoot oil out, I went ahead and oiled a pair of leather boots too.

In all these cases I’m pleased with the results—I protected and preserved something, while also making it more beautiful. But more pleasing than the results, I think, was the process. Rubbing something with oil is a simple process, but one that rewards mindfulness in a way that makes it inherently meditative.

It makes caring for your stuff into a form of self-care, in the dark days of winter.

Exercising in the heat

I have always enjoyed exercising in the heat. In this I seem to be different from most people.

I originally took note of this fondness back in the early 1980s when I was living in Ft. Lauderdale. A ritzy local tennis club—way too expensive for me—offered summer memberships for just $100. I just got access to the outdoor courts and not to the indoor amenities, but all I wanted was a place where I could reserve a court and know that it would be available when I met someone there. The only downside was that you were playing tennis outdoors, in the summer, in Ft. Lauderdale. And it turned out I was okay with that.

I’m pretty careful not to be stupid about it. (And successfully so, it seems—I’ve never gotten heat exhaustion or heat stroke.) If I start feeling tired, thirsty, or overheated, I slow down, move to the shade, and drink some cold water.

Over the years I’ve had a variety of theories about why I didn’t mind exercising in the heat when other people hate it so much. I like to imagine that I’m just better at tolerating the heat than the average person: Everyone slows down in the heat, but maybe I slow down slightly less; at some high temperature, maybe I’d become competitive! More likely, since I’m not competitive I’m not making unfavorable comparisons between my speed in the heat versus my speed in cool weather, so the fact that I slow down doesn’t make me unhappy.

Recent research has given me a new, much more likely reason why I like exercising in the heat. On Rhonda Patrick’s Found My Fitness podcast, I heard an interview with Dr. Charles Raison, in which he described the results of a study suggesting that Whole-Body Hyperthermia was an effective treatment for depression. The experiment used infrared lights to heat people up to a core body temperature of 38.5℃ (101.3℉), but Raison is convinced that there is nothing special about the device used, and that a sauna, hot spring, sweat lodge, hot yoga—or just exercising in the heat—would have the same antidepressant effect.

Dr. Raison is studying further to try to elucidate the mechanism by which hyperthermia boosts mood in depressed people. (It seems to reduce inflammation, perhaps by boosting IL-6 which activates IL-10.  Heat Shock Proteins might also be involved, since they do all sorts of things.)

I have always been inclined to blame a lack of daylight for the seasonal depression that I’m prone to suffer from during the winter—both too short of a photo-period (which I address with a HappyLight™) and too little vitamin D (which I address with vitamin D supplements), but it now occurs to me that a lack of opportunity to exercise in the heat (and thereby raise my core body temperature high enough to trigger whatever it is that reduces depression) may be an independent factor.

It seems very likely that, just like my desire to spend time outdoors in daylight is probably self-medicating to boost my vitamin D and regulate my circadian rhythm, my desire to exercise in the heat is probably self-medicating to boost my mood.

I hesitate to rejoin a fitness center just to get access to a sauna, but I’ll have to investigate options for access to winter whole-body hyperthermia.

Getting my mind right with the cold

After posting a couple of weeks ago about how I was having trouble adjusting to the cold and dark, I got a comment from Srikanth Perinkulam suggesting that I take a look at What Doesn’t Kill Us by Scott Carney, which I have now done.

The book grabbed me right from the start. The forward by Wim Hof is delightful. The preface sets the stage for the climactic event. In the introduction the author suggests that his spirit animal is a jellyfish—a comforting thought for someone like me whose totemic animal is the sloth.

Because the first few pages were so interesting, I suggested that my brother use Amazon’s “look inside” feature to read them, but he was unwilling to do so—pretending to be daunted by the fact that the “look inside” feature depends on scripts he had turned off in his web browser. He also declared the book to be “pseudoscientific drivel.” (A comment that must have been—since he wouldn’t read even a few pages—based entirely on the subtitle: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength.)

Of course it’s not a scientific book, but rather a journalistic one, and my urging was because I thought he would appreciate how well the story was set up—and the jellyfish spirit animal. After all, my brother’s totemic animal is the slug.

The book does talk a good bit about new scientific research into how the body responds to cold and other stresses. Part of the background that is being reported on is emerging evidence that humans have some degree of control over all sorts of autonomic responses, and that one path to gaining that control is by exposing yourself to stresses that trigger those responses, so as to gain an opportunity to practice exerting control.

One area that’s still disputable is how much of that control is real, and how much of of the observable changes are really a matter of “getting your mind right” about the stressor—maybe all of the changes being measured, such as increased mitochondria turning white fat into beige fat (or turning muscle that preferentially burns carbs into muscle that preferentially burns fat), are merely incidental, and the real difference is just deciding that being a little bit cold isn’t so bad.

Since that was, after all, why I was reading the book, that would not be so bad either.

Last winter, when I got off to a better start than I had this year, much of the change in attitude had been prompted by Katy Bowman’s comments pointing out that the actions your body takes in response to cold (vasoconstriction, shivering, activation of the arrector pili muscles) are all movements—movements that, like squatting and crawling, are done all too rarely these days by most people.

The arrector pili muscles in particular intrigue me. Always described as a left-over muscle that helps animals keep warm by making their hairs stand up for extra insulation, it seems like an awfully complex mechanism to have been so well conserved in humans if that’s all it was for. I suspect they have additional uses. Perhaps the calories burned pulling on hair follicles provides a bit of local thermogenesis that can stave off frostbite without the risk to core body temperature that would result if the area were warmed by blood-flow.

Carny talks a bit about vasoconstriction, suggesting that the pain associated with it is due to the fact that it’s such an uncommon movement in most people. If you train yourself for it, he says, it becomes much less uncomfortable.

Carny also has interesting things to say about non-shivering thermogenesis, which is produced by specialized mitochondria that live in brown fat and beige fat (but also apparently in muscle). In particular, he says that the process of converting white fat to beige fat starts with temperature sensing nerves in the skin! I would have assumed that difficulty maintaining core body temperature would have been the initiator, but apparently not: All you need to do is get your skin cold. This means that going for cold-weather runs will do the trick, which has to be the easiest possible way to do it, because your body produces enough heat while running to scarcely feel cold at all.

Thinking about this sort of thing makes it easier for me to get my mind right with winter.

Also helpful is that we’re getting a few days of less-cold weather. It’s still cold enough to provide the necessary circumstances to induce some cold adaptation, but not so cold that I immediately turn up the thermostat and pull out my warmest parka whenever I need to go outside. In fact, I’ve been making  a point of dressing slightly less warmly—choosing a jacket one notch down—than I would if comfort were my only criterion.

I expect that by the time full-blown winter weather arrives, I’ll have gotten my mind right.

On adjusting to the cold and dark

After suffering from SAD for half my life, I’ve had it pretty good the past few years. Last year in particular was actually great—it was like I was a regular person.

This year has not gotten off to a good start, with gloom pressing in on me before we’d even reached Halloween.

With every year being an experiment with n=1 it’s hard to know what makes a difference and what doesn’t, but one thing that occurred to me right away was that last year I had gotten my mind right about the cold (in particular) early.

Two strong influences in the early fall last year were Jackie (who always enjoys the cold weather as an opportunity to wear her woollies) and Katy Bowman (who talks about cold as an opportunity for movement).

In particular, in the run-up to last winter, I came upon not just Katy Bowman but plenty of other natural-movement/ancestral-health folk talking about using cold as an appropriate stressor via cold training.

Many things that people do to induce healthful, adaptive changes in the body are stressors, and produce their beneficial effects precisely for that reason—because the body adapts to tolerate the stress by becoming stronger. Load-bearing exercise makes for stronger muscles and bones. Endurance exercise strengthens the cardiovascular system. Mechanical stresses make for tougher skin. Heat (as in a sauna, but also just from being active outdoors on a hot day) prompts the production of heat-shock proteins that have numerous protective effects at a cellular level, and it turns out that not just heat but all kinds of other stressors, including cold, cause the body to upregulate the production of those same proteins.

Anyway, my point is not that I need to jump into some Wim Hof-style cold training, but that there was a mental shift that I managed to make last year: to view cold as an appropriate stressor that I should revel in, rather than a source of unpleasantness that I should avoid.

This year I haven’t (yet) managed it. Partially I think it was just that the people I follow about this stuff probably feel like they’ve had their say about cold training and have moved on to other stuff, so I wasn’t hearing about it at exactly the right time. Partially I think it was because of the details of the change of seasons this year: We had hot summer weather right into October, then there was a week when it was very rainy, and then it changed to cold, late-fall weather.

Something about missing out on the transition from summer to fall meant that I was taken off-guard. I went from walking shirtless in the sun to wearing a winter coat with no transition except some days when it was too cloudy to get any sun anyway.

However, I am determined not to let this thwart me. It is not too late to get my mind right about the cold.