Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Training/Racing in the Cold

I’ll admit straight away, this is not a scientific blog about the benefits and detriments of training in cold conditions, rather my own observations and experiences, particularly over the last couple of weeks as the UK has been hit by a cold spell.

But before that I’ll just mention why there hasn’t been a blog for a couple of weeks. Last week I had to skip the blog, my computer crashed and I was left without a means to run the bulk of my business. However luckily I’ve got some really good mates and one of them rebuilt my computer for me and here I am writing my next blog whilst converting my vinyl copy of ‘After The Goldrush’, by Neil Young, to iTunes. I’ve not had a record player for years but retained all the records from my youth and now I get to hear them on my ipod, scratches and all, thanks to the converter Carole bought me.

But back to the point at hand, training in the cold. Now I’ve never had a big problem with the cold, I don’t particularly like it but I don’t generally let it get in the way of my life. Yes there have been times when the snow and ice has hampered my journey into work but I don’t ever recall not making it into the office in London, Herzogenaurach, Bratislava or Edinburgh. I do recall walking home from work, through the snow, in Edinburgh, because it was quicker to walk the three miles from the office to my home than wait in the cold for public transport. I’m also not keen to let the weather dictate my training to me. If it’s too icy on the road I try to find some grass, though you have to be careful because frozen ruts can be pretty good for turning your ankle. In Germany I ran through the forest when it snowed, it was great while the snow was virginal but, after everybody else at adidas and Puma had run through it, the snow turned into compressed ice and became deadly, as I nearly found out half way through a 5 minute rep. In Edinburgh, when I was working the nightshift, I used to go out any time between 23:00 (if I wanted to try to outrun the drunks) and 04:00 (if we’d had an issue that I needed to be present for), I didn’t care how cold it was, it was preferable to sitting staring at two computer screens, and infinitely more pleasurable than dealing with some of the people I had the pleasure of working with. However there were occasions where I just had to cut the run short because it was too risky. There have also been times when the roads have seemed fine but you hit a sheltered spot or somewhere close to water you suddenly hit a spot of ice. I have come a cropper on ice on two occasions and although suffering cuts and bruises I was lucky enough to continue to run, generally ice is the one thing that will stop me from running, since Steve Bishop of Boxhill fell over on the ice and broke his nose, I’d rather miss one run than two weeks of running.

If it’s cold I’ll wrap up, I have been known to wear two pairs of gloves but I now have a great pair of Ronhill gloves that are really warm. I’ll also wear a hat, particularly as I have less hair these days, currently I’m testing a Hilly hat that is similar to those worn by snowboarders and I have to admit it feels great to wear in these conditions. I also have thermal tops and thermal lycras. Occasionally, I have been known to race in long trousers, sleeves and a hat, though it’s fairly infrequent in big races.

That’s how I turned up at Pennington Flash on 28 January. In truth I often turn up in training gear at parkruns, as it’s more like a sociable time trial than a race, though it’s always nice to win one and I’m still keen to beat Jeff Whittington’s age graded record around Pennington Flash, not sure if I’ll be able to run any faster so may just have to wait until I become more ancient and hope my running doesn’t disintegrate too much. On this particular occasion it was the start of our cold snap and I was even wearing a wind jacket, although there was no wind. As usual, at the start line, Bill gave his safety briefing. There were icy striations but they were avoidable, unless you’re Alex Armstrong, who managed to hit one on the first corner and had to withdraw from the run with a nasty gash on his knee, though looking at the positive it did give him a head start to the Ranger’s hut and the tea and cakes. We set of reasonably cautiously, except for Alex, but I felt like I was running fast as I jumped over the icy bits, hard work jumping while you run. As we approached the part of the course close to the Flash, the sheer cold suddenly hit me like a punch in the chest, I was actually finding it hard to breathe as the air in my lungs was so cold. It’s not often that happens but it made me feel winded. I pressed on but my toes and fingers were cold too so I wasn’t enjoying it (I wasn’t wearing my super Ronhill gloves on this occasion). My breathlessness from the cold and the constant skipping over icy patches was making me feel tired and I’ll admit to not pressing quite as hard this time, I had a good lead on second place and I’d already resigned myself to a post 18 minute clocking, so much that I didn’t bother looking at my watch once during the run. I finished with another win, my 7th at Pennington Flash, but was surprised to clock 17:48, not even my slowest time. It was a good turnout too and everybody finished without incident, apart from Alex. But I was glad to finish and head for the tea and cakes. Still it must’ve been worse for those volunteers standing in the cold, particularly Bill who had to set up and take down the course too.

This last week it’s become colder but so far I haven’t had to miss a session, two years ago I was training on a treadmill as it was too icy to run outside. My gym is a bit cold, mind you, though not as cold as the garage I trained in when I lived in Edinburgh. This morning I had to cut my gym session short by 5 minutes as my fingers were getting too painful, I suffer from Raynaud’s Phenomenon and it can take a long time or a session of washing up to bring feeling back into my fingers, when they get cold.

On Sunday it was a race I’d been looking forward to for a while, the Alsager 5. It has a reputation as a fast course, though I’ve never been able to live up to that. I never got to Alsager when I was at my best and I’ve been told that the course was different in those days. When I turned 40 I made the trip up from London and although, in cold conditions, I ran a disappointing 26:49 for 28th, I was first M40. Moving to Edinburgh that year I never made it back down in my M40-44 period, but two years ago, now living 3 miles away, I entered again. This time I was first M45 in a time of 26:33, though in 38th position. Last year I’d just started running again after two months of injury, so I went to watch instead. This year I’m running ok, I’ve trained hard and was looking to put down a marker at Alsager.

As the week progressed there were reports of the weather getting bad for the weekend but nobody seemed sure and it was also reported that temperatures might be 6C. As the weekend approached forecasts and the weather were getting grimmer, then on Saturday afternoon, whilst we were out looking at new bathrooms, a whole heap of cold white stuff came down around us and boy did it get cold. Of course I was still optimistically looking forward to a 6C Sunday so I wasn’t too bothered.

On the morning of the race, I got up nice and early, so I could have just the right amount of breakfast. I looked out of my window and it didn’t look good, but then we’re on an estate up a side road so it was never going to be as clear as the main road. I checked the website and it was still optimistically referencing the previous night’s message that the road was gritted so all would be ok. Looking at facebook there were clearly a number of other concerned runners. I was in two minds, if the roads were clear then I didn’t have a problem, yes it would be cold but I can run on a road whatever the conditions, but if there was any ice I wasn’t keen to risk it for a biscuit. Sometimes I think my optimism gets the better of me and we set off, yep the roads on the way were much clearer and I was thinking it would be ok if they were like that at the venue, but then we arrived at Alsager and hit
Pikemere Road
, the start point of the race. It was covered in slush, and the rest of the course we saw didn’t look any better. And that was it, a cloud of negativity descended over me, slapped me about the chops a bit and told me I was going to have a bad race.

On a positive note I did get to catch up with many of my running friends before the race, didn’t catch up with many during the race. To be fair to myself, despite the negativity going on in my head, once the gun went I did get into race mode, but it was so difficult to run freely as for the bulk of the race there was only one distinct line and it was rather like running cross country, a game of follow the leader for if you moved off line you lost all traction. I came up on my mate Mick Hatton as we approached a tight right bend, as I was about to pass him he skidded over towards me, luckily my slightly younger legs allowed me to undercut but it wasn’t fun, I thought I was going to end up on the floor. As I went along, finally catching the first M50, Malcolm Eustace, I had a few other near misses. Then we hit a stretch of road with minimal ice, I was able to get into my stride, just as 3 runners passed me. One had a bald head so I was convinced he must be in my age group. I clung onto him and followed him with a plan of where to attack but just at that very point we hit ice again and I slip slided away. I managed to hang onto his short tails with the intention of out sprinting him at the finish, but again it was one good line and the rest ice, I tried to go round him and lost traction again, back into his slip stream but then as we got to the finish and the road area opened out a little he kicked and it was all over 2nd M45 by 1 second. Oh well, to be honest I thought I was running so badly I wouldn’t be in the first 3 M45 and I can’t complain about the way I was beaten because if the road was better, who’s to say he wouldn’t have finished further ahead of me.

We didn’t stay for the presentation, usually we do, but I was soaked, as was Carole who’s still awaiting her result, she seems to have been missed despite the guy reading out her number as she finished. Since the race I’ve lost my motivation to run for any length of time, of course I’m also really busy with organising plumbers, shopping for bathroom stuff and working with a whole load of new clients, so I’m keeping the runs short knowing that it’s only a short matter of time before my motivation is back up.   

Written by Roger Alsop 


  1. I'm probably being overly sensitive, but it wasn't like I was trying to run a sub-4minute mile (not that I could). I went into the run with the intention of enjoying my last parkrun for eight weeks. I started at a very conservative pace and slipped through bad luck more than anything else.

    I really don't mind people having a laugh at my expense -- Bill and I always poke fun at each other, but the way you have written your blog post makes out as if I fell through acting the fool.

    1. Hi Alex, I'm really sorry it reads that way, it certainly wasn't the intention when I wrote it, more a light hearted warning for people to take care on ice. I know you were just a victim of bad luck rather than irresponsible, as I have been in the past. It's not nice to fall, under any circumstances, and I was genuinely concerned for you on the day, in particular for all the hard work you'd put in to achieve your lead in the standings. I have a lot of respect for everyone who runs, walks or volunteers at the parkruns, and I'm agrieved that I've upset you with my banter. Hope to catch up with you after your break.

  2. Fun reading about the cold conditions. We had -22 at the start of vasaloppet 56 miles cross country skiing race. Can u believe that i Did à pb this year. 4hrs 38mins at the age of 40!!! Seriuos fit athletes in the race, 28th was àn olympic champion!!!

    The Pb came 3 weeks after running 30:48 for 10k. (age record for My club I never had so high vo2 Max in My telling u, nordic skiing makes u fly when running!

    Never mind the cold

    See you

  3. Hi Joachim, great to hear from you after so long and what a fantastic time for the 10k, hopefully I might catch up with you at a World or European Masters Champs. I always quite fancied the cross country skiing, just don't get much chance over here. Rog