Winter running can make you
smarter - at least I like to think so
Tuesday, January 08, 2013 8:37 AM
I've had a lot of questions about winter running this season. Part of the reason is that some people know I'm running the Winter Wilder, a 30-kilometer, or about 19-mile, race Saturday on gravel roads northeast of Spring Valley. However, I often get a few questions each winter when people see me out on the snow-covered roads in the area.
Now, people think running is a little bit crazy anyway, but running outdoors in winter confirms their suspicions about my sanity, or lack of sanity.
I usually tell people that I work indoors and don't snowmobile or do other outdoor activities, so I like to get outside to run because it is my only time to get out in fresh air during this season. I don't know if that makes me sound any more sane because most people I talk to are trying to find ways to avoid exposing themselves to the winter elements, so they just nod their heads and smile, with, I'm sure, thoughts that this is crazy talk.
However, now I have some scientific backing to justify my routine. Jo Barton, an English researcher at the University of Essex who was the lead author of a 2011 study that analyzed the mental health of 53 people who were involved in indoor or outdoor activities for six weeks, found that going outdoors, even in winter, may make you smarter.
"Humans were hunter-gatherers and farmers for some 300,000 generations [and] have been industrialized for only six to eight, so we are outdoor animals living largely inside," Barton told a national magazine.
"Closeness to nature increases our well-being," Barton added. "It has an immunizing effect by protecting us from future stresses and helping us concentrate and think more clearly."
I like to think that is all happening to me, but in reality I know the real reason I am outside is because I just like to run. Now, I could stay indoors, but running on a treadmill is about the most boring thing in the world and I will do nearly anything to avoid treadmill runs - even venture out in subzero weather on slippery, snow-filled streets.
I must admit, though, that not many people are questioning my sanity when they ask about running outdoors. They are genuinely concerned about my health.
Minnesota winters can get pretty brutal, although not so much any more as we have only had two days with subzero temperatures this winter; both times, a person could have waited for the mercury to climb above zero before heading outdoors. I didn't wait on New Year's Day as I participated in a Resolution Run, which I decided to start early with some friends in air that was 10 degrees below zero. With little wind and lots of sunshine, the run was enjoyable.
Dressing in layers with breathable, technical fabrics that move moisture away from your body keeps you comfortable in most temperatures. Your breathing system creates a natural warming system so, no, the frigid air can't hurt your lungs.
Now, running a 30k run - such as the Winter Wilder - is more of a challenge because it means I will be exposed to the elements for a few hours. Frostbite on exposed surfaces and hypothermia that comes on due to wet clothing are real concerns.
That's why organizer Dustin Harford is recommending teams of runners in this social event. My wife likes to run outdoors, although not in all conditions nor as long as I do, so she volunteered to provide aid rather than join my "team" on the run. So, she will be providing hydration and possible clothing replacements for me along the course.
It may not seem like hydration is as important when temperatures are below freezing compared to the hot, humid days of summer, but your fluid loss is deceptive. A lot goes out through your mouth while exhaling and the effort of running does build up enough heat to sweat, even in brutal, subzero weather.
Plus, I'll have plenty of company as there are 43 other teams, of several individuals or just one, that will be running the Winter Wilder. Even I'm surprised at the number for this first-time, self-supported winter run on gravel roads.
Evidently, others have found the joy of running outdoors in winter. Now, the verdict is still out on whether that makes us smart, as the scientific study indicates, or, dumb to be out wandering around in frigid weather, as what most of you are probably thinking.