Using precautions, runners can continue exercise routines in cold weather

Blair Gorsuch is no fair-weather runner. When the temperature drops below zero and the north wind blows strong, this 50-year-old man doesn't hesitate to lace up his sneakers for a run.

"Running is a good cardiovascular exercise that I enjoy year-round," said Gorsuch, director of the CardioPulmonary Rehabilitation Center at Proctor Hospital in Peoria.

"If you dress properly and use a little common sense, you can run on the coldest days of winter. I don't really do too much different for my winter runs. I just dress right."

Running in a winter landscape with snow blanketing the earth can be quite scenic like moving through a Currier & Ives' print, Gorsuch said.

About five days a week, Gorsuch runs a 7-mile loop that goes from the hospital through Peoria Heights. For many years, people were reluctant to run outdoors in wintertime for fear their lungs would freeze. That's a myth, Gorsuch said.

"It can be 20 or 30 degrees below zero and you won't freeze your lungs," he added. "The air is warmed by the body before it enters the lungs."

But Gorsuch warned that cold air can cause some runners problems. If this is the case, a face mask might help. Not everyone, however, is a candidate for winter running.

"For people with heart or lung diseases, it's not good to do any prolonged exercise outdoors when the temperature is 20 degrees or colder," Gorsuch said.

"The cold air causes blood vessels to constrict and reduces the flow of blood to the heart," he said. "That obviously wouldn't be good for someone with heart problems. And for anyone who has not exercised a great deal or who has health problems, it's advisable to consult with a doctor before running."

For most healthy people, however, running year-round is a good way to remain healthy. Running improves cardiovascular fitness, helps one lose weight, builds bone strength and reduces stress for both men and women, Gorsuch said.

A 1995 study by Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., found prolonged vigorous exercise like running was even more beneficial to women than previously thought. The study found that the more miles a woman runs, the greater the benefits. That was true up to 40 miles per week.

The study found that women in the 40-mile club reduce their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by an estimated 45 percent. Overall, their risk of developing heart disease is an estimated 29 percent less for long-distance women runners.

The study also reported that weight loss from running translated to smaller waists and hips. Women who ran 10 miles a week had an average waist size of 28.3 inches and hips of 37.3 inches. Average waist size for women in the 40-mile club was 25.8 inches with hips of 34.8 inches. And the health benefits of running don't stop when the calendar turns to winter, Gorsuch said.

During his college days, Gorsuch was a competitive swimmer at Miami University in Ohio.

"When I got out of school, I was looking for something to do to stay in shape," he said. "I enjoyed running immediately. It was something different than looking at the black line at the bottom of the pool."

He's been running regularly since 1973. In addition to running and swimming, Gorsuch is also a bicyclist. Naturally, he's an avid triathlete.

"When I turned 40, I competed in a triathlon (18-mile bike ride, 1-mile swim and 5K run) in Jamaica," Gorsuch recalled.

"It was a birthday present from my wife," he said. "I won the event. I even beat a couple of national swimmers from Jamaica. I've done lots of triathlons and 18 full marathons, since I started running. But in the past two years, I haven't done a single race. Training was taking too much time away from my family."

While he no longer competes, he still runs, bikes and swims for recreation. Each week, he typically runs 35 miles, swims three hours and bikes three to four hours.

"The clothes have made it so much easier to run in winter," Gorsuch said. "They are so much more functional. They are light enough so you can keep your form while running, but also stay warm and dry."

Modern running garments are now made of high-tech materials like polypropylene and polar fleece that keep the body temperature steady, while wicking the moisture away from your skin to the surface layer of clothing, according to Rebecca Dorsey, sales representative at Running Central in Peoria.

"You want to stay away from cotton," Dorsey warned. "That keeps the moisture against your skin."

Avoid cotton socks and T-shirts and wear polyproplyene underwear, the experts recommend. And every winter runner knows the benefits of layering clothes. This traps warm air between the layers and acts as insulation.

The well-dressed runner should also wear an outer shell that protects against wind and rain. And since most body heat is lost through the extremities, head, hands and nose should be covered.

There are also waterproof running shoes to keep feet totally dry when sloshing through puddles. Since winter often means running in the dark, a reflective vest or tape should be worn on jackets and pants to make one more visible to motorists.

Over the years, Gorsuch has learned a thing or two about running in winter.

"I like to be cool to cold when I first step outside to run," the veteran runner said. "I know I will warm up fast. You don't want to be freezing or too toasty when you start your run."

Heat generated by your body can be seven times as great when running as it is at rest, leading some runners to overdress at the start of their run. To help keep from getting chilled, run into the wind at the start and with the wind at your back on the way home, Gorsuch advised.

Use common sense, he said. Don't run when streets are icy or in heavy traffic.

"You are better off running on an inside track or hitting the treadmill than running on icy roads," Gorsuch said.

"I often run at Zeller (mental health center at 5407 N. University). It's a nice loop. The roads are always clear, and it is well-lighted with virtually no traffic."

It was while running in a 20-degree-below to 30-degree-below zero day more than 20 years ago that Gorsuch met his best friend.

"The wind was blowing and snow was on the ground," Gorsuch said. "There was no traffic or people on the streets. I guess I was running just to say I did it. There was one other person running the streets that day.

"We ran together for two weeks during the coldest part of winter. We were so bundled up that we didn't know what the other guy looked like until the weather got warmer."


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