Yeah, babe – it’s cold outside!

Current temp in Ottawa is -24 degrees Celsius

After a couple of years of relatively mild temperatures, winter seems to have made a comeback in Ottawa.  Over the course of the last few weeks, we have had temperatures in the negative double digits and a bitter wind has added the dreaded wind chill factor and makes it feel even chillier.

Acquaintances and colleagues often ask me if I run in the winter.  When I answer in the affirmative, they probe with talk of treadmills and indoor tracks.  Upon hearing that I run outside all year round their eyes go wide.  I already have a reputation of being somewhat strange, since I run races that are 100 km long (“Really – over how many days?” they will ask), and running outside in minus 24 degrees Celsius just adds to this perception.

But as anyone who runs will know:  there is no bad weather, there is only bad gear.  If we took the Goldilocks approach training, we’d never really get in shape, as it would likely always be too hot, too cold, too rainy, too windy and rarely just right.  So we just get out there and enjoy whatever Mother Nature will throw at us.

Canadians know that dressing in layers is the key to staying warm in winter.  Wicking layers close to the skin will transport any moisture away from the body.  Then we add a thermo layer to keep warm and finally a shell to keep the wind out.  Exposed skin can freeze pretty quickly, so I cover up.  The bits that are unprotected even when sporting the bank robber look, I cover with Vaseline to prevent frostbite.  Beware of overdressing, though, as we can go from overheating and sweating excessively to hypothermia very quickly.

Footing can also present a challenge when winter running.  After a fresh snowfall, running on bike trails and sidewalks will be slow going and hard work.  I don’t worry about distances and pace in those conditions and tell myself that if it’s hard, it’ll make me stronger.  After all, that’s the reason for being out there in the first place.

Snowshoe Trail Marker

Ice is a different story, though, and taking the risk of getting injured in a fall is just not worth it.  If it’s really slippery, I strap a pair of running snowshoes to my sneakers and hit the trails.  Snowshoe running is a phenomenal workout and opens up a whole lot of trails that may not be accessible just in sneakers this time of the year.

Here in Ottawa, we can also take to the ice!  Skating on the Rideau Canal is another cross training option which especially appeals during the Winterlude Festival where hot chocolate awaits at the many vendor stalls on the Canal post workout. The benefits of chocolate milk as a recovery drink have been well documented in sports nutrition literature of late.

Anyone skating on the Canal will also spot runners who use the edges of the Canal as their running route.  Old school Canal runners will often put screws into the soles of their sneakers while the more modern athlete may just pick up a pair of YakTrax to save themselves the trouble.

Skating on the Rideau Canal Skateway (Photo courtesy of the National Capital Commission)

Cross country skiing is also a perfect alternative when the footing is bad on the roads and sidewalks.  And as with any cross training activity, it works some muscles that we underutilize in running and thus helps build better overall strength.

But there is one more important ingredient needed for training on extra cold winter days – a positive attitude!  Winter in Canada is long and few of us have the option to jet off to warmer climes for half the year.  So, embrace it, make it your friend, enjoy the beautiful winter scenery and most importantly, just get out there!

The Training Begins in Earnest!

Running behind the Museum of Civilization

January is here and the time of unstructured training is over.  It is time to get serious about the preparation for my run across The Gambia!

The question I receive most frequently from people when they here about my “summer vacation plans” is not the one that first came to my mind.  Hardly anyone has asked me: “Oh my – how do you plan to raise all that money?”  Instead, people wonder about how I will get my body ready to take on the challenge of running 30 kilometers a day for a period of two weeks in extreme heat and humidity.

Over the course of the holiday season, I ran when I felt like it, went as far or as short as I wanted to and didn’t worry much about strength training.  I also ate and drank whatever my little heart desired.  Now that the new year has begun, it’s time to buckle down.  The month of January is serving as my adaptation period to get back into a regular routine of running four times during the week, as well as running longer distances on Saturdays and Sundays.

My weekday runs will often double as my commute to or from work – a distance of about 13 kilometers.  My partner Marc and I have a great routine worked out where one of us will run to work while the other drives the car.  On the way back, we switch.  This eliminates the need to run with a heavy backpack containing winter boots, a bulky winter coat and everything else we need for a day at the office.  And commuting under our own steam helps us get a workout in, no matter how long and busy the work day gets.

Snowhoe Running in Winter Wonderland

Some of the week day runs will be replaced by cross country skiing or snowshoe running.  Gatineau Park is full of incredible trails and cross training in another sport will keep the mind and body fresh.  Not to mention that embracing winter is the only way to get through it without the winter blues.

Weekend runs will start to build this month to approximately two hours each on Saturday and Sunday.  While training plans often give detailed information about distances and pace for each workout, Ottawa winters are no time for such precision.  Icy paths, slippery roads, deep snow as well as being dressed like the Michelin man and displaying equal grace of movement do not make for fast running times!  Time on my feet and perceived effort is all I count in those conditions where distances and pace become arbitrary when we take two steps forward and slide one step back.

Yoga will remain a regular part of my workout routine, as the strength I gain from it and the stretching help keep me injury free.  Not to mention that it is great fun, as you can read in Limbering up with Yogi B.

Hill training builds strength, too!

Towards the end of the month, once my body has had a chance to adapt to being on a regular schedule again, I’ll start introducing a bit of strength training after one run per week.  This will consist of lunges, single-leg jumps, squats, as well as some core strengthening.  Throughout February, I will gradually increase my weekend long runs while continuing my strength training.  Skiing will also remain part of the program, including an annual cross-country ski weekend in Papineau Labelle in the beautiful Laurentians, where we ski from cabin to cabin along back country trails.

At the end of February, it will be time to take stock and to build the training plan for the next two months.

But how will all this training in the snow and cold temperatures get me prepared for running in high heat and extreme humidity in The Gambia this summer?  Winter training will not get my body ready for the physical challenges I’ll face during The Gambia’s rainy season, but it will sure help get me mentally prepared.  Stepping out the door to go for a two hour run on a day when the temperature is minus 20 degrees Celsius with the wind chill will toughen anybody up.  Learning to cope with extreme conditions during our winter will help me to the same during the heat in The Gambia, where the physical adaptation will take place each day I run.

For motivation during the cold months, it is also a good idea to have some interim goals and fun events to look forward to.  On my agenda for the spring is the Chocolate Race in Port Dalhousie, Ontario and the Ottawa Race Weekend, where I will run alongside members of Team Love4Gambia who will support my expedition to help kids in The Gambia.

So far the adaptation period is going very well and it feels great to be back on a regular schedule.  I will keep you informed about my progress and about the next phase of my training plan towards the end of February.  Keep active this winter and see you out on the roads and trails!

Training in the Nation’s Capital

As a runner and outdoor enthusiast, I can`t think of where I`d rather live and train than right here in the National Capital Region of Ottawa/Gatineau.  With over 550 kilometers of trails and recreational pathways, there are scenic, traffic–free running routes for every taste and any time of the year.  Plenty to explore in preparation for a 424 kilometer run across The Gambia!

View while running along the Ottawa River

More than 230 kilometers of the mostly paved recreational pathways follow the river system and the historic Rideau Canal, offering spectacular views along tree lined riverbanks and taking runners through city parks, past the impressive Parliament Buildings and many other Ottawa sights like the National Art Gallery , National Arts Centre, and the War Museum, to name but a few.

Spring is my favourite time to run along the pathways, as the bursts of colour from the tulip beds and the sightings of fluffy, newly hatched goslings will inevitably put a smile on my face.  The fact that the deep freeze is over probably also contributes!   Having said that, winter running on the frozen canal alongside the skaters can also be pretty entertaining, especially since not everyone skates like Sidney Crosby (myself included!).

Ottawa’s Greenbelt boasts another 150 kilometers of trail around the circumference of town.  Here we can find little gems, such as Stoney Swamp with its beaver ponds and forests or the Mer Bleue Bog, a 3,500 hectare conservation area of a northern boreal landscape.  Running along the trails and bouncy boardwalks through the bog will put a spring in anyone’s step.  In the winter, it is fun to explore these trails on snowshoes.  As a bonus, snowshoe running builds functional leg strength and will make running in just a pair of shoes feel easy.

Trails and cabins in Gatineau Park

Gatineau Park has to be my favourite, though.  165 kilometers of forest trails: some technical, some easier to negotiate, many offering spectacular vistas after a glute-burning climb, and all of them guaranteed to get your shoes and legs dirty.  Now that’s my kind of running! Bear and deer sightings are not uncommon.  In the summer, we often finish a run by one of the lakes to cool off and escape the bugs.  In the cooler weather, we gather post-run  at a café in the scenic community of Chelsea, Quebec, to warm up with soup and hot chocolate.

The park is also sprinkled with cabins that make amazing potluck dinner destinations.  Tuesday nights are popular potluck nights and we run or ski up to a cabin carrying packs stuffed with food on our backs to contribute to the feast.  Talk about earning your dinner!

In the winter, the park’s trails and parkways turn into groomed classic and skate ski trails, as well as into snowshoe paths.  You bet it’s cold – best not to look at the little thermometer on your jacket zipper unless you have to figure out what wax to use on your skis.

Snowshoe Running in Gatineau Park

But Ottawa is not only conducive to running due to its extensive trail network.  Each summer, the city’s and Gatineau Park’s parkways close to traffic on Sunday mornings to make way for runners, roller bladers, cyclists, walkers and roller skiers.  Kids practice riding their bikes with training wheels and parents push baby joggers along the river system while cyclists fly down the hills in Gatineau Park, safe in the knowledge they will not be encountering any cars.

And last, but not least, another huge plus for running in Ottawa/Gatineau is that we have a tremendous athletic community.  There is no shortage of talent and enthusiasm, as well as a ready willingness to support others that are part of the athletic family.   Here’s hoping that we’ll be able to spread some of that love in The Gambia as well!

Thanks for reading and for your support to Love4Gambia!