Racing in Winter

Article by Paul Vousden
Friday 3rd February 2012

Paul is a keen adventure racer with years of experience, an outdoor geek and the consummate outdoor multi-sport enthusiast. He's passionate about being outdoors on foot, by bike, in kayak or - hopefully - on top of skis. Paul has competed in several multi-day expedition races and among his proudest achievements is completing the fearsome Petit Trot a Leon (PTL) in 2009. A 250km, route in the alps circling the famous Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB) course, and taking in 25,000m of ascent. Paul and his team finished 9th in 110 hours of non-stop running & trekking. It is challenges like this where equipment is so heavily relied upon and tested. Paul has also worked in the outdoor trade since his early teens and now has over 15 years' experience of outdoor equipment and clothing.

 Racing In The Winter Paul Vousden planetFear

You've paid your money and made it to the start line, but the weather is foul. Sound familiar? This guide will give you some advice to help make sure you finish your race and enjoy the challenge of overcoming the elements. It can be really rewarding to survive the worst of the British weather, but it can also be dangerous.

If you were to head into the hills on a foul weather day for a training run, then it is likely you will carry more kit to stay warm and dry. When you are racing though, the temptation is to shed some weight and rely on your increased work rate to help keep you warm. "If you're cold, run faster!". There is some truth in that, but it is not the whole story.


Racing In The Winter Paul Vousden planetFear - Image James Kirby Image - James Kirby. Open Adventure


There are two main problems to winter cold hands and frozen water, if you get these sorted, the rest is easy.

Cold hands are dangerous, and need to be avoided. If your hands go numb you can't control your bike, hold a map, zip up your clothing, tie your shoelaces, and most importantly; open food wrappers. Numb hands are the start of a dangerous spiral into severe hypothermia, as you will lose the ability to undertake the necessary tasks to improve your condition.

In this article we are going to first look at prevention, and then cure. We will be considering kit and food choice first, and then offering advice on how to use it.


Gloves Racing in Winter Paul Vousden 


Gloves: This is the most critical aspect and it's not as easy as simply putting on the thickest, most waterproof ones you can find. Water can conduct heat away from your hands 25 times faster than air, so a wet glove can sometimes be worse than bare hands. This is true in cold and dry conditions, but then your glove shouldn't be wet. However, your glove can become wet through carelessness and sweat. So, if it is a cold and dry day, you can often wear a thinner glove than you think to avoid saturating it with sweat. If it's a really cold day this sweat can freeze, but more likely is that the wet sweat will start to sap heat from your hands. A wet glove will also make it very hard to get your hand back in to as it sticks to the glove lining, and you can't quite force your pinky finger into its hole.

The most critical thing to consider when buying a winter glove is; can you easily take your hand in and out when your hand is moist? Getting the right size is often critical. Make sure you try them on, and if in doubt go on the big side.



For a cold dry day take a look at these options:


Above Freezing - These will allow sweat to escape quickly, and dry very fast with some body heat if they get damp. Also quite easy to get on, and roll up small if you decide you don't need them.

Around Freezing Point - Powerstretch is great, the stretch makes them easy to put on, and offers some wind resistance. The grip on these will be useful for working with map and compass. In snow the surface of powerstretch will not let snow cling like conventional fleece gloves.

Windproof option - Wind can have a big cooling effect. Wind on a wet glove is even worse. A windproof membrane allows better moisture control, over a waterproof glove.

Below Freezing - Lots of insulation, and a good wrist closure is the key here. Leather palms grip best in very cold conditions.



For a cold wet day take a look at these.

All are waterproof, but remember that water will find a way in somehow, so take a second pair with you to make sure you can recover from numb hands.

Biking  - A good high cuff to tuck inside your jacket sleeve will help prevent water running into the cuff.

Running - These softshell gloves are ideal as they don't absorb a lot of water. They also offer a little wind and water protection. Your hands don't suffer cold so much when running as they are always moving, but a wind chill will soon change that.

Multisport - The leather palms will help with working a compass, and opening food wrappers etc.

You must also take care to keep gloves dry. Take extra care filling water bottles and if you need to use a hand for support on steep ground that is wet, use a clenched fist instead of your palms. In snow, if you use your hands for support, brush off the snow right away to prevent it either melting and wetting your gloves, or building up and freezing. Your gloves can also get wet from sweating too much (especially in waterproof gloves), which is quite likely as you work hard going uphill. You will suffer cold hands when you are not expending as much heat going downhill.

If your gloves get wet, the ONLY solution to cold hands is to put on DRY gloves.

On a wet day, your gloves are going to get wet no matter how waterproof they claim to be. Water will find a way in through the cuff no matter how you wear them. Mountaineers will often carry a pair of gloves to walk in with, a pair for climbing, and a nice warm pair to walk back home in. This isn't exactly practical to the racer who needs to keep weight down and will often be going up and down hill multiple times. I would recommend wearing the best waterproof gloves you have, and have one spare pair kept dry in a waterproof bag. You are going to have to resign to the fact that your hands are going to deteriorate, but you can prolong that or even prevent it with these tips.


Racing In The Winter Paul Vousden planetFear 


Eating will raise your metabolic rate and produce energy to help you stay warm. You will be using more energy than you think to maintain core body temperature, so you must not neglect to eat regularly throughout the day. This is especially hard when your hands are numb, or your gloves are so thick that you can't open food wrappers.

You can't rely purely on easy to open energy gels in winter, so some good dense carbohydrate, eaten little and often is important. Open the wrappers before the start, and even break up bigger bars into bite size chunks, but still big enough to pick up with big gloves. 3cm is about right. Think about the dexterity you will need to get to your food. Putting the bite size chunks, in a bag with a large opening is a good idea. If you are running then use the chest pocket on your jacket, as the body warmth will stop food from freezing. On a bike, use a feed bag, but line it with a plastic bag than you can open with thick gloves and numb hands. Zip lock bags are virtually impossible to open with gloves on. I use a bag that is big enough just to be rolled or scrunched down. Keep in mind that most energy bars contain a lot of sugar and that if they get wet, the sugar dissolves and you end up with a sticky mess.


Racing in Winter Topeak Tri Bag Paul Vousden 


Kid's sweets can be a good thing to include, but pick a variety that is big enough to handle with gloves, yet small enough to put in your mouth whole. It is likely they will freeze so you may need to warm them up in your mouth before you can bite them.

Ok, so we have seen that selecting the right glove is important, as is keeping them dry. We know that eating will help keep you warm, and how to ensure we can keep eating in the cold. So, what if after all that your hands still go numb, and you need to sort them out to stay in the race.

Firstly, act soon! While you still have a little dexterity left, stop and sort yourself out. Your hands will not get better without action. The first thing to do is to change gloves and eat. Take off your wet gloves, and start eating as much as you can. Rub your hands to get them as dry as possible then quickly try and get your dry gloves on as soon as possible. It is likely this will be quite hard if you have bought the wrong size, or they have a drop liner. You must keep trying, and get your partner or someone to help if you can. If you're lucky you might get them on before the hot aches start. ‘Hot aches' or the ‘screaming barfies' are caused when the warm blood from your core starts to fill your hands again, and it is excruciatingly painful. You must keep your hands moving and get through the pain as fast as possible. Move your hands and arms around as fast as you can. Clench and unclench your fists, windmill your arms, punch the air. Do anything you can as furiously as possible. If you're doing it right you will be getting out of breath and probably screaming a little. At some point when you are close to being warm you will probably start to feel sick and want to sit down. Just try and keep moving, you are almost through it and will feel normal again quite quickly.

If you are biking you will just have to go through this, don't be tempted to set off until you're sorted, as your change of gloves will be in vain, and you will just get worse. If you are running you may be able to get away with changing gloves and eating at the bottom of a hill, and using exaggerated arm movements on the way back up to warm your hands. Sometimes this can take longer, but avoids the agony of hot aches.

To reiterate:

1. Change into warm DRY gloves
2. Eat food, even if you don't want to, it will help.
3. Move rapidly and keep going through the pain of hot aches as fast as possible.

If you have used your last dry gloves and there is still a long way to go, and the weather is not improving, the chances are you will get cold again. It may be time to think about retiring from the race. As described above, it is a vicious and fast spiral into hypothermia if you do not have the dexterity left to counter the effects.

Before moving on to water and hydration, it is worth mentioning a few things about clothing, but this needs a few thousand words of its own to do the subject justice. Unlike summer where modern fabrics will dry very rapidly when saturated with sweat or rain, in winter layers will stay wet or freeze. Just like your gloves, you need to keep dry in sub-zero temperatures. Your clothing needs to allow you to maintain your ideal pace just at the level you begin to sweat, and not above

In winter it is best to go for a baselayer with a figure hugging fit. This will allow it to ‘wick' sweat away from the skin as quickly as possible, to reduce the cooling effect of water. In dry conditions Merino wool can work well.


OMM Vector LS Crew Neck Top Racing In Winter Paul Vousden 

Polypropylene works extremely well in really wet weather as it will notsaturate with water. A Polyester or some kind of hybrid baselayer will make a good compromise, however polyester and hybrid technology varies a lot, with high performance varieties definitely worth the extra cash.

With Gore Tex active shell now on the market this amazing fabric is well worth the investment. It breathes as well as a windproof, and some models are only slightly heavier. Alternatives to Active Shell are out there, and some can deal with moisture, and water vapour better, but they don't carry the ‘Guaranteed to keep you dry' label. Let's face it, here in the UK that is pretty important. 

Haglofs Endo Jacket Racing in Winter Paul Vousden 


It's worth remembering that the thighs - being the biggest muscle in the body - are surrounded by a huge amount of capillary blood vessels. You can lose a lot of heat through your legs. Also, the knee being as complex as it is, will function better if it is warm. Keeping your knees and ankles warm will also help prevent injury.

Finally, when it comes to hydration in winter, you need to put a little more thought into it. In sub-zero temperatures the water in a bladder hose will freeze. So keep the bladder next to your back in the little pouch that most backpacks have for them. Instead of an insulated tube, just blow back the water into the bladder, and wipe the mouth piece to prevent it freezing up. Wipe it on your jacket, not your gloves just in case it leaks some water. Using a product like High5 electrolytes can help prevent freezing as they contain a lot of Sodium.

If you are using bottles and they are attached to your bike or backpack rather than inside it, it's best to insulate the bottles using a high density foam, or fill them with warm water. The theory is that you won't need to drink for the first 30 mins or so, by which time it will be at drinking temperature, and you have had 30mins less time for it to freeze. Just keep an eye on them, as a good shake, and a drink to clear the nozzle will often sort them out. If you leave a bottle too long, it will have frozen solid. The nozzles freeze first, and that is just as useless as the whole bottle freezing.




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