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What it feels like to run in -30 C

Cold Lake, Alta-based elite runner Matt Setlack, based on his own experiences, explains the feeling of running in -30 C temperatures.

Matt Setlack
Matt Setlack
Photo via Matt Setlack.

By Matt Setlack

I ran to work this morning as I usually do, and today the outside temperature was -30 C without the wind chill. Earlier this winter I ran in -45 C so this isn’t wasn’t my first rodeo. I run outside in all sorts of “extreme” weather in Cold Lake, Alta. because I know that if I only ran when it was not cold, not dark, not snowy, then I would probably do all my training runs on a treadmill. There is generally snow on the ground in Cold Lake from mid-October to end-April (depending on the year) and a couple years ago, I even saw ice still on Cold Lake in June. I’m not a polar scientist but I have run many hundreds of days to and from work in Cold Lake and these are my personal observations of what it’s like.

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How dangerous is cold weather?

Let me explain how dangerous cold weather can actually be since seeing a temperature on a screen does not really do it justice. If you were driving from Cold Lake to Edmonton when the temperature was -40 C, for example, and your car broke down, you didn’t have a warm jacket and no shelter, you would die. Period. It’s not even a question of “if” you would die, but a question of “how soon” you would die. Trying to survive in those conditions would be like being dropped into the middle of the ocean without a life jacket or life raft…there’s no question what would happen to you eventually. You really need to respect the conditions and dress appropriately.

What does running in -30 C feel like?

The air feels crisp and fresh. There is a stillness in the air.

When you look out the window in the morning, you notice that there is the white furnace exhaust coming out of all the house chimneys. It billows out and lingers in the air. When you first leave the house, it feels like you just jumped into a deep freezer. It usually feels a bit cool at first, which is a good thing because if you felt warm to start, then you would be a sweaty mess (and possibly a hypothermic popsicle) by the time you got to work. Once you start running, the relative airflow over your body cools you down a bit more. According to the Environment Canada Wind Chill Calculator, running 12 km/h in still -30 C air makes the temperature to feel like it’s around -40 C.

When it’s really cold (think -35 C and colder), many materials (like a nylon jacket or backpack) freeze and they develop the consistency of tissue paper; they are no longer soft like a fabric but instead crinkly like paper. The sound of snow crunching under your running shoes makes a different noise when it’s really cold outside; the snow actually squeaks under your feet like styrofoam.

Any exposed skin freezes within minutes. The only exposed skin when I run is around my upper face/eyes. When you’re running outside in these temperatures for long enough, any exposed skin eventually starts to feel like you’re being given a thousand flu shot needles into your face at the very same time or like you’re being stung by a thousand bees simultaneously. Your only saving grace is the fact that the warm air coming from your lungs rises and passes over your upper face, which warms it slightly.

This moisture also freezes on your eye lashes and eye brows – I’m sure you have seen the white frosty look that many runners get. (See below photo, for example.) Eventually, the frost builds up around your face and eyes so much that it starts to restrict your vision if it is not cleared off. When you wear a fabric face mask like a buff, the cold air outside is usually warmed before it goes into your lungs but when it’s super cold (like -40 C cold), the air doesn’t warm up that much and it feels like you’re breathing in cold air no matter how hard/frequent you push the hot air out of your lungs.

Made it home, didn't get licked by a moose. #runcommute #runningroom #frosty #instarunners #alberta #mooselicking

A post shared by Matt Setlack (@mattsetlack) on

Ironically, it is more common for me to make the mistake of dressing too warm for the conditions than too cold for the conditions. When you’re running in these conditions, it is really important to stay dry (dry from snow from running through snow drifts and also dry from not sweating). If you get wet, the moisture freezes and really drags your body temperature down. As long as you keep moving, you will stay warm but as soon as you stop (like for traffic lights), then you really cool down quickly.

The cold also affects your joints; it makes them seize up and sometimes it can be a bit of a struggle just to move them. I notice this first in the joint where my thumb connects to my hand (that’s the area exposed to the relative wind and also relatively far from the heart. The fact that you’re running forward (versus standing still) means that the airflow over your body cools you down a bit more.

Mentally, the cold has an insidious effect; it makes your mind weak and saps your willpower. You need to deliberately force yourself to keep moving. Eventually, if you’re out in the cold long enough and you get cold enough, your body/mind just wants to lay down and go to sleep, which unfortunately would result in freezing to death from hypothermia.

Cold weather can be a challenge to run in but it is not impossible if you dress appropriately.

Matt Setlack is an elite runner based in Cold Lake. This post originally appeared on Matt and Emily Setlack’s blog.