Coping With Winter Winds

For Central Texans in the summer, it’s the heat and humidity. In the winter, we get the wind. Either condition can be brutal.

But unlike the heat and humidity that are a constant on just about any summer run, the winter wind is either your best friend or worst enemy. When a stiff breeze is at your back on a long, out-and-back or loop runs, running can seem practically effortless. One big problem. If the wind’s at your back on part of the run, you’re going to have to run smack dab into the teeth of it sooner or later.

There’s almost no way around the stiff Texas winds—usually from the north–which punctuate running in the fall and winter. Some runners in exceptionally windy areas of the country, such as the wind tunnel which can be rural Kansas, have been known to do a workout entirely with the wind at their backs and then have someone meet them with a car and drive back so they don’t have to turn around and fight the headwind. Evidently, in Kansas, some headwinds are just too strong to run into. (I have actually done this.)

Strangely enough, running into a headwind hurts you much more than a tailwind helps you. For example, a tailwind of 10 mph will give you about a five percent boost but when you turn around and run into the same 10 mph wind, it will slow you down about eight percent. Hardly seems fair.

Well, nobody ever said Mother Nature was especially fair. Especially in the Texas winter when running into a frigid north wind sweeping down from the Plains can have serious consequences, other than just slowing you down. An entirely tolerable 40-degree morning can be downright miserable when running into a 20 mph wind which will drop the windchill significantly. Toss in a little precipitation and you might want to reconsider even running.

On an out-and-back run on a cold, windy day, the temptation is to start your run with the wind at your back. The pace will be effortless and easy and you’ll warm up quickly. But when you turn around into the wind, the windchill will plummet and if you’re wet from sweating on the first part of the run, the howling wind will quickly lower your body temperature.

Trust me on this one: If you can, avoid the temptation to start your runs with the wind at your back. It’s much better to start cold, windy winter runs into the wind and come home with it at your back. It might not be easier, but it’s safer and you’ll be much more comfortable. This is especially true in cold, wet windy weather when moisture seeps into your clothes. Running home with the wind at your back, is much preferable than trying to make it back directly into a bitterly cold north wind.

How do you deal with the wind? Very carefully. When you’re running with the wind, you should try to run with an even effort and resist the temptation to overstride. But when you head into the wind, trying to maintain that same even pace will obviously be much more difficult. The best advice is to respect the wind and slow the pace down a notch or two. Don’t try to fight it. Reduce your stride length. Respect the wind and modify your effort.

Leaning into the wind, will slightly decrease your resistance to it. Try to remain relaxed and not get frustrated by your drop in speed and increase in effort. You have to ski the conditions.

If you are running with a partner or in a group, take turns at the front breaking the headwind. In a race, drafting is a common tactic on a windy day. If you aren’t in front breaking the wind, duck in behind the tallest runner you can find to cut down on the wind’s effects.

If you are planning to run the Decker Challenge on Sunday (December 8), the north wind is almost always a factor in the first few miles and you’ll see plenty of runners forming packs to fight the headwind together. If you do find a pack to shelter from the wind, you also have an implied duty to take your turn at the front breaking the wind for others.

Another tip to dealing with a headwind is to try to find an area with some shelter that gets you out of the wind—even if for just a little. Sometimes, running along a low-lying area, a tree-lined river or heavily wooded section (or through downtown) will allow for a little protection from the wind. Running around Lady Bird Lake is still tough on a howling winter day, but it isn’t as bad as running as doing a long run that heads north into the teeth of a fierce wind.

Another way around the wind is to take a more circuitous route (rather than exactly the same out-and-back loop) back to where you started. It’ll help a little bit.

A side wind isn’t as tough as a headwind, but it also has a unique set of challenges. A side wind will buffet you and throw you off your running rhythm, making it harder to maintain an even tempo.

With any type of stiff wind, don’t worry so much about maintaining a certain training speed or tempo. Instead, focus on effort and try to run as comfortable as possible.

A couple of other tips: Always wear a hat (wool or baseball cap) on cold, windy days. If it’s cold, gloves are also a must. Wear layers so you can adjust your outer wear with the wind (and weather). Vests are great on windy, winter runs because they can be adjusted and many fold into a compact carrying case if it gets too warm.

Always have dry, warm clothes ready to change into at the finish of long, windy winter runs to prevent the chills.