Picture this. It’s 37 degrees out, full sun, no wind. I emerge from my house for a run wearing my full winter ensemble which includes long pants, two long-sleeved shirts, and a multi-layer windbreaker/jacket with the hood zipped tightly around my face over top of my hat. The finishing touch is a set of mittens that would make it seem to the innocent bystander as if I might be on my way to summit Everest. The other night, I arrived at running club in weather just like this, slightly warmer than average for the middle of winter in Ohio, especially after dark. As we stood around waiting to begin (standing around is a recipe for disaster for me), another runner who I didn’t know turned, looked at my hands, then looked up at me and said simply, “Mittens, huh?” I was pretty sure I could also hear the unsaid thought…. “New to running, huh?”
Raynaud’s Phenomenon occurs when the blood vessels of the extremities constrict, restricting blood flow beyond what’s normal. Fingers and toes often turn bright white and look kind of dead. In my case, that’s about as far as it gets, but apparently, they can progress to blue and then scary bright red. My experience is often accompanied by numbness or reduced sensation, but others report experiencing pain as well. As extremities warm up, you can literally watch the blood flow return as the clearly defined line between properly circulating tissue and bright white tissue moves from proximal to distal on the extremity. I am probably a mild sufferer as my most significant symptom is often the accompanying panic attack over whether I’ll lose a finger this time. Raynaud’s Phenomenon may be primary (no apparent cause), or secondary to another disease that affects blood flow to the extremities (like diabetes, for example).
You don’t have to be in a harsh environment to experience this phenomenon. Sometimes I’ll be in the refrigerated section of the grocery store and look down at my hands to find that distinctive delineation between the part with blood circulating and the part without. In these cases, the best and simplest correction I’ve found is to take my bare fingers and press them up against some piece of the skin on my body’s core which is always circulating properly. In other words, you might see me walking through the grocery store with my hand shoved up my shirt or nestled into the crook of my neck. For these reasons, it’s nice to go places with a partner so that you can stick your hands up their shirts and shock them as you defrost your frigid hands instead of using your own body heat. If you find a nice enough person, they’ll be overjoyed to make this small sacrifice for you!
According to the internet, which I blindly trust with information about my health, primary Raynaud’s Phenomenon (the spontaneous type that is not linked to some other type of pathology) is more common in women than in men and often begins to occur between the ages of 15 and 25. Sure enough, this has been true for me.
I recall a time during my late teens when I didn’t think twice about spending a day skiing. I will no longer even entertain this horrifying idea! Unlike while running, activity is intermittent while skiing. I may warm up during a run down the slope, but give me five minutes of rest on that chair lift, and my day is shot. Blood flow shuts down and my extremities start to panic. And no, it doesn’t matter how thick my socks are or whether I had my boots properly fitted. I’m so tired of hearing people explain to me that I just need “a really nice pair of gloves.” Oh, girl, no. You have no idea. First of all, gloves, gloves of any sort are NOT on my menu anymore. If it’s cold enough outside for a normal person to cover their fingers, then I might as well wear mittens because gloves won’t help. By virtue of keeping all of the fingers separated, I’m pretty sure that gloves make the problem worse. And God forbid they’re snug. That’s a recipe for disaster. So scratch the gloves. And if it’s warm enough outside that a normal person would look at you with a funny expression if you asked whether you should put on gloves… then it’s good glove weather for me.
As a disclaimer, there are several gloves on the market which I discovered while preparing this post that advertise themselves as Raynaud’s gloves. I haven’t tried any of them, so I can’t speak to their usefulness. I do, however, think that a good hand or foot warmer like the Hot Hands brand are useful when you need to plan to be outside for a while.
This does not, however, mean that I’m incapable of getting too hot. Wearing all those layers can eventually, once my body is generating enough heat on the run, make me REALLY hot. The problem is that if I start out too cold, I have trouble generating enough heat to recover. That makes it tough to regulate my temperature, but I’m comfortable shedding layers as I go. First gloves/mittens get stuffed in my pockets, then the whole jacket gets tied around my waist. I finish my run looking a little frumpy and disheveled, but I have all my digits still attached.
I also recall a time in my late teens and early 20’s when I was learning to go for winter distance runs. My uniform differed distinctly from my uniform of today. I still wore the same trusty outer layer (my lucky red running jacket), one or two base layers, and long tights. But I wore this thin little pair of gloves, just a barely there fine layer of woven cotton, yes, separating my fingers. I knew that I would be cold when I left the house, but I trusted (because time and time again it proved to be true) that I would warm up after a half mile or so and feel perfect. My blood would flow, and all would be well. I was a disciple of the Runner’s World (.com) “what to wear” feature. I typed in the scientific data about the weather in my area. Wind at 12 mph (not 11, not 13, 12), temperature 36, partial sun, no wait, is it starting to drizzle? Light rain. Then it computed a solution and spit out a wardrobe suggestion, and I methodically replicated it with items from my wardrobe. Not so any longer! Now I just heap on comical layers until I feel sure I won’t die, and I head out.
As I got a bit older, I first attributed this new weakness to a general lack of toughness. Once in college, I replaced the light thin red knit gloves with a dual layer slightly warmer pair of teal gloves. (These had been my trusty middle school gloves, reserved for the COLDEST of days. Now they were routine running gloves.) As more years went by, I started to realize that gloves wouldn’t do, and I began to layer socks on my hands, and in recent years, I’ve been wearing my hard-core ski mittens with pockets built in for hand warmers. And please don’t get the idea that these are impervious to the cold! It still depends on the day and the conditions. For example, on a cold day, even in my super-mittens, I’ll begin to lose circulation in the fingers of the hand holding the dog’s leash, and I’ll need to switch hands so that I can clutch my fingers together in a ball inside the mittens for a few moments so they can mooch off the heat of one another. No, I haven’t found a perfect solution yet.