Jogging in shorts can be risky in winter weather

A group of students stand shivering in a bus shelter, their mittened hands clumsily lifting coffee thermoses to their chapped lips. Across the street, a sweaty jogger breezes by in shorts.

Surprisingly, a number of winter runners prefer a little skin exposure. Take a stroll through campus and you’ll see joggers treading over snow-covered sidewalks, a seeming mile of skin between where their shorts end and crew socks cuff.

Onlookers are not the only ones confused and concerned for the health of these human polar bears; doctors also believe pant-less legs are risky when it’s cold.

“I see people running around in shorts and I think they’re either crazy or just trying to show off,” said Rex Clark, physical therapist for the SportWell Program located at the McKinley Health Center. “I run around at 9 p.m. after the kids go down, and I’m always bundled up.”

Clark believes the injuries that could result from underdressing for the elements are similar to those of athletes not doing warm-ups before exercising. If runners start out too cold, either from lack of stretching or lack of clothing, he says the muscles are cold as well and soreness and injuries are more likely to occur.

Nick Palmer, graduate student in Engineering, doesn’t buy it.

A member of the nonprofit Second Wind Running Club in Champaign, Palmer regularly wears shorts when he goes out for a 5.8-mile jog up to twice a week with other clubbers.

“Below 20 degrees is borderline for me,” Palmer said, explaining how cold it would have to get before he’d consider leaving his shorts in his dresser. “If I wear good socks, I’m fine running in almost any temperature.”

On the same blustery days Palmer wears shorts while jogging, he puts on a heavy coat, long pants and thick socks after he changes out of his running shoes.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he asked, surprised there would be any other way to dress in cold weather. “The shorts are just for jogging.”

Beth Frasca, exercise physiologist and health education generalist for the SportWell Program, thinks Palmer’s jogging attire should be the exception rather than the rule.

Frasca recommends runners dress in three layers — both above and below the waist — before hitting the icy streets. The layer closest to the skin should be made of a synthetic material, preferably one that wicks sweat away. She says 100 percent cotton materials aren’t the best choices because they retain moisture from sweat and end up making runners feel colder. A fleece sweatshirt is preferable for the next layer, and a waterproof breathable jacket is the best way to top it all off. Additionally, she says to fill and take a water bottle, as people need to stay hydrated in the winter just as they do in warmer seasons.

“Another thing runners often forget to do is cover their hands, feet and ears,” Frasca said, adding that asthma-sufferers should wrap their nose and mouth with a scarf to prevent breathing in cold air. “Those areas are more vulnerable to the elements.”

When the temperature dips below zero, Frasca says people should forget about exercising outside in any apparel. It’s just not safe. The wind chill should always be taken into account as well.

“Now that I’ve said all this, I’ll add that my husband could probably wear shorts outside all year long,” Frasca added, laughingly. “Sometimes people know their own bodies best.”