Deanna Brasz knows that other runners think she’s nuts. All winter long, she runs in her sports bra and shorts and, whether jumping over snow banks or doing speed work on ice, Brasz, 28, remains shirtless. She says wintertime is her favourite time to run.
“It’s so beautiful in the winter—I can’t get enough,” says Brasz, who echoes that calibre of runner we’ve all seen running topless while the smoke forms from their breath and their run club members switch to hot chocolate from Nuun. “A lot of people tell me I’m brave, but other people tell me I’m psycho. Neither thing really bothers me. I just know I have to keep moving or I’m going to freeze.”
We’ve all been there on a February long run: showing up for a workout dressed more like for a camping weekend than for a hard session at the track. But the people who run in the wintertime dressed for summer—singlets and shorts, or else running in no shirt at all—come ready for battle. Dr. Greg Wells, a performance coach and scientist in translational medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children, is an advocate of the cold plunge, and he says these types of extreme winter warriors are tapping into deep reservoirs of motivation. “When you run shirtless in the winter, you have to live in the present moment and you can’t think about anything else,” says Dr. Wells, adding that there’s lessons to be learned for the long-distance runner in this kind of temperature challenge. “It’s all about setting intentions and, when things get difficult, letting go and relaxing. I think running without a shirt in the wintertime is incredibly valuable training for controlling your mindset.”
Of course it can also be dangerous. Brasz says sometimes her legs go numb and she can’t feel anything and Dr. Wells warns that a runner should never take a cold plunge on their own. Benhur Pereira is a winter runner who not only goes topless, but sometimes also runs on the Rideau Canal at Christmas without shoes. At minus 18, shirtless, he can talk to a fellow runner; at minus 25, he says, talking becomes more difficult. “Minus 33,” he says, “is the point where talking is not possible—you just keep running. Without being strong mentally, everything falls apart.”
The mental part is the key for embracing cold temperatures. Pereira says you have to lean into the experience and make each step intentional. It’s actively participating in your workout. Do that, or else—like a coyote still running when she’s no longer on the cliff—you freeze.
“I’m completely in a different zone when I’m running in the winter without shoes or a shirt and if you get distracted and start panicking, you’ll start feeling cold,” he says, “but as long as you focus on your breathing and keep your breathing calm and you’re not panicking, I find it empowering. I do it for my mental health.”
Mental health, especially these days, is of tantamount importance and we’re all looking for ways to stay motivated and positive, optimistic and engaged. Many runners show up for winter races in shorts and singlets and there’s something to the shirtless-in-the-wintertime concept that ties directly to keeping an edge. Brasz is an ultramarathon runner with an outgoing personality, which is also important because running in a sports bra on the snow is guaranteed to attract looks. She pays them no mind, or else draws energy from her audience. The world bends to the will of Deanna Brasz.
“People do a double-take when they see me, but I just smile. I think seeing me makes other runners feel like they have to go harder,” she says, adding that she runs faster in the winter than the summertime, when she wears the same outfit in the heat as in the cold and finishes her August runs “looking like I just came out of a swimming pool.”
“I don’t wear pants anymore when I run—ever,” she told me. “It makes me feel more alive.”