Do you run in the winter?


I get this question a lot, from runners and non-runners. It’s a valid question considering I live where it snows and temperatures can be below zero. Not only is the weather a challenge, but we also have an inversion— pollution stuck in our valleys because of the cold air above the warm air.

The quick answer is yes, I run in the winter. There are a lot of things to consider when you decide to head out into the cold and if you don’t head out in the cold there are options to maintain your fitness for the winter months. Also there are many runners who use winter as their “rest” season.

Alright, so you’ve decided to run outside during the winter months and you’re going to be doing it in the snow and freezing temperatures. You have to have the right gear, especially, if you are going to run long distance. Layers. Layers. Layers. That’s the secret. You have to wear a wicking thermal base-layer. After that, keep piling things on until you stay warm while you are out. This takes a bit of trial and error because everyone is different. There is a tipping point where I won’t run outside due to the cold— if I have to wear so many layers it is difficult to get a good stride going. Usually, that means I need better running gear.

You may have to break up your run, if you are going out for more than two hours. Try to run during the warmest part of the day, which doesn’t always mean the sun is out. Cloud cover keeps heat trapped close to the earth. I also stay in the neighborhoods because the homes block some of the wind and they keep it warmer. Stay on more narrow streets too.

Ice is always a problem at some point. I have Ice Joggers, which pull over the bottom of my shoes and stop me from slipping. They are like YakTracks. Lights are an essential piece of running gear, along with a reflective vest.

Running indoors on a track or treadmill is not ideal and is really a form of torture. There is a middle road, though, you can also do some inside and some outside. If you are going to run on a track make sure and change direction or you will have aches and pains on one side of your body and cause muscle imbalances. If you’re on the treadmill, variation is key to keeping you “entertained.” Change the grade and the speed to mix things up.

Alright so you HATE the cold and snow and just cannot bring yourself to run outside during the winter, what are you going to do? If you do nothing, you will lose all your hard earned fitness. Maybe you even have an early spring ultra you are training for and you thought you could hack it this year, but it’s way too cold. Where there is a will, there is a way.

You can always run on the treadmill for 20-30 miles. Or you ca use every cardio machine your gym has for your long workouts. If you have a five hour workout, do the stair master for one, the treadmill for one, the elliptical for one, and whatever else they have.

What about resting for the winter? You still want to maintain a base level of fitness if you plan to run anything in the spring or early summer (depending on your distance). Twenty-five miles a week is a good base for a rest season. A rest season also gives you the chance to try new things, such as spinning, a cardio class, crossfit, swimming, or yoga. Rest seasons are a perfect time to bring in strength training too. If you don’t mind the snow, give snowshoeing and cross country skiing a try.

Running in the winter requires creativity and determination, but we’re runners we have that in spades.

Winter Break

child in coat

As the temperatures drop and snow looms ever closer, many runners reduce their miles for the winter break. Some even stop running all together. One of my friends, Spongebunny, thought stopping sounded like a great idea. His line of thinking went something like this: My next race is not until the end of May. I need sixteen weeks to train for a marathon. If I start training in January, I will be all set for the marathon.

There is nothing wrong with this line of thinking. He would be ready for the marathon in May if he began training in January.

However, there are also drawbacks to proceeding this way. First is the big one. You lose all your fitness that you have worked so hard to gain. You are actually safe for about ten days before it begins to decline. The longer you have been training the slower it will decline. More experienced runners have a larger base to draw upon.

After two weeks you lose 6% of your fitness and you begin to lose muscle power. Not too bad you say. You’re right it’s not too bad and you can actually make up for it with two or three weeks solid training. From 3 weeks to eight weeks it is 12% and more muscle power loss. Nine to eleven weeks off and you’ve lost 19% of aerobic fitness and significant muscle power. After 11 weeks you’re down by 26% and are waving goodbye to more muscle.

By the time winter is over, you are starting over from the beginning. So what can you do about this? Maintain a base of miles through the winter. How big of a base depends upon your miles at the end of race season and what length of race you are going to start the season off with. If you finish with a marathon and want to start with a marathon, shoot for maintaining a 15-20 mile base through the winter. If you are a 5k or 10k runner, shoot for 10-15 miles a week throughout the winter.

The second problem my friend Spongebunny will have by starting training in January is that his body will not have the chance to adjust to the dropping temperatures during training. The gradual adjustment to the cold is much easier to deal with than the sudden freeze zone. This will be a huge blow to his motivation especially given his decline in fitness over that time.

He could just train in doors on a treadmill or on an indoor track, but I am here to tell you a 15-20 mile run on a treadmill sucks almost as much as it does on an indoor track.

If you are going to do you winter training on a treadmill remember to set it at a 1% incline to account for wind resistance and the belt moving below your feet.