Living at 6400 feet above salt water, I used to think of winter as ski season and hang up my running shoes until at least the end of March, when I’d start desperately seeking the fitness I’d lost since fall. A few years ago though, the commitment of an April event led me to train all winter long and I found…it wasn’t nearly the problem I’d anticipated! Herewith; a few suggestions on how to make winter training in harsh climates more tolerable.
First off, is to cross-train. If two or three of your weekly workouts are on a treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical or stepper, that’s fewer days a week to run outside. Start there, and maybe sometimes shift those around to days with the most conducive weather, you greatly reduce the number of days you need to run in mother nature’s worst.
When the time does come to run outside, be prepared by having already checked out which routes are going to be most runnable. Look for pavement that get lots of southern sunlight to burn it to slush or dampness, even if not scraped clean by Mr. Snowplow – a good candidate is park paths that are maintained by staff. If totally-clear pavement is not available, look at least for some that’s packed down, or has a solid base underneath the light stuff. Up to about four inches of fresh snow can be good running with Yak tracks or other traction devices – if it’s got hard pavement or packed snow underneath. Much more than four inches of soft snow is pretty demoralizing to run in, and I’d try to re-schedule. If there are maintained cross-country trails in your area, their margins may be useable, but make sure you’re not messing up the grooved ski tracks, or creating potholes in a width designed for skate-skiers.
Regardless of the route, when the weather is cold ya’ gotta layer-up, to be comfortable at the stat, not too hot once warmed-up, and safe in case you need to stop. A common guide is to dress (the layers you’re not going to strip-off) as if the air is going to be 20 degrees warmer than the thermometer shows, to allow for the heat of exertion,.
Running feet generate their own heat, so I find a pair of light wool socks inside Gore-tex oversocks are enough even in very cold air and snow. Running legs tend to warm themselves too, and even evaporate what little snow falls on them, so one layer of tights works down to maybe twenty degrees. If it’s colder, a second pair of tights might be in order, or nylon wind pants, saving anything heavy like warmups until the very coldest times. At any weight, avoid cotton; heavy, saggy sweatpants impede movement and accumulate moisture, holding the cold against your skin.
Hands are the opposite of feet, blood flow goes elsewhere, so they are in real danger of getting uncomfortably (even dangerously) cold. Below 32 f, I wear insulated ski mittens, over light gloves. Not that cold, maybe ski gloves rather than mittens, but always a over a lighter pair, that give some protection even when (not if) I need to pull off the outer layer to adjust something. For the most extreme, use or carry those little packet handwarmers; toasty fingers can make the difference between a tortured slog and a cheerful adventure.
Above the waist, choose multiple light wicking layers that can be peeled off one at a time to avoid getting wet from the inside. The fine-temperature-adjustment possible with zip-neck layers is much preferable to turtle-necks, and pit-zips are a real plus for the same reason. I find a breathable rain jacket with open pit-zips is the best surface layer when it’s snowing but not terribly cold, and only when the air gets down around 10 degrees do I consider wearing an insulated jacket – synthetic, not down, and again with pit-zips – always making sure to have a plan to stash it when things get too warm. (Most ski and boarding gear is actually designed for short bursts of activity interspersed with sedentary periods on chairlifts, in trams or waiting for your friends to pick themselves up off the snow, so it’s not well suited to the constant-heat generation and limber motions of running. Apply sparingly.)
Knitted hats are good for keeping the ears warm, but can be too hot on the head, and a billed-cap is essential whenever precipitation is expected, to keep the flakes off eyes or glasses. On balance, a Buff or other lightweight scarf-type covering, paired with a visor may be a good choice – lightweight and flexible. Sunglasses are a must to protect from glaring white snow, and if the white stuff is coming down hard enough to coa them with droplets, goggles are worth trying (by then you’re not likely to meet anyone you know out there, so who cares how dorky you look?).
Night falls early in winter, so if there’s the slightest chance you’ll be out after dark, headlamp, flashlight and reflective clothing are in order as well. In the unlikely event you have to bail from a run, waiting for a ride in good weather is mostly just a drag – but in winter it can become life-threatening, so I recommend bringing your cell as well, and maybe an extra warm hat or pair of gloves. Between emergency items like those, plus water and goo and the need to stash what layers come off, a lightweight backpack is essential for long winter runs, especially solos.
Beyond comfort and safety comes the challenge of setting realistic goals. Uncertain surfaces and all that gear slow the stride, and periodic stops to add, remove or adjust gear are another reason cold weather running tends to be slow, so plan winter workouts by duration and effort, not distance or pace. These runs are best suited to maintaining an endurance base – the ability to sustain a moderate level of exertion for periods over an hour (or several, depending on your level). Look to treadmill workouts to maintain foot speed and max VO2.
If it’s truly too bad outside to run, give in and substitute an indoor workout. My go-to at the local rec. center is alternating half-hour segments on the treadmill and exercise bike for a long high-effort workout with a Special Bonus Feature – it only takes one of those sessions to make me really look forward to my next outdoor run, regardless of weather!
Developing confidence and self-sufficiency is one of the keys to success at distance running – and simultaneously one of its greatest payoffs – and there’s nothing better for the self-image than comfortably completing a long run in conditions that send most of the populace scurrying for the couch and remote.
There are also many truly beautiful experiences to be had on winter routes emptied of walkers, bikes, dogs and cars; where the loudest sound is your own breathing, or footfalls muffled by powder or crunching into yesterday’s crust. Winter light does wonderful things to familiar vistas, as do ice crystals, vaporous breath and swirling gusts of an atmosphere rendered visible by frozen moisture.
Be prepared, be flexible, and think of cold-weather running as an adventure – a chance to access experiences and sensations from which our modern lifestyle often insulates us. It’s rarely boring, and – if nothing else – may make you appreciate next summer’s heat in a whole new way!