How to Survive Winter Running
As a native Pittsburgher, I saw my fair share of crazy snow while growing up, but it was really my years spent running in South Bend, Indiana that taught me everything I ever needed to know about running in the cold. Anyone who has run around the campus of Notre Dame will know about the “South Quad Wind Tunnel” that kicks into high gear during the end of fall semester and can last into April. Wherever you may live, a smart approach to running in sub-par conditions can help you not just survive winter training, but come out of it with even better fitness.
Without further ado, here are my best tips for braving those flurries.
1. Effort over pace.
Construct workouts that demand a particular effort more than a particular pace. While I tend to be very low-tech and just use a regular watch on my runs, if you’re someone who monitors pace regularly, try to take that watch reading with a grain of salt, or, just for winter, use a watch or setting that will display only your total time run rather than pace. Wintery road conditions are likely going to slow you down, but there’s no need to let this discourage you. The traction of snow can actually work like sand to make certain muscles work harder.
Remember that the cold makes it more difficult for your muscles to warm up, so give yourself extra time to get moving rather than forcing a specific speed that was appropriate during the perfect 50 degrees of fall.
2. Try an off-track interval workout as a way to work around cold or unideal weather conditions.
Working out on the roads instead of the track can keep the scenery more interesting and allow you to be more flexible in your route—possibly avoiding ice as you go. A fartlek (“speed play” in Swedish) is a common running workout that works especially well in winter or during your base building months.
Here are a few ideas for interval workouts. Include a warmup and cooldown of 10-15 minutes for each.
Workout A (30 min.): 5 rounds of 3min. fast, 3min. easy
Workout B (31min.) : 10 min. fast, 10 min. easy, 5 min. fast, 5 min. easy, 1 min. fast
Workout C (26-39min.): 4-6 rounds: 90 second fast, 5 min. easy
3. Accessorize and Smart Overdressing!
Most runners know that it’s common sense to dress for weather conditions. However, here are two related tips to make sure that actually happens.
Tip #1: Organize your winter running accessories. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve spent 10 minutes just searching for some running gloves or a hat. Put all your winter running accessories in a bin and keep spares specifically in your car.
Tip #2: Smart Overdressing. This is most useful for days when you’re already rather cold and really do not feel like becoming more cold by running outside. Overdress for the first 10 minutes of your run, then loop back to your starting spot to drop off your outer layer. Alternatively, dress as you normally would for the current weather conditions, but begin with a 5-min. warmup inside, whether on the elliptical or with core work, so the outside air feels possibly more refreshing rather than bitter.
4. Don’t neglect hydration and stretching just because the temperatures are cold.
Once back inside, stretch while your muscles are still warm from exercising, then be sure to change into dry clothing. While you might not feel as thirsty when it’s 15 degrees outside, you still need to hydrate. If a cold drink is less appealing, try to follow up your typical source of electrolytes with a hot beverage which will help prevent you from becoming chilled post-workout. A coffee or hot chocolate is also a great post-run reward for braving the cold!
5. Have an alternative indoor workout ready to go.
If the temperatures are just extremely cold, I like to try to run outside for just a shortened time and finish off my workout at an indoor track or with some yoga. (I always feel better being outside even for just a little bit.) However, if roads are truly treacherous and icy, have a go-to alternative planned as back-up, whether a spinning class or a session on the elliptical or treadmill.
With a little resourcefulness and planning, winter workouts can help you stay in shape and actually enjoy the change in temperature. Focusing on a hard effort more than pace, dressing smartly, keeping up with essentials like hydrating and stretching, and being flexible and creative with your workouts, will ensure you not only survive but succeed through the winter months of running.