Winter weather can challenge even the toughest, most motivated runners. With less daylight, frigid temps, unpredictable wind, and slippery conditions, it can be tough some days just to get out the door.
So how can you make the most of it? While many runners thrive on predictability and a set schedule, winter forces us to become more adaptable. When the changing seasons make training conditions less than ideal, remember that learning to adapt in a creative way can ultimately make you stronger both mentally and physically.
Before we tackle some of the specific struggles that winter running can present, it’s important to start with the basics: layering and pacing.
What to wear when you run in the winter
When you can get outside to train, wearing the right layers of clothing can make or break a winter run. Different elements present their own challenges, whether it’s wind, snow, freezing rain, or frigid temperatures. A warm wool or synthetic base layer is essential, along with the right weight jacket and protection for your extremities.
The longer you are out in tough conditions, the more carefully you need to plan your layers. While getting cold or overheating might not matter too much for an easy 30-minute run, it can have a much more significant impact when you are outside for two hours or more. Practice your layering and always account for how much you’ll warm up after the first couple of miles.
Why cold weather running feels physically harder
Yes, even if you are perfectly dressed for the conditions, cold weather running feels harder. It’s not all in your head! Just like running in the heat, running in very cold temperatures is more physiologically taxing compared to the more ideal temperatures of spring and fall. Your muscles don’t work as efficiently or contract as forcefully in colder temperatures, making your effort feel more labored.
Learning to run by feel is an essential skill in any season, but in tough conditions, it becomes even more important. While your paces may vary with the weather, pay attention to your perceived exertion on your runs instead of your watch. It’s important to adjust your expectations, knowing that your pacing will improve once the weather does.
Even if you’re able to run outside for most of the winter, there may be stretches of time where the weather is more extreme, or your access to a treadmill or other equipment is limited. Here are some strategies to make the most of these subpar situations:
When you can’t run outside (and don’t have access to a treadmill)
If dealing with the isolation and quarantines of COVID has taught us anything, it’s that people can get incredibly creative in small indoor spaces. Runners around the world completed marathons and ultra-distances in tiny apartments during the strictest periods of quarantine. Obviously, this isn’t ideal, but it can be done. And if you have a bigger house with stairs, you can get in some elevation training too!
Hopefully being limited to your home will only be temporary, and a few days of missed runs will not make or break your fitness. Even outdoor non-running activities can be helpful:
- Go for a walk on shoveled footpaths.
- Hike through the snow (in good gear, of course).
- Snowshoe through the powder.
But if you’re truly stuck inside, indoor aerobic cross-training like swimming, pool running, the elliptical, or cycling will all help maintain your fitness until you can run outside again.
Time indoors also presents an opportunity for strength training. Bodyweight exercises like core routines, pushups, and squats can provide a myriad of benefits, and hopefully you continue to use strength work to complement your training even when you get back outside to run again.
How to run outside when it’s icy or snowy
While snowy runs can be unique and beautiful, icy runs can be downright dangerous, especially if visibility is poor. Always prioritise your safety and don’t put yourself at risk!
While it may not be terribly exciting to run the same loop repeatedly, using a short, plowed section of road near your home can give you a safer place to run. Avoid roads with no shoulder and high snowbanks, as drivers may not be able to see or avoid you.
Trails can also be fun to explore in the snow, but conditions can vary greatly. Deep snow makes for hard work and slow going, especially in areas with greater elevation change. Anticipate being out longer than you normally would, and always bring more layers and food then you think you’ll need.
If you have access to a treadmill and it’s your safest option, then go for it. While treadmills can be a little boring, they can also be the best option for getting in workouts or faster running when the weather doesn’t comply.
How to keep your motivation to run during the winter
Even when weather conditions are better than average, winter runs can be challenging. Often winter is a down season for runners, and if you don’t have anything imminent on your race schedule, it can be even harder to get yourself out the door.
While time off is essential, skipping entire weeks or months of running can cause a major drop in fitness. Even more importantly, when you ramp back up you are most at risk for running injuries, so it’s better to maintain a solid base of fitness without wild swings in mileage.
While there are ways to help you get started on cold, dark mornings, discipline will always trump motivation. If you get in the habit of pushing yourself to run outside regularly with no excuses, it eventually gets easier. It’s no longer a question of “if” it will happen — just a question of how best to get it done.
Sometimes, making the first mile easier is all you need. You can meet a friend, prep your gear the night beforehand, or do a series of form drills to warm up before starting to run. Having a late winter or early spring race on your schedule will also give you good reason to stay focused with your training.
Winter running can be an opportunity to become more adaptable with your training and develop greater discipline and mental toughness. When you face cold weather challenges head on, your spring and summer racing will reap the benefits.