I never dread winter, I actually look forward to it. After strong fall running, I picture myself thriving on a lighter farm schedule with a late winter race to keep me hungry. What I always come to realize is that my lighthearted attitude for training turns into a cerebral, existential march toward my running goals. In summer and fall I’m a frolicking doe, gladly rolling out of bed a 4am. In winter I’m a pensive snow tiger, questioning the meaning of my effort. After five winters of heavy training on the frozen roads and trails of Wisconsin I’ve developed some strategies to weather the most severe season.
Winterize your wardrobe and fueling
The most common winter running mistake is overdressing. Stepping out into frigid weather, I know I will be cold for at least 10 minutes but with aerobic activity I warm up quickly. Having on too many layers, or the wrong layers, will lead to over-sweating and subsequent chills. On cold days (under 5 degrees) I wear a base layer under loose running pants, two running shirts, a soft-shell jacket, headband, hat, Buff around my neck, socks and running mittens. On sub 0 degree days I will add a light vest under the jacket. On warmer days the layers are reduced. I wear trail shoes on roads with mixed levels of traction and only ever wear added traction on trails. In my experience, quality goes a long way with winter running gear. Being comfortable can make or break your level of enjoyment when it’s freezing, so invest in a good pair of pants and coat. You don’t need to wash them everyday and can wear them for years.
Staying hydrated and fueled is easier and harder. You do not lose as much fluid through sweating when it’s cold but it’s still important to manage hydration. On runs longer than 15 miles I bring a warmed up electrolyte drink in my water bottles and it stays in a drinkable state for up to 2 hours. TIP: unscrew bottle tops, do not try to drink out of the nozzles. For runs over 25 miles I work in a stop for water. Gels become hard to eat when they are frozen so store them close to your skin. I also run with for real foods like Honey Stinger Waffles and Energy Bars.
Cross training can add value
Other than the occasional snowshoe run or hike, and ice skating with my kids, all I do is run. But snow sports are great and someday I plan to play one. As boring as it sounds, my personal approach to winter training is to put everything into running and not wear myself out with other endeavors. For runners who are just trying to maintain a base or are building up for spring and summer races, playing out in the snow is the best way to enjoy winter. Snow sports are a great way to build and retain fitness, give your mind a break from higher-volume running, and let your body heal from micro-injuries. Just be careful not to get a traumatic injury that will take you away from running!
Don’t be snobby about running surface
Even though I consider myself a trail runner at the core, I run most of my winter miles on the road. When trail conditions are good I will be out there as much as possible but I never compromise my ankle health just so I can tell myself that I am running trails as much as I do other times of the year. Winter roads are more challenging than dry roads. With varying degrees of traction, snow accumulation, and debris on the shoulder, I make it a game to hop around, keeping my agility sharp. My road-heavy training has not seemed to limit me in a race setting, though I do wonder how I would be different as a runner if I had dry trails to run year-round.
Something is better than nothing, except when it’s not
There are so many reasons not to run in the winter. It’s dark, cold, and treacherous. With holiday parties and beers to be consumed, running can seem unimportant. But any amount of running is better than not running at all. Once you’re out there it usually turns into a good run. If it doesn’t, at least you gave it a shot and got your blood flowing. However, once the diehard mindset takes hold, it’s important to stay honest with yourself about your health. With colds and flues going around in the dark months, most of us will get sick at least once. Running through a little cold won’t kill you, but it can derail your training efforts. I have personally prolonged viruses but trying to push through. Just be smart.
Seek out warmth
In the winter, I spend a lot of time in cold places. Although I work less on the farm, when I am there, I work in a cold office in the barn. I do farm chores to help out on my parent’s hog and poultry farm and I am out in the cold running 6 days a week. Even through I dress right, the cold just wears me down. I have learned that being close to a direct heat source warms my body and spirit. I often eat dinner in front of our wood burning stove, with the door wide open so I can stare at the flames. I take a hot bath several times a week and a steamy shower on the other days – I actually bathe more in the winter than the summer. Adding in a hot yoga practice or finding a sauna can take the edge off of the season for runners and non-runners alike.
Be kind to yourself and others
Winter running can be intense for a lot of us but ultimately it’s a choice. When I truly do not want to run, I won’t. It’s hard to keep a relaxed grip on structured training but it’s important to remember that running is for fun. In the winter I eat more chocolate, I let my house get messier, I burrow down inside my own mind and indulge my introverted side. I try to love myself more in the winter because winter is hard for me. This also means that we need to be kind to our friends and family who are supporting our running pursuits. We are choosing to take on our own challenges and it’s easy to feel like a noble martyr of the Arctic Tundra but no one is making us run, so just be nice about it.
The reason winter is important to me is because my drive for running shifts from joyful autopilot to contemplative examination. I feel my runs more in the winter months and the entire process is more epic. In fair weather, one day bleeds in the next and I rarely ask myself if I like what I’m doing. Winter forces me to check in and make sure this is still a meaningful use of my time. Running holds me close and asks Do you still love me? My response is I will love you forever.