Updated: Nov 2, 2020
For some of us, winter brings a welcome reprieve from summer heat and humidity. For others, winter brings new challenges that could interfere with training. For many of us, it’s a mixture of both!
If you live in an area with snowy/icy winters, here are some tips for organizing your training to maximize your potential while maintaining your safety and sanity!
I’m going to preface this by saying there’s no “right way” to tackle training through the winter. Your exact approach will depend on a lot of factors, including your location, your personality and reason for running, your upcoming goals and races, and the equipment you have access to.
If the timing is right, you can take a brief “down season.” Some find this helpful sometimes right after the time change, some later during the icy shoulder season. The time change throws all sorts of wacky things at you. Most people have a work schedule that means they’re either a dedicated morning runner or evening runner. Either way, the time change may affect you. Taking 1-3 weeks of decreased volume may help you adjust more easily (especially mentally) as the days continue to get shorter through December. Think of it not as an off-season, but a down week on steroids. I don’t recommend stopping running completely, but rather taking an “anything counts” mentality to maintain consistency while reducing volume. Some runners do well with a consistency goal of a certain number of runs or mileage per week, with no structure about how that happens.
When possible, run outside. The treadmill seems to be something that runners either love or hate. You probably already know whether it works for you. It can be a really helpful tool for many runners (especially parents) to achieve consistency. That said, if it makes you dread running, it’s best to avoid it whenever possible. If you do need to use the treadmill, try to get outside when possible, as the effects on your stride may be slightly different, and you want to get the sunlight and fresh air. (Side note: there’s a chance treadmill could offer a small mental boost for ultra running, perhaps especially timed loop races.)
Get as much sunlight as possible, and supplement with Vitamin D. Depending on your schedule, it may not be possible to run in the daylight every day, but do everything you can to get your sunlight. Whether it’s a walk at lunch, or just opening all your window blinds, sunlight is practically magic during the winter. Supplementing with Vitamin D should be something all runners consider, especially between October and March in the Northern Hemisphere. It will help your training, health and your mood!
Have activity options. Many runners take up backcountry skiing/ski mountaineering in the winter. Conversely, Nordic skiing athletes come and perform extremely well at running races in the summer. I don’t recommend switching sports entirely all winter, unless you’re a true multi sport athlete, but it’s great just having the option to go play in the snow and get some aerobic stimulus rather than slipping and sliding over greasy roads and feeling miserable just to get the miles in. Ideas would include backcountry skiing, Nordic skiing (classic style is easier to learn), fat biking, ice skating, etc. Note that you still want to be running pretty consistently to maintain your running economy. Think of the other sports as good options for easy run days where the weather makes running dangerous and/or miserable, and a different option seems like more fun. Don’t have equipment? Most Nordic areas will rent, and there are many places to rent fatbikes as well.
Tip #5 Be flexible. If you live in a winter climate, the weather may foil your plans for a fast workout or important long run. Even with traction devices, some conditions are just not safe for fast running. If you’re not a treadmill person, planning ahead and adjusting your week as necessary (or communicating with your coach) may be the best way to ensure consistent training and reduce your injury risk.
Tip #5 Have the right equipment. This may include snowshoes, microspikes, YakTrax, screw shoes, carbide studs, Goretex socks, duct tape, merino wool base layers, waterproof pants, etc. You may not need all of this, but have some options so you can keep being consistent regardless of weather! For road runners, GripStuds, LaSportiva Hobnails and similar screw-in studs are an ideal alternative to bulky strap-on devices.
Tip #6 Layer your clothes. It’s almost never as cold as it seems; usually wind is the factor that you need to worry about. Have a wind-blocking layer (wind breaker in warmer temperatures, a waterproof layer blocks more wind and seals in heat for colder temperatures) with a long sleeve shirt underneath. If it’s extremely cold, use a merino wool base layer, and you may even need a mid layer in extreme circumstances.
Tip #7 Warm up your lower legs and feet before you run outside. These are your shock absorbers. By going outside into cold temps with cold legs, you can risk injuring not only your lower legs but muscles higher up in the chain too. Doing some leg swings or calf raises indoors before you go out might be enough. On extremely cold days, I sometimes run my feet/calves under warm water, then dry them off and put my running clothes on. Find what works for you, just don’t start out completely cold!
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