Winter has fully arrived, filling many runners with dread. Slick roads, stingy daylight, numb extremities, ungodly treadmill miles: I know I’m not the only one who contemplates a move to the tropics at least once a year.
But like most things that are hard, there’s a lot to be gained from training in tough conditions. There are also ways to get fit, stay healthy, and maintain motivation, even in the harshest of climates. To learn how to embrace the season, we sought advice from the experts; elite runners from Minnesota, North Dakota, Switzerland, and Finland.
Here are their best tips for making it through the winter strong and primed for a fast year ahead.
Invest in Good Gear
Proper gear is essential come winter, and each runner has his or her sworn-by ensemble. Swiss steeplechaser Astrid Leutert keeps it simple. Her getup includes a headband, gloves (“a must!”), a running light, long sleeves. and running tights. Antii-Pekka Niinistö, who trains in Paavo Nurmi’s hometown of Turku, Finland, adds ankle warmers, a mask on extreme days (below -5°F), and studded running shoes when the roads are slippery.
For long distance runner Maddie Van Beek out of Fargo, North Dakota, a good windproof jacket is critical; when combined with thermal tights and a wool base layer, she can get through almost anything. A thermal vest on top of her jacket helps keep her core warm too. And Saint Paul, Minnesota-based miler Heather Kampf stays toasty with wool socks, warm mittens with wind block and “a nice snot-wipe spot,” plus a hat or balaclava.
Though it can be hard to imagine, Van Beek and Kampf warn that overdressing is possible. As a rule of thumb, Kampf advises runners to wear enough layers that they’re a little cold for the first half mile or so, but not so much that when they get warm they overheat. “You don’t need to feel like the Abominable snowman or Randy from A Christmas Story before heading out to run,” echoes Van Beek.
Those who grew up in cold climates — like PodiumRunner editor Jonathan Beverly from Maine — often use the “20-degree rule.” Add 20 degrees to the current temperature, then wear the level of clothes on your run that you would put on if sitting outside at that temperature. For example, if it is 40°F out, dress like you would while watching a football game at 60°F.
Try to Make it (Cautiously) Social
Winter training can be gloomy, lonely, and monotonous; and training partners are usually clutch. Leutert, who balances running with full-time work as a pharmacist, tries to run with friends or a running club as much as possible. She also finds group spin classes to be motivational, fun, and a nice change of pace.
Kampf encourages runners to find friends to get out there and suffer with. Misery loves company, after all — and so does the surprise moments of magic. She also credits her husband Ben — who logs at least 10 miles a day outside, polar vortex and all — with getting her out the door into the Minnesota winter. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just weak people,” Ben chimes in.
Obviously, social winter running has become more of a challenge in the winter of 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic. But there are still ways you can connect with others during your run so long as you take precautions. You could Facetime someone and “virtually run” together on a treadmill. Or, you could mask up and run with one or two friends while keeping a safe distance.
Warm Up Strategically
Getting your body warm and ready to go can be tricky in extreme conditions. The best approach is also highly individual. Van Beek is religious about doing her prehab exercises indoors before venturing out into the North Dakota tundra, and she’s also not afraid to start off with a super slow first mile. Niinistö, who does most of his training outside, knows he needs extra time to warm up too.
Kampf, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach. After a standard warmup jog, she does less stretching, drills, and strides than when it’s warm outside, knowing how quickly her body gets cold and digits lose feeling. “Better just to start slowly for the beginning of the workout and warm into it as you go,” she believes.
Don’t Stress About Pace
If ever there was a time to detach from your watch, winter is it. Van Beek purposefully ignores her pace on runs when the surface is dicey or conditions brutal. “The effort is often much higher than what my watch shows,” she says. So rather than letting unhelpful metrics dictate her run, she tunes into her body and practices running by feel.
Kampf, too, finds the positive in winter’s forced slowdown. “Tough weather forces us to take our time, patiently plodding through base training and longer workouts without getting ahead of ourselves,” she says. As a result, she’s able to avoid injury and overtraining more easily than runners who train hard year-round in more moderate climates.
Appreciate the Beauty
It’s easy to lose sight of your surroundings when all you can think of is how cold you are, how hard you’re working and how many layers you’ll soon have to wash. But it’s called a winter wonderland for a reason. Wherever you are, soak it up!
Niinistö, who trains in way tougher conditions than most of us ever will, still recognizes that “Finland is really beautiful in winter months,” going so far to call Lapland — further north than Turku, with almost no sunlight — “magical.”
Van Beek is also energized by her surroundings: Frosty trees, fresh snow, and the occasional deer or other animal. She also finds the winter conditions calming: “Seeing your breath and hearing your footsteps in the snow — nothing else — can be a good reminder of why I’m out training in the first place.”
Embrace the Mental Benefits
When mile after mile in the cold makes it hard to appreciate the magic of the winter wonderland, remind yourself that it certainly is character building. All four of the athletes I spoke with cited mental toughness as both motivation and reward.
Niinistö, who does most of his workouts in the dark thanks to Finland’s position on the globe, has trained himself to keep a positive attitude, knowing that he’s getting stronger every time he steps out the door. Leutert similarly believes that “it’s all about the mindset,” and focuses on the toughness she’s building, along with the increased energy and productivity she’ll feel for the rest of the day.
Thanks to Fargo’s extreme weather fluctuations, Van Beek gains confidence from having trained through just about every weather condition imaginable. She reminds herself that when she races in good weather, she’ll be ready. And when she races in bad weather, she’ll be even more ready!
Likewise, Kampf says, “I can’t even say how many days I finish a workout and think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I did that out there. If I can run that in terrible conditions, just imagine how good it’s going to feel to run free — unencumbered by so many layers, bad footing, wind gusts, and more.’”
As a Last Resort: Take Advantage of Treadmills
All four runners rely on treadmills to some degree. Some, like Kampf, use them as a last resort, either when the footing is bad or when temperatures plunge below -10° Fahrenheit (meaning the wind-chill feel is around -25-30°F). Others, like Leutert, prefer a blend, running many morning runs and workouts on treadmills, heading outside when conditions allow, and incorporating some cross-training to keep things interesting.
And a smaller subset of runners, Van Beek included, does the majority of its winter training on a treadmill. “It’s been one of my most important training tools,” she says, having run every speed workout leading up to her debut marathon on one. To get through long grinds in one place, Van Beek curates “a dope playlist,” cranks it up, and stares at the wall, knowing that the mental training will pay dividends in races to come.