Winter Running: The training, the gear, the fun!

For many of us who are not so lucky as to live in a place of constantly warm and beautiful weather, the winter season presents its very own challenges when it comes to running. Bitter temperatures, treacherous footing, and negligible hours of sunlight are only a few of the hurdles that need to be cleared from November through March. Take it from a native Vermonter and present Wisconsinite, approaching winter running with the proper gear and training adaptations will make all the difference come Spring. From the cold season experts here at Charge, enjoy a few quick tips to braving the cold and staying on top of your running through everything the season can throw at you.

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The Training:

  • Utilize a treadmill or indoor track when necessary. Safety in the winter is a major concern, so don’t risk it if the conditions are too treacherous. Avoid the heavy snow, ice, extremely low temperatures, and high winds when you can. Treadmills and indoor running tracks are good and common alternatives. Be careful with your amount of use of either though, especially if your body is not used to them. Treadmills, while not all that different from running outside in terms of impact, can lead to increased soreness and tenderness due to the nature of the machine’s parameters creating slight mechanical variations in your form. If you are going to use a treadmill, be sure to increase the incline to 1% minimum to help simulate the outdoor running experience and focus on not shortening your stride too much despite the space limitations. If using an indoor track (generally 200 meters in length), be sure to vary your lap direction every mile or so to balance the strain on the interior leg while turning. 

  • Focus of running effort versus pace. Taking into account colder muscles and being weighed down and restricted in movement by pounds of extra clothing, it’s hard in the winter to nail your specific paces. During the winter it’s okay to base your runs and workouts on effort versus pace. An 8 minute pace in the dead of winter through a few inches of snow can work the aerobic system just as effectively as a 7 minute pace on clear roads in June. Your goal should be to keep your heart rate in the light to moderate aerobic zone (60% to 80% of your maximum heart rate). Different paces in different conditions will get you to that same aerobic point. If you’re committed enough to get outside in mid-winter for a run you deserve not to stress too much about the exact pace of your run.

  • Add in additional cross training and strengthening. Running on slick or uneven surfaces, as is common in the winter, necessitates additional muscle stability, especially in your lower body. Constant lateral movements and minor balance stabilizing movements while navigating winter running surfaces increases your need to have strong, flexible muscles. Using the winter training period as an opportunity to increase your strength training, flexibility work and cross training is great. Not only will you see the physiological benefits but additionally it gives you a way to continuously progress in your training even if you’re restricted to your home during the annual blizzard. You’ll exit the winter stronger, more injury-resistant, and ready to get back to the increased volume and intensity allowed by the weather change.

The Gear:

  • Invest in a good pair of running tights or pants. While science tells us that our face, head, and chest are up to five times more sensitive to temperature changes, that does not mean that the legs are immune. In fact, body heat loss is based primarily on surface area, so your legs could provide just as much heat loss as those more sensitive areas without necessarily feeling it. A warm, comfortable pair of winter running bottoms are worth the extra cost for keeping your legs moving, especially when you consider that they can last for years. 

  • Don’t forget the tall socks! I am generally a proponent of crew-height running socks year round (they really accentuate your calves), but in the winter they are especially important. Whether your pants/tights cover the top of your shoe or not, the achilles tendon is particularly stubborn when it comes to being cold and must be covered and protected. The achilles, the tendon connecting your two major calf muscles to your heel, can become inflamed with too much stress while tight and can ultimately tear or rupture if not loosened and kept warm and flexible. Pull those tall socks up nice and high before heading out.

  • Warm AND wind layers. It may seem like it makes the most sense to focus on thick, warm layers of running clothes while heading out for a January trek, but you don’t want to forget a final wind-resistant outer layer. In an effort to keep you as mobile as possible, while also keeping you comfortable, this final piece of gear is key. The National Weather Surface tracks wind chill (the lowering of body temperature due to passing-flow of lower-temperature air) based on a specific formula. Even at its most tame, a relatively warm winter day can drop below freezing with as little as a 5mph wind. That said, protecting against the extra chill can make all the difference while out in the elements. 

  • Cover your extremities. Research shows that the head actually only releases 7% to 10% of our body heat versus the commonly stated 50%. Even with these much less shocking numbers, your extremities and head are important to keep covered during winter runs. As your body temperature drops, your body begins to redirect blood flow to the most important organs, mainly the heart and brain. This means that your hands and feet will chill faster and your head will actually begin to heat up. Don’t let this fool you into taking off your hat or headband. The more you can do to keep those pieces of you cozy and comfortable, the less your body has to strain to keep your key organs at the proper temperature. A good pair of gloves or mittens, a face scarf/bandana, and a hat or headband will do the trick.     

The Fun:

  • It’s simple. Have fun with the fact that few are brave enough to venture out for a winter run and you are one of those few! Be smart, be safe, and charge through even the most demanding conditions!

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