Life Lessons from Running in the Cold
Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. - John Ruskin
When I first started running, my motivation was purely fitness. There was no love for the sport, and I just wanted to get in better shape. In fact, I got so little satisfaction from running that I had to trick myself to get started. I would mentally commit to a walk knowing that eventually I’d get bored and start to run. After doing this for a while, something clicked. Next thing you know, I started calling myself a runner.
Running has taught me much. As we face the coming solstice, I wanted to focus specifically on learnings from winter running. It’s one thing to run on a beautiful summer day and quite another to trample through the ice and cold of a Minnesota winter.
As they say, it's only cold if you're standing still. Lessons from winter running.
Starting is the Hardest Part
Someone once asked if people running at 6 AM know about not running at 6 AM. Yes, waking up early when it’s dark and brutal cold can making skipping a run easy. But which do you regret more…skipping that run or making it happen?
Getting started is the hard part. Another mental trick is to not think about running until I’ve dressed. Once dressed, I feel committed. Until I’ve dressed, my mind can still check out. So focus on getting your gear on, and let the rest happen.
Dress for Success
As in life, dressing for success matters. There are three factors that I consider when dressing for a winter run….shoes, temperature, and wind. Shoes matter depending on road conditions. Clear surfaces make it easy, but if the roads or trails are snowy or icy then trail shoes or even running cleats might be in order. For temperature, my rule of thumb is dress plus 20. That is, dress according to what would feel comfortable at around 20 degrees warmer than the actual temp if you weren't running. As you venture out, you want to feel cold during that first mile. If you’re not cold, you’re likely to overheat as you warm up. The third factor is wind, and it’s the most unpredictable. Running at 10 degrees with sun and no wind is amazing. Running at 10 degrees with a 15 mph wind is brutal. For those blustery days, make sure your jacket is wind proof, at a minimum, and then layer up some more. You might also want a balaclava.
And my best winter tip for gentlemen runners on the coldest days...wear a third sock. 😊
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
Cold weather equals cold muscles, especially during the initial miles. I’m not a fan of stretching, but I do recommend dynamic warm ups. This is crucially important during winter running as cold muscles will tighten and become more susceptible to injury. My warm up routine is no more than 5 minutes to include some basic ankle stretching exercises, forward and sideways leg kicks, and then a few dynamic movements to stretch and warm up my hips and glutes, quads, and ITB.
Trust me about a good warm up, you don't want to hobble home miles out with a pulled muscle in the bitter cold!
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
The jokes goes, "slow and steady wins the race, unless it's a real race." Everyone wants to go fast. Live fast, work fast, race fast. But winter running teaches us that we need to slow down. You simply can’t run on the snow or ice as fast as you can on asphalt or a bare trail, and that is a good thing. That act of slowing down and changing your stride exercises new muscles, teaches your body to focus on fat burning (instead of carbs or sugars), and prevents you from slipping and potentially injuring yourself. Taking it down a notch from time to time is good for our running, just as it is in life.
Be Grateful, Everything is a Miracle
I would challenge anyone to find more inspiration than running after a fresh snowfall. Bright white snow or a thin layer of frost is absolutely beautiful. The air on those days feels cleaner and more refreshing with each breath. You’ll notice the animal prints and glimpse the birds and animals themselves, such as the wild turkeys or foxes that often cross my path. Yes, it’s cold. But it’s also magnificent. That splendor wouldn’t exist without the cold that accompanies it.
It is easy to complain about winter, but everything about winter is something to be grateful for. Cloudy days make us grateful to ditch our sunglasses. Snowy days make us grateful for the scenery and beauty. The coldest days make us grateful for the calm and lack of wind. Windy days make us grateful for windproof jackets, and third socks.
You Find Yourself on the Road Less Traveled
The Robert Frost poem where this saying comes from is actually called The Road Not Taken, and is about a traveler and his quest for unique choices. These choices apply to our winter running as well. Yes, the big group runs in the middle of the summer can be a blast. You get to experience an amazing camaraderie that is special to the running community while making new friends with fellowship. However, you also get to experience something unique and amazing on those winter solitary runs. That peace that comes when it’s just you, the trail, and whatever wildlife may be around. I find myself running in the zone more often in the winter than any other time of year, when there is neither human nor car to be found.
You're Capable of More Than You Know
There is a sanctioned marathon that takes place in Antarctica each year. Around 200 people run it and brave temperatures that range from 15 degrees F above zero to 34 degrees F below zero. If they can run three, four, five, or more hours in below zero temps on a frozen continent, surely we can handle shorter runs close to home. The reality is anyone can do this. The proof comes from getting out and doing it.
What are you capable of?
The Hard Stuff Builds Character
Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement. - Steve Prefontaine
Lots of people run, but not everyone winter runs. Some retreat to the treadmill until fairer temps return, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. But for the rest, yes it takes a little more time, and a lot more want, to venture onto the frozen road or trail, potentially in the darkness, to log your training miles. However, nothing feels better than finishing a hard winter run. Knowing that you pushed yourself and accomplished that which pushed others away provides fulfillment that sticks in all areas of your life. The next time you run on a particularly cold day, savor the moment. Snap a selfie with your eyebrows frozen together. We forget the ordinary. But when you look back at that picture, you’ll remember every step and detail, and smile.
Thank you for reading. Keep doing amazing things. And however you run, Run Uncommon.
The Uncommon Runner