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Just a few shorts weeks after the winter solstice, running sucks. Even the most diligent find it hard to log miles in sub-freezing temps, short days, and snow-covered trails. For runners across the country from the Northeast, to the upper Midwest, and Rocky Mountains, there are many logical excuses to snooze your early morning alarm.
The hardest part of most runs – especially in the winter – is just getting started. As I type these words I’m sitting roughly four feet from a wood stove in our small Minnesotan house, looking out the window at a white abyss. Coffee in hand, my internal debate is about the lesser of two evils – a treadmill at the local YMCA or the potential for frozen toes.
If you live in a place with a white winter, you probably can relate. As the seasons change, running participation plummets. It’s as predictable as the leaves falling every autumn. But, it doesn’t have to be. With the right mindset, gear and advice, you can run happily through the entire season.
To learn from one of the best, I connected with Tim Tollefson, an elite ultramarathoner and a longtime resident of Mammoth Lakes, California. Living at 8,000 feet with an annual snowfall measured in the hundreds of inches, winter in Mammoth is not for the faint of heart. Curious how he stays in shape during the shortest months of the year, I put him on the hot seat.
It’s never easy to get out the door early, especially in winter when it’s dark, cold and probably icy or snowing. But when a long-term goal is dependent on those early miles you’ll learn to get them in, regardless of conditions, or you’ll have to deal with the defeat of coming up short.
Andy Cochrane: I struggle a good bit with darkness more than other challenges. Any tricks to getting up early to run in winter?
Tim Tollefson: Have a purpose. It’s never easy to get out the door early, especially in winter when it’s dark, cold and probably icy or snowing. But when a long-term goal is dependent on those early miles you’ll learn to get them in, regardless of conditions, or you’ll have to deal with the defeat of coming up short.
AC: Do you adjust the times you run much during the year?
TT: Not much. I work full-time as a physical therapist so often run before work and longer on the weekends, in both summer and winter.
AC: When it’s really cold – let’s say below freezing – do you have recommendations for layers or what to wear?
TT: I find that starting slightly cold becomes the perfect temperature later on during the run. My go-to combo is long tights, a long sleeve shirt and then a jacket with a puffy vest. The real key is keeping your fingers, toes and ears ears warm. Nobody wins when those get cold. When temps are in the teens or 20s, I love wearing half tights and a warm top; the cool air on your legs is actually quite refreshing.
In the winter I often wear the HOKA Speedgoat 4 because it has great traction and a pair of lightly tinted Julbo shades to keep the wind and snow out of my eyes, and rely on the Apex Watch by Coros to track my workouts, and a pocket full of GU Energy Stroopwafels for my longer efforts.
AC: Do you mix in more weight or circuit training in the winter when it’s really cold?
TT: Not as much as you might think. When running on snow and ice, it’s very important to keep your hips, groin and ankles strong and stable. I do single-leg squats on a balance disc and a lot of single-leg plyometrics to strengthen my stabilizers, but don’t add many full weight workouts and instead try to keep up with my mileage.
AC: Do you do any running on a treadmill? If so, how do you keep it entertaining?
TT: I’m really stubborn and almost always avoid the treadmill. That said, I’ve taken some nasty falls on ice and am starting to realize that my stubbornness could lead to a serious injury at some point. Treadmills, ellipticals and stair masters are great, safe replacements for winter running when risk of injury is high due to ice or hazards such as snowplows or other vehicles.
To survive a treadmill workout it’s vital to cover the screen. When you run outside you would never stare at every second that passes on your watch, so don’t torture yourself doing the same on the treadmill. I like to slightly change the speed every mile and listen to music or a podcast to help switch the stimulus and pass time.
AC: Do you mix in other cardio workouts in winter?
TT: I use ski mountaineering to boost my uphill fitness. There is an incredible carryover to mountain running with uphill skinning, plus summiting snow-covered peaks is spectacular. There are an increasing number of elite runners doing this and it seems to have big benefits.
AC: Does your running volume change much seasonally?
TT: No, it tends to stay relatively the same throughout the year but has periodized low weeks built in. During the winter the intensity of workouts tends to be lower than in the warm summer months.
AC: Any tips for where to run in the winter?
TT: I try to run on the roads a lot during the winter – the trails around Mammoth are covered in deep snow. Groomed snow parks or packed tire tracks are also really fun to run on.
When running on snowy roads, I aim for anything with texture, as that will give you the best footing. Stay far away from any shiny or glossy-white-looking roads; those are sure to result in a slip and fall.
AC: Any rule of thumb when it’s too cold to run?
TT: [laughing] Unless a boiling cup of water freezes instantly when tossed in the air, it’s never too cold for a run outside!
Andy Cochrane is a freelance writer, photographer and producer that lives out of his Tacoma with his dog Bea. They spend their time searching for trails to run, mountains to ski and the best ramen in the West.