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You’ve heard of the dog days of summer, but I’m more worried about the cat days of winter. These short, cold days are best for making like a feline—lying on the radiator and sleeping 16 to 18 hours a day. While that lifestyle may be good for the soul or for scheming world domination (I’m on to you, housecats!), it’s less helpful for training.
An offseason is important, but too many trail runners take the time off a bit too seriously. If you put on winter weight from inactivity, you’ll have to face the painful process of operating at a caloric deficit later on. Similarly, if you lose too much aerobic fitness, the spring adventures you have planned might have to get pushed back to summer.
So how do you keep training consistently in the winter when you might not always feel like lacing up the running shoes? Here are five strategies to make every season count.
Daniel Metzger puts in lots of miles during the muddy California winter, including training races like the Pacifica Foothills 30K. Photo by Jesse Ellis/Let’s Wander Photography
1. If you have trouble getting started, just do 10 minutes.
It’s easy to allow great to be the enemy of good. Often, athletes I coach have a thought process that goes something like this: “All of my friends are doing 10-mile runs, so my planned three-miler is nothing, so I’m just not going to run.”
I always make sure they stop that thought process immediately: Unlike cycling, for instance, running involves pounding, which means that lots of positive musculo-skeletal adaptations accrue just by getting out there for a short jaunt.
With that in mind, on days you plan to run, be set on doing 10 minutes. That is all it takes. If you get to 10 minutes and can go farther, keep going. If you still want to stop, head back inside and rehydrate with hot chocolate. While the training day may not be “great,” it is “good,” and lots of good training over time makes you a great runner.
2. If you need a short-term goal, start a running streak.
Winter is the best time for streaking. No, not that type of streaking. (It is shrinkage season, after all.) What I mean is a running streak.
The idea is that you commit to running every day, for at least a mile. Habits start more easily than you think, and when they do, they are hard to break. A daily running habit will add a dose of motivation to your winter running while laying down a solid base for later training.
3. If you struggle in cold weather, start your run extra warm.
If you’re anything like me, you don’t enjoy being frozen. The key is to be very warm before going into Queen Elsa’s realm. Starting a run cold can increase injury risk due to tight feet, ankles and knees, as well as decreasing motivation.
I recommend bundling up and warming up indoors before venturing outside. Do some lunges, push-ups and jumping jacks, and you should be nice and toasty. If that doesn’t do the trick (or it’s extra cold outside), take a hot shower before changing into your running clothes. Always remember, there is no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing and bad warm-ups.
Elite trail runner Sam Robinson uses trail running as a creative outlet while getting his Ph.D. at Cal-Berkeley. Credit: Jesse Ellis/Let’s Wander Photography
4. If you aren’t motivated to “train,” use your run as a creative outlet.
I wrote this article in my head while running a trail race. (The race was cold and wet and I didn’t do anything to prevent chafing. That’s my excuse for the shrinkage joke, and I’m sticking to it.) In fact, most of my Trail Runner articles and law publications are drafted while frolicking on singletrack.
Those bursts of creativity are backed up by research. In 2013, a researcher from Leiden University found that people who exercised four times per week thought more creatively than those who were sedentary. In other words, running is a performance-enhancing drug for your mind!
There are two great ways to use that creativity to have fun and motivate yourself during winter runs. First, you can plan your runs around practicing photography. Think big (sunrises, landscapes) as well as small (trees, trails), trying to get the best photo you can. Then, when you finish the run, you can edit the photo and post it to social media. Pro runners Alicia Shay and Kelsie Clausen are known for the amazing, inspiring wintertime photography they shoot during their adventures.
Pro trail runner Alicia Shay posts photographs from her home trails in Flagstaff, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Alicia Shay
Second, you can focus on a discrete creative task for work and resolve to think through a problem. My dad always said that his best work was done in his head on long runs. While it may not make the run billable, it is a great way to engage with your profession in a refreshing way.
5. If workouts are too daunting, add “mailbox” intervals to your normal run.
At its core, training is simple. Most of the time, you should run at an easy, conversational pace. Occasionally, you should raise your heart rate by going faster, so that you can’t speak more than a word or two at a time.
In the winter, if the thought of structured intervals makes you want to head back to bed for a nap, simplify your workouts. On a normal run when you feel good, choose a landmark (like a mailbox) that’s anywhere from 10 seconds to a few minutes away, and run faster till you get there. Focus on feeling smooth, flowing back through your hips and engaging your glutes. Do a few intervals, and you’ll have a great, unplanned workout.
If you mix consistent winter running with amazing photos and a few mailbox intervals when you feel good, you will be ready for epic spring adventures. With these tips, you may even be quoting Queen Elsa: “The cold never bothered me anyway.”
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.