Relief for Runners – How to Handle a Cruel Winter

Dedication, by Andrew Romer
Dedication, by Andrew Romer
Obviously, based on this guy’s outfit, this photo was not taken in Minnesota this winter. Atlanta, maybe? It’s been a tough winter for runners here (and across much of the country, I imagine). Personally, I’ve only gotten in about three or four runs outside since November. It’s driving me crazy!

Not only is running on a treadmill super-boring, but unless you change up the type of ‘mill workout you do pretty regularly, it can put you in jeopardy of getting a repetitive strain injury, too. A season like this does present a few options for runners, though. Here are the best ones I can think of.

1. Work in Some Aerobic Cross-Training – Regardless of how great your form is or how smart your training plan is, running is a high-impact activity. Sometimes it can be good to give your body a break from all that pavement pounding by switching to other modes of aerobic activity. Stationary cycling, stair climbing, rowing, the elliptical and swimming are all good options. Jumping rope is even lower-impact than running. If you can get in two or three of these types of workouts a week, you’ll give your body a bit of a break while still keeping your cardiovascular fitness up. Then you only need to tough it out on the treadmill for one to three days each week. If you don’t have a gym membership but you have a bicycle, you can buy a decent indoor trainer for around $100-150. This is a great low-cost equipment option that packs away into a small space come summertime.

2. Build Some Muscle – Strength training in the “off” season can make you a better runner. By focusing on muscle groups that tend to get worn out running, you can improve your form, running economy and speed. Look for exercises that work your hips, glutes, core and upper back. If you’re like me, race season results in a general loss of muscle mass, so winter is a good time to hit the weight room hard and try to put a few of those pounds back on.

3. Run Smartly on the Treadmill – It is possible to run five or six days a week on the treadmill (I spent most of December and January doing so). Sure, it’s boring as can be, but if you create a smart training plan, you’ll not only alleviate boredom but also prevent injury. You can’t do the same run day after day on a treadmill. Doing the same anything for that many repetitions is a recipe for injuries galore. Instead, you’ll need to vary your incline and speed from workout to workout. My personal treadmill training program looks something like this: Day 1: Short and Fast; Day 2: Short and Slow (with random hills); Day 3: Long and Comfortably Hard (often with random hills); Day 4: Long and Slow. If I do a 5th run, it will be a mid-distance run that starts with an easy mile, has a few miles of intervals in the middle and ends with an easy cool-down, and it will come after the short-slow in the rotation.

4. Bundle Up and Head Outside – Many individuals (who are a lot hardier than I am) almost never run indoors, and they still run five or six times per week. They have good gear – expensive, wicking layers and the right kinds of gloves and socks and such. Still, cold is not the only danger when running outdoors in the winter. Roads and trails are icy and/or slushy, which can cause you to fall or strain a tendon when you slip. Those same icy roads make it tough for cars – which already aren’t paying attention to you – to stop quickly (or at all) and so your risk of getting hit by one goes up. Same goes for limited hours of daylight – you’re hard to see, so large moving objects might run into you. Personally, I don’t run on the road in the winter time. Only on trails, or the one trail that is plowed, rather (because it’s a bicycle commuter path).

If you do decide that you just have to head out for a run, be sure that you’re dressed appropriately, which means that your clothes should not only be warm and wicking, but bright and reflective as well. Assume that no one sees you. Leave the headphones at home, or leave one ear bud-free, at least, so that you can hear would-be killers approaching. If it’s below zero, I’d skip it altogether, since little strips of exposed skin can get frost-bitten in around five minutes at temperatures that low.

Well, I hope this helps. If not, then maybe the memory of two years ago, when I was wearing shorts and flip-flops on St. Paddy’s Day, will. It probably won’t be that warm in two weeks, but at least I hope we won’t still be worrying about losing our noses and cheeks to frostbite. Stay safe, runners, and have courage – spring will come. Eventually.

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