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(1/20/11)

Adjusting your Training in the Winter
 
It’s 15° and snowing outside. Your training program calls for a tempo run. What should you do? It may be time to change your workout. No single workout is going to make or break your season. That’s not really true. One day can break your season, or seriously set you back.

Speed Kills
It’s hard to sprint when it’s cold. Even if the roads are dry, your muscles don’t work as well when they’re cold. It’s harder to get the muscles loose and pliable enough to efficiently handle the explosive muscle contractions and extensions required for higher speeds.

Instead of doing an interval or tempo workout when it's cold, run easy, or skip working out that day, and more your speed workout to a warmer day.


Unless you are training for an early spring race, you don’t absolutely need to speed work all the time now. Even if you do have a big race soon, it’s smart to put it off for a couple of days until the weather improves, or even skip a week, rather than risk injury. If you insist on running hard, warm up extremely well, work your way gradually up to high speed (no sudden accelerations), and stay warm between hard sets.

Sure there are winter sports that do have sprinting - like cross-country skiing and speed skating – but those sports have to be done in the cold. They would be able to sprint better in warm weather (except for snow & ice conditions). In relays, they continue to skate or ski, or even ride stationary bikes, between hand-offs.

Go Long
While it’s easier to go long, at least run easy, when it’s cold, than it is to go hard, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always easy, or that you should. As long as you can keep yourself warm (and the footing isn’t too bad), you can stay out there a long time. I’ve been out in single digits for 10 hours at a winter adventure race. If your legs get cold and start to tighten up, if your hands and feet get cold, and certainly if they become numb, certainly if you start shivering, then consider cutting your workout short.

If you can anticipate the weather, work around the weather. For example, i
f you have a long run scheduled for Sunday but a big storm or severe cold is forecast to move in on Saturday night, then consider doing your long run on Saturday instead, ahead of the storm.

Against the Elements
Beyond the standard cold weather clothing advice (e.g., wicking layers to keep moisture away from your skin), I wear mittens instead of gloves (I tend to get cold hands even in the 40s & 50s). I like zippered shirts and jackets to regulate temperature, and to help keep from getting too sweaty (leading to chills).

When it’s really cold, I’ll wear neoprene socks, over a thin sock or sock liner, to keep my feet warm (there are a number of different brands that you can find at most outdoor retailers and some running stores). I’ll cover the area around my mouth with Vaseline; it’s hard to breathe when my chin gets numb. Sometimes I’ll wear a bandana over my mouth. This warms the air before it hits my throat and lungs.

Don’t forget to drink. We often think of hydration as just a hot weather issue. However, when you’re bundled up against the cold, your body is still warm and generating a lot of heat, and you’re losing sweat. Also, the air outside is much drier when it’s cold, and it sucks moisture from you. That steam you see when you exhale, that’s moisture from inside your lungs condensing when it hits the cold.

Take it Inside
I know. You hate the gym. I do too. However, sometimes working out inside is the smart thing. There are ways to keep it interesting, and a variety of different equipment, not just treadmills, can be good for running. See this companion article for more on training inside.


Training plans aren't written in stone. No single workout is going to make your season, but it could break it.

Be smart. Train smart.

Adam