Running through the winter can be a challenge, especially if you don't adapt your routine. Pulling on extra clothes and maintaining a summer schedule of fast running and racing just doesn't cut it.
"Back off on speed and concentrate on aerobic fitness. Nature builds in a rest time. Winter is the time for base pace and mileage," says Medford runner Suzanne Ray. A resident of Alaska for her first 40 years, Ray understands better than most the details of dealing with short days and cold weather.
"Wear reflective clothing when it's dark. I will even run up and down the same street for safety. For women afraid to be out (in the dark), there's always the treadmill," Ray advises.
Because of heavier afternoon traffic and a busy schedule, Ray — an English teacher at Cascade Christian — prefers to run in the morning. She can sometimes find a friend to run with at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays and often organizes a group run on weekends.
Looking forward to a winter training run with friends can be a powerful motivator, and can make the difference between staying fit or staying inside. Year-round fitness is especially important for Ray, who is a top age-group competitor in road races locally and around the state.
Dressing for the elements is the key to staying comfortable, and you'll run more often and longer if you're comfortable. Running shoes made to be cool in hot weather have mesh uppers in the toe box, but this will let in wind, wet and cold. Several winter shoe models now use Gore-Tex and other high-tech fabrics to keep feet toasty.
Although it's tempting to pile on heavy clothes when preparing to run in the cold, dress in layers you can peel off, so you won't sweat too heavily. Select fabrics that wick moisture away from your skin. If you're wet from sweat, you may actually get cold, especially if you linger outside after you finish. You'll be less tempted to overdress if you warm up inside — with calisthenics and stretching.
"Spend a little money getting lightweight clothing — hat, gloves, rain gear — that's not cumbersome. And if you spend the money, then get out and use it," says Bob Julian Jr., cross-country coach at Ashland High School.
Julian has coached many individual and team champions and has a long list of victories in his own running career. He often trains with his student athletes and looks for fresh ways to motivate them during the winter to prepare them for the spring track season.
To keep himself motivated when daylight is scarce, Julian has two pieces of advice for his fellow afternoon/evening runners. First, invest in a headlamp. The second is aimed at those with long commutes.
"Bring running clothes to work and run there — before you get home and you're comfortable and start grazing," Julian advises.
For those who want to avoid the weather and daylight issues altogether, treadmills are a staple at health clubs, and prices for low-end models begin at about $400.
Former marathon, 5,000-, and 10,000-meter world record-holder Ingrid Kristiansen ran indoors on treadmills throughout the dark winters in her native Norway. The models she used were not powered by electricity; the belts moved only in response to her efforts, which better simulates outdoor running. Conventional electric treadmills can help you learn to run at a steady pace, but at a price.
During a long, hard run on the road, you naturally slow down toward the end while putting forth the same effort. On a treadmill, you tend to lengthen your stride to keep up. This can lead to overstriding, a condition where you land in front of your center of gravity, and that is fertile ground for injury.
To avoid overstriding, alter the incline and speed often. This change in routine also helps alleviate the boredom of long runs without a change in scenery or the sensation of wind on your face.
Finally, set goals for your winter running. Whether it's fitness, weight control or building an aerobic base to prepare for spring and summer races, having a specific target can be a great incentive to continue your training.
"We don't have it that bad where we live; it's not bitter cold. Running in winter is the toughest time. Learn to relish the challenge of the elements," Julian says.
That mental toughness will reap benefits in other areas of your life.