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7 Unexpected Perks of Winter Race Training

Photo: Syda Productions / Shutterstock

Spring race days have their perks: mild temps, a shared it's-finally-sunny-out energy, and a positive kick-start to the season. But training for spring races (i.e., braving freezing cold temps week after week if you live in the North, and dealing with a limited number of hours for daylit runs)? That can be daunting.

And it's an adjustment no matter where you live. "Winter is everywhere," says Michael McGrane, the Boston Athletic Association's running club coach. "Even if you're in Florida, training can be challenging if you're not used to 50-degree temperatures."

But there are certain advantages that come with filling colder days with long runs and hill sprints. Here, seven of them—straight from runners and run coaches based in the Northeast.

You'll build mental toughness.

"You feel pretty badass when you run in tough conditions," says Amanda Nurse, an elite runner and Adidas run coach. "Some of my most memorable runs were those when I had icicles for eyelashes, needed Yaktrax on my sneakers, and was wearing all the warm layers I owned. Some of my teammates even wore ski goggles."

As a result, you build confidence, which is key for feeling prepared come race day. Looking back on those tough days can also help power you through a race (you know, when you're feeling your legs, lungs, and heart, asking yourself why you signed up for this again). "You can think back to all those hard training days when you not only braved the road but also the weather—and you realize that you can handle this," says Angela Rubin, manager of the Precision Running Lab at Equinox Chestnut Hill. "Mental strength is one of the biggest components of racing."

Winter can actually make for ideal running temps.

So you're dreading the ice and snow and wind. Well, know this: "Race conditions in the winter and spring can sometimes be nicer than in the summer. It's easy for us to forget how humid and hot summer is," says McGrane. Winter runs mean you won't have to deal with allergies or sky-high temps, both of which can slow you down. (Related: The Surprising Benefits of Training In the Rain)

"When you start to exceed 60 or 65 degrees, overall performance will start to decline," says McGrane. You're more likely to get dehydrated and lose key electrolytes, which can contribute to cramping and fatigue.

That's why cold conditions can actually be preferable. "Forty degrees is a great temperature for a race because you tend to heat up a lot during it," says Nurse. The best part of all of this: You can be in control of your temp by layering up and ditching layers mid-run, she says.

You'll look forward to treadmill runs.

Yep, you read that right. On days when you just can't bear the thought of being outside, you'll see a treadmill run as a respite (and when else can you say that?!). "The treadmill gives you the ability to set a speed you want to run and create the elevation you want to train at," says Nurse. Treadmill classes—à la Barry's Bootcamp or Equinox's Precision Running Lab—are also great ways to work on speed or hills in a (warm!) group setting. Says Rubin: "A change of scenery is always good, especially on those negative degree days." (Related: 8 Treadmill Mistakes You're Making

Training helps a long winter feel shorter.

If winter's your least favorite season, you're not alone. But committing to a training plan that keeps you busy from January through April can keep your mind off of short days, freezing temps, and cloudy skies. "Winter goes by faster when you're counting down the weeks to a race," says McGrane. "I run Boston every year, and every year I joke that it's my way of getting through the winter months."

You'll build a stronger body.

"Your body uses a lot of energy to warm up the air you breathe when you exercise," says Rubin. Running on uneven surfaces or on snowy, rocky ground requires your muscles to engage more, too, she notes. In fact, one study out of the University of Michigan found that moving on uneven terrain requires us to use 28 percent more energy than we would on a flat surface. "Running on the wintery ground can activate your core a lot more to keep you stable," explains Rubin. "When you are trying to keep your form and not slip or fall, your core fires up to stabilize you."

You'll meet new friends...

Pro tip: Don't do your long runs alone. "The camaraderie you feel during winter training is incredible," says Nurse. "When you're training in bad conditions (especially snow and ice!), runners really unite, give each other praise, and work together to get it done no matter the weather." To find a run group near you, start by checking out specialty running or athletic stores and workout studios, which often host them on weekends. 

"If you do run with a group, it can lead to lasting friendships—especially on long runs. You really get to know someone," says Nurse. Plus, a big part of being successful in a race is the commitment to the training—and if you have friends or teammates who are relying on you to show up, it gives you more incentive to be there because you don't want to let them down! (Related: The Benefits of Joining a Running Group—Even If You Aren't Trying to Set a PR)

…or snag some much needed alone time.

"Warm weather brings out all runners—and crowds," says Kelly Whittaker, a 20-time marathoner and an instructor at B/SPOKE, an indoor cycling studio in Boston. But jogging on a cold, crisp day could mean you have the road or trail to yourself and can take in the scenery in a more relaxed way. "There's nothing better than running past snow-covered terrain." Seek a natural environment for even more of a zen factor. Research from Stanford University finds that spending time in the great outdoors (and we don't mean city streets) calms the brain, relaxing areas linked to mental illness, more so than busy settings.

 

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