David Melody is a 9-time marathoner from Chicago, IL. Here, he shares his tips and advice for maintaining a good running schedule through the winter in the midwestern U.S.
For many runners, winter can be the best time of year. A long run on a cold day can be much easier to manage than in the heat of summer. There are the practical perks like not needing to pack as much water, or not sweating through your clothes to the point of looking like you’ve been for a swim. There’s also the hidden and almost magical perk of that feeling when cold air hits your lungs. It feels more powerful. The sharpness of it can give a crack of energy, unlike the slogging gasps of a hot and humid day.
As a runner in the midwestern United States, I either had to learn to love the cold, or settle in for hours of torture on a treadmill. Since one mile on a treadmill can feel an eternity, gearing up to hit the trails in the freezing cold became a habit.
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These are some important considerations to keep yourself safe during the coldest months of the year:
- Gear. We’ve all heard the saying “there’s no bad running weather, just bad running gear.” This is especially true in sub-freezing temperatures. Obviously, you have to bundle up in order to run outside in January, but the decisions you make in that process can determine whether or not you’ll have a good experience. I have a few rules for myself that are easy calculations: if the temperature is less than 40F, wear gloves; less than 30F, double compression shirts and tights. But some other gear choices can be harder to decide.
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For example, it can be very easy to overdress for a run in the cold. You may think you need all of the layers you’re piling on, but once you get going and your body warms up, you can find yourself panting away as if it were mid-summer. Hats and gloves can be stashed in pockets, but removing an outer layer can leave you with a bothersome bundle to carry home. It can also be hard to decide on shoes. Will it be icy in parts that will make you wish you had your trail shoes? If you wear your regular runners will you regret it? All of these things come with trial and error, and always having a plan for getting home via car or public transportation if you go out too far and don’t have the right gear to safely get yourself back.
- Schedule. Depending on where you live, the time of day you choose for your runs can be driven a lot by our seasonal cycle. I am a night runner. I have tried very hard to get up early and get in a few miles before work, but have only succeeded a handful of times. Because of this, all of my runs in the winter happen in the dark. For me that’s not a big deal because I live in a big city and the majority of the trail I use is well-lit. I have to make adjustments sometimes, because those well-lit trails are often ignored for maintenance all winter long. If a section blacks out it may stay that way until spring.
But once again, the right gear can solve this problem. A strong headlamp can get you through just about anywhere, and it will be cold enough that you can put the headlamp over a big fluffy hat to ease the annoyance of the straps!
Reflective items are also important. Keep reminding yourself that just because you can see cars coming and going, they most likely can’t see you.
- Motivation. Finding the motivation to get bundled up and out the door in cold weather can be tough, no doubt. It can be very easy to just put it off or bargain with yourself that you’ll just go a little longer on the next run. In the winter, I like to stay motivated by telling myself that the hot chocolate I’ll get to drink after the run will taste better if I’ve spent a couple hours in the cold.
The perfect running weather for me is around 50°F, just after dusk, with a light breeze. Those conditions materialize about once or twice a year, so I decided long ago that weather is just something to incorporate into my running life, instead of letting the weather be the driving factor over my running life. Once that decision was made, I started to enjoy and look forward to the snap of that first breath of cold air. It really does give me a spark of power that gets me going. Happy winter running!
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