Training safely in winter

How to maximize running outside in cold climates

Tim Cigelske
Feb 11 · 3 min read
Photo by Tuula Pekkala on Unsplash

It seems like winter is one long stretch punctuated by sudden fronts that bring snow, sleet and cold.

Winter running can bring dangers from hidden ice patches to decreased visibility to cars in the dark early evening hours. But running in winter is also necessary if you plan on competing in spring races. It just requires extra planning ahead and being flexible in your training days.

Here are some ways to maximize running outside in cold climates as we make our way mile by mile toward spring.

One of the biggest dangers to runners is ice. If you’re an outdoor warrior, check out Yaktrax. These are essentially steel coils connected to a rubber backing that you strap on the bottom of your shoes. A runner friend of mine swears by them:

“There is no way I would be able to get these long runs in without the Yaktrax, it would simply take up too much time.” she said. “Or I would have to use a treadmill more, and I am not a happy runner on a treadmill.”

They provide control, yet are lightweight and unobtrusive. And they’re fun. When I wore them, I actually found myself running toward patches of ice, like a kid who purposely jumps in all the puddles. Probably not a good idea.

As the box warns: “Although Yaktrax will aid in walking on ice and packed snow, Yaktrax will not eliminate the inherent risks of such conditions.” Occasionally, I found myself slipping ever so slightly on glare ice. So they’re not quite snowshoes. But for running, it’s a dramatic improvement over bare shoes. My verdict: If you have to run outside, get them. It’s a whole lot cheaper than going to the doctor.

In the summer, I often find myself looking at the 10-day forecast to see when might be the most comfortable day for a long run. I might adjust different workouts to different training days based on favorable temperatures. The same is true in winter: Look ahead to see if you can get out in front of a storm front, or maybe wait until snow and ice melts and it warms up. Be flexible if you can move around an off day or complete a shorter workout indoors.

Many workout facilities have indoor tracks, but most of them are so short that you find yourself going in endless circles. I’ve completed upwards of 101 laps just to get to 5.5 miles. This may work in a pinch, but don’t rely on this for a long-term solution. Not only will you likely find it boring and lose motivation, but going the same direction too often can cause irritation in your knees. If you use indoor track frequently, try to go on different days where you can mix up the direction. Another option in the Milwaukee area is to use the oversize track at the Pettit Center.

The “dreadmill,” as many runners call it, can also cause runners to be prone to boredom and burnout. One way to liven up treadmill workouts is to mix it up with different speed and incline intervals. Varying the pace and effort can somewhat offset the lack of change in scenery. To mix in strength work, hop off the treadmill at certain intervals to continue high-intensity circuit training or strength training that keeps your heart rate up. That helps take advantage of the convenience of the gym while keeping your workouts fresh.

Ultimately, training in winter requires flexibility and perspective. You’re going to get good and bad days to run in the winter, just as summer cool breezy days and hot and humid days. Learn to go with the flow, make it through the days where running is miserable, and maximize and enjoy the good running days as much as possible. Spring is around the corner.

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