Gearing up for running in the fall and winter

Credit: Michael Steele/Allsport
Winter is coming, but that's no reason to stop running or resign yourself to using a treadmill.

Training outside through cold winters can be accomplished with only a few minor changes in your routine, as long as you take the proper precautions.

"Embrace the winter," says Sarah Keller, assistant cross-country coach at Emerson College in Massachusetts. "Performing vigorous exercise is very empowering in the colder weather, and running is the perfect cold-weather sport."

Keller says it is a good idea in general to have some training downtime, and winter in New England naturally lends itself to this with fewer daylight hours and more difficult terrain: the mixture of snow, ice and slush. Keller refers to this mix as "the Boston stuff" and says it has one advantage: Running on this burns more calories because you work harder.

Winter is also a good time to work on strength training and try some cross-training. Keller suggests Nordic skiing or swimming laps.

Keller subscribes to the "base, build, race" method of training. As a general rule, she recommends using the winter months to set your base, the spring to build and summer and fall to race.

Phase 1 (Base): December, January and February. Concentrate on volume and endurance. Include long runs, cycling and swimming, but incorporate very little speed work.

Phase 2 (Build): March and April. This is the time to increase weightlifting to improve and increase strength and speed, and add track intervals.

Phase 3 (Race): Summer and fall. Build your whole training schedule around this. If your goal is the Boston Marathon, start the "build" phase in February so March is your tapering month.

Keller runs on trails year-round as long as they're not icy.

"To avoid potential falls, pick where to go," she advises. "Run on the road or the sidewalk, wherever it is not icy. New snow is great for running, because you have a lot of traction. Old snow is the worst -- it's slippery."

Before you start running outside, take the proper safety measures. It's important to wear reflective garb in the winter, especially since precious hours of light are limited, and more hazards are likely to present themselves.

"If it's icy, don't run at night," Keller warns. "Find a way to run early morning or at lunchtime, when the chances of slipping and falling are significantly less. If it's a particularly icy day, it may be a good day to go try some cross-training or get to the gym. Bad weather is not an excuse not to work out. If you do decide to run outside, just remember to accept the fact that you will run slower than your normal pace."

USA Triathlon coach Annie Fisher agrees that winter is a good time to embrace the cross-training concept. She favors snowshoeing as her alternate winter sport and believes that working out in the winter can be spectacular.

"Before getting outdoors to work out in the cold weather, be sure to warm up indoors by jogging in place to get your blood pumping," Fisher says. "Wait until your muscles are loose and warm, and to avoid injury, stretch after the run."

Your winter focus should be on aerobic base building and strength training.

"The colder weather is best utilized for cross-training and preparing for the next season," Fisher says.

She suggests wearing layers for comfortable cold-weather running: starting with fleece underneath, a windbreaker, heavyweight tights, gloves and a hat. Keller agrees.

"I have a little athletic hat and ski mittens that I wear," she says. "This is not a time to worry about your looks. It's important to be warm. You lose the most heat through your head. Wear wicking materials, not cotton, especially in the cold weather. You want to wear gear that will improve your run, not hinder it."

Fisher also gears up her running shoes for winter running with ice joggers -- plastic protectors that help traction.

"I run all year round. I feel sad when I see people on the treadmill. The beauty of winter makes it so worthwhile. Boston is gorgeous when it's snow-covered, and being outdoors for a run feels terrific and peaceful."


Anne Kymalainen is a freelance writer specializing in outdoor recreation in New England. She can be reached at Annewrites@earthlink.net.

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