It may have started in early November, when clocks fell back, daylight diminished, and the snooze button began to beckon more than the roads. Or maybe during the season of nonstop parties, houseguests, and indigestion, which gave your routine a holiday hangover you're still struggling to shake. Even for normally cheerful runners, the winter blues are common when temperatures drop and you get less exposure to the sun.
Although this gloomy state of mind is less severe than seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a clinical mood disorder, it can still throw you—and your running—into a funk, says John Martinez, M.D., a San Diego–based sports-medicine physician and member of USA Triathlon's medical staff.
Fortunately, research shows that one of the best remedies is exercise. You can literally outrun seasonal blahs. But when you're feeling low, it's hard to get yourself psyched to do much of anything—let alone lace up. Here's how to find the motivation to hit the roads (or treadmill) and resist the urge to hibernate until spring.
Supplement Your Skin
Vitamin D, made by the skin when exposed to sunlight, is more than just a vitamin. It acts like a hormone, which means it affects every tissue in the body, Dr. Martinez says. Vitamin D deficiency
may cause run-thwarting depression and fatigue, as well as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and osteoporosis. Based on new research, many health experts now recommend up to 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily, which presents a challenge in the winter. "You'll produce up to 20,000 IU of vitamin D by being in the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the summer," Dr. Martinez says. "But in the winter, leaving for work and returning home in the dark means no vitamin D."
Getting outside during your lunch break—even for just a 10- to 15-minute walk—helps. But in places like Boston, Salt Lake City, or Seattle, exposure to solar ultraviolet rays isn't strong enough in winter to fuel vitamin D production in skin. And diet won't do it, either, Dr. Martinez says. You'll only get about 100 IU from a glass of fortified milk and 1,300 IU from a piece of salmon. To help ward off depression and fatigue, pop one 2,000 IU vitamin D pill daily in the winter.
Go for 20 Minutes
When you run, you feel good, and you keep at it. When you don't run, you feel bad, and it becomes more difficult to start back up again. The cause behind this phenomenon is simple brain chemistry, says Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist who has completed more than 100 marathons and triathlons. When we're stressed from missing runs, our cortisol levels increase. Elevated levels of this hormone cause a domino effect in the body, reducing testosterone and interfering with brain neurotransmitter function, resulting in decreased motivation, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Luckily, running acts as a natural de-stressor, clearing excess cortisol, bringing testosterone levels back to normal, and rebalancing norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin in the brain. Talbott's studies have shown a 20 to 30 percent increase in vigor, a measure of mood, energy, and mental focus, in people who exercise. "Barring the need for physical recovery, it's those times you feel the least like running that you should run," he says. "And the best way to get back into the routine is to start running again, even if you have to take your workouts indoors or you run/walk just 20 minutes. Your mood will improve, sometimes drastically, as will your motivation to do more."