Your Winter Marathon Training Guide

If marathon training is hard, then training for a marathon though the winter is downright daunting. Instead of just worrying about mileage, you now have to take the weather, daylight, and countless other factors into account.

If you are training for an early season event, you have little choice but to get tough or face the music on race day. It's not all icicles and icy pavement, however, so don't despair. Here are some top tips for running through the winter. Get most of them right and you'll be as prepared as possible by race day.

Balance Your Indoor and Outdoor Training

With shortened daylight hours and dicey weather, there is a strong temptation to fire up your gym membership and start logging treadmill miles. While running indoors is typically safer, it's also not as dynamic or as challenging as running on the open road.

Find your ideal mix by planning out your week to include a minimum of two outdoor runs. If you are running five times a week or less, then two outside runs should suffice.

If you are running six or more times a week, then considering to three outside runs if possible. Once you hit the last 6 weeks, however, do your best to get as many runs as possible done outdoors. This will ensure you enter race day fully prepared to run the distance.

Your long run needs to be done outside unless you live in extreme weather conditions (see treadmill training below). No cutting corners here. If it's really cold, wait until midday to run and use the early morning for a core or flexibility session. In the winter you—and your shoes—will need a longer warm up. Be patient and let your body get into a groove. Another great outdoor option is the recovery/light runs, as there's minimal intensity involved here.

When and How To Use the Treadmill?

If your long runs and recovery runs are outside, this means you can move the track/interval training to the treadmill. Sure it's mentally harder, but you'll be guaranteed the change to run at speed without obstacles like slipping on slush. Here are a few quick tips to make the most of your treadmill time:

  • Train with Pace, Not Heart Rate: Without external stimuli such as hills and wind, your heart rate will be lower on a treadmill. It also makes a difference that the treadmill is pushing your legs instead of you pulling your body forward. Following a heart rate only plan will lead you to run harder than you might have otherwise done.
  • Run with At Least One Percent Incline: Running at the zero percent grade is similar to running on a slight downward slope. Kick it up to a minimum of one percent to mimic your normal running style. As you gain strength and fitness, consider bumping this up to 1.5 percent or even 2 percent.
  • Activate, Don't Stagnate: Running in one directional plan with zero terrain or elevation changes is not only mentally challenging, it stresses the very same muscles the same way the whole time...every time. Counteract this muscular complacency by manipulating the grade periodically and even the pacing to stimulate different muscle groups during your run.

Snow, Sleet and Rain?

Running in the winter conjures up greeting card images of snow-laden trees and glistening icicles. But anyone who runs in the winter knows what freezes must also melt, and it's this moisture that's your true enemy in the winter. Once you get wet, you start to get cold; and there's really no amount of gear that can save you.

If you don't want to get sick this winter cycle, then staying dry should be one of your top priorities. Cold days are fine, but running in the rain or sleet for more than, say, 45 minutes is a bad idea. Sometimes the weather can be great, but the roads are mush or the drains are all backed up with massive puddles. Regardless of the situation, know that getting wet on a run can really set you back; work quickly to reverse any potential damage by getting warm and dry as soon as possible upon your return home.

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