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Top Winter Marathon Training Tips

01 December

Louis Riel Day 2010
Creative Commons License photo credit: froesei

If marathon training is hard, then training for a marathon though the winter is downright difficult. 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 Disney or a similarly timed 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 of our 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 & 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 ourside 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 prepare 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 you long 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 1% 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% or even 2%.
  • 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 & 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 are hoping to not 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!

Proper Winter Gear
Inclement weather aside, what can you wear to survive the long dark days of winter? The basics are pretty simple: lightweight, snug technical wear that helps to maintain your core body temp. Keep your extremities warm using gloves and a skullcap which can be pulled off and stuffed into the pockets of an outer layer as needed.

The outer upper layer is ideally windproof, has pockets, and even zippers in the armpits for ventilation. Note that heavy cycling jackets make for excellent cold weather running gear. As for the legs, it’s personal preference. I usually wear a pair of spandex shorts and then a long pair of spandex…the double layer makes sure I am warm where it counts and the snug material doesn’t hamper my stride. For a more indepth review of winter running gear, read my Daylight Savings post here.

  • For Running In The Cold & Dark: Consider adding reflective and/or flashing lights.
  • For Running In The Snow: Consider a shoe add-on like Yak Tracks to add additional grip.
  • For Running in the Ice: Trick question!! Don’t do it…just not worth the risk of falling.

Hydration & Fueling
Even though it isn’t hot, your hydration needs are pretty much the same. The biggest difference is that you won’t be feeling the outward signs of your work (sweat and salt), and as such tend to drink more conservatively. Add to that challenge the fact that you’ll most likely be enjoying lots of yummy winter beverages like coffee and hot cocoa, which also serve to replace your regular water intake, and you could re ripe for a good bonk.

Eat and drink on your winter runs, especially the long ones, just as you would in warmer weather. This will take discipline, so be ready!  A well-fueled run is the first step to proper recovery, and in some cases means the difference between recovering smartly or binge eating your way through some fruitcake. On really cold days, be sure to keep your fluids under your outer layer so they don’t freeze.

The Importance of Full Recovery in the Winter
I have written before on the topic of recovery, and wintertime is no different. While I have zero quantitative data to support this notion, I truly believe that winter training is harder on the body. Take identical programs and execute them in the Spring, Summer, and Winter, and I think you’ll find that most runners report back that the winter sessions were the hardest.

Let’s not forget that aside from the rigors of training and the weather, the winter is full of other stressors such as travel, work, finances and family. Take care of yourself with a macro-level approach to ensure that not only is each workout the best it can be, but that you don’t suffer anywhere else either. Options include:

  • Scheduled Regular Bed Time — Getting eight (8) hours of sleep a night practically makes you invincible. Really.
  • Stretching / Yoga instead of Recovery Runs — Sometimes more running is less, especially in winter. Continue to take care of your body while you stay warm by strengthening and lengthening your runner’s body.
  • Regular Hydration and Overall Feedings — Keep your tanks topped off to minimize the impact of the hot beverages and reduce the temptation to binge on the latest plate of free holiday snacks left in the office kitchen.

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7 Responses to “Top Winter Marathon Training Tips”

  1. Patrick December 16, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    Megan, you might be better off reaching out to some locals. If you can’t wait until midday (when hopefully it’s warmer) then you might find a benefit to running indoors most of the winter. You might benefit from a facemask / balaclava with the breathing…some folks swear by those!

  2. Megan October 11, 2014 at 9:27 pm #

    I need help… This is a great article for “cold” runs, but what if I’m training in MN where the winters never reach above -12? I LOVE winter running, but it’s tricky when I can’t even breathe…

  3. Daniel C December 8, 2011 at 3:15 am #

    Good article, thanks. So far I have managed to run comfortably at 27F and unfortunately with shorter days, I’m running at night. Nonetheless, the runs are quite the same as in higher temperatures. I think I will be fine as long as I keep my nose-breathing regular and do not breathe through my mouth to avoid throat infection/irritation.

  4. Mike Garcia-Carreras December 1, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    Busted! I opted for the treadmill for my morning run rather than brave the 34 degrees outside. It was my first treadmill run in a very long time and I was surprised at how much slower I ran versus running outside and how much longer an hour feels! Thanks for the article and the motivation!

    Mike

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