Winter running: Why it's an incredible way to get in shape

Don't let the cold weather ruin your running routine. Our fitness expert explains why you should resolve to run outside all year, regardless of the weather

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So many people view January as life-overhaul season, and it lasts about five minutes because people hate change. Did you resolve earlier this month to be kinder, eat healthier, exercise more, drive slower, drink less, yell less, be more generous and stop watching reality TV this year? That’s a tall order and a recipe for failure.

So instead of trying to change so many things about yourself all at once, why not just try for one thing this year and actually stick to it? I’ve got an idea for a good one, because its positive changes can trickle down and lead to improvements in other areas of your life over the coming years.

I want you to resolve to start running outside, year-round, no matter the weather. Right now you may be looking out the window into a snowstorm and thinking, “Why on earth would I want to do that?” This is an excellent question.

Why you should run in the winter

There are a few reasons:

1. A recent Los Angeles Times column of mine examined how people who run outside like it more, work harder and go further. Once you get used to it, there is a lot more enjoyment to be had from running outside (yes, even in winter) versus doing the hamster wheel imitation on a treadmill. An added benefit is that while you can hit “stop” on a treadmill anytime, if you run 5K away from home you need to get back somehow.

2. It’s convenient. Rather than warm up the car and drive to the gym, you can just head out the front door. Also, as a parent with taxi duties I regularly have time to kill. While my kids are in karate I often see other parents in idling cars reading the paper and sometimes eating fast food. I use that hour to run. Same deal with dropping kids off at birthday parties or other events.

3. Here is the kicker. Life is tough, and running outside in winter toughens you up. This is what renowned behavioural psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura described as a “performance accomplishment.” According to his self-efficacy theory (PDF): “determined effort can strengthen self-motivated persistence if one finds through experience that even the most difficult obstacles can be mastered by sustained effort.” Want to actually follow through on some of those other ambitious life goals? Running outside in the cold could be the initial push you need. Also, remember that exercise lowers stress levels.

That all sounds great, but it’s cold out there. That’s why I’m going to tell you the one true secret for how to do this. Ready? Here it goes!

Throw money at it

We’re not talking about missing mortgage payments here, but hobbies cost money. Trust me that this costs a lot less than golf. Also, running therapy is less expensive than psychotherapy.

How spending hundreds (not thousands) of dollars helps is twofold: It builds your confidence and it prevents you from freezing your butt off. Going back to Dr. Bandura’s self-efficacy theory, being confident about your ability to do something dramatically improves adherence to this new behaviour. If you’ve got lots of good cold-weather running gear then you’ll feel like you’ve got what it takes to do this. You’ll also still be able to feel your extremities at the end of the run.

Yesterday (as of writing this) was my first really cold run of the year. Ambient was -15C and the windchill was -22 (I’ve run in as cold as -30C ambient with a -40 windchill). After a mild autumn it took a bit of psyching myself up, so I dug out all my best winter gear appropriate for the temperature and got dressed. Then I looked in the mirror at the $400 worth of stuff I was wearing (not counting shoes) and knew I was good to go. I believed all this fancy, high-tech running gear was going to make for a pleasant run, and it did.

So if you’re serious about this, head on down to a running-specific store (not a general sporting-goods store), preferably at a time when it’s not busy, and do some shopping. The clerks in these stores are great because they live this stuff and can tell you what you need. And just in case, here is a basic checklist (note that most of these items have different thicknesses for different temperatures):

  • Tights
  • Gloves
  • Long-sleeve running shirts
  • A good running jacket (I wear the same one at 0C as at -30C, and just add or subtract layers underneath)
  • Warm running socks
  • Toques (I have one for 0 to -10, one for -10 to -20, and if it’s colder than -20 I wear a balaclava)
  • Headlamp and blinking armband for running at night
  • I also have YakTrax for running on ice, but rarely use them

I have a lot of cold-weather running gear, which I’ve been collecting for a few years, often as Christmas presents, so don’t feel you have to get everything in one shop. It’s okay to ease your way into this.

Safety tips

One great thing about a running jacket is that they have pockets. Here is what gets stuffed in mine if I’m in a remote area:

I also let my wife know where I’m going and when I’ll be back. If you’re paranoid, sticking to a populated area is a good idea.

Don’t expect to turn into a -30C running warrior overnight. It can take years of slowly pushing yourself to get there. Sure, some people will say you’re crazy, but in reality they’re just jealous of how much stronger you’ve become.

Have a happy New Year, and go be tougher.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, AB. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for The Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get a free metabolism report here.

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