How to run through the winter

Thu Jan 8, 2015

Ah, January. A new year always brings on a fresh batch of fresh-faced fools who hit the road hard until fading back into obscurity by February. Don’t judge me as a snob - I don’t find pleasure in bragging about every run I take by posting a map of my running route on Facebook (yes, people actually do this).

But at least allow me to establish my credibility. I’ve been running regularly three days a week for the past five years. To put this in perspective, I’ve run about 4320 km over these past five years, which is roughly equivalent to running from Vancouver to San Diego and back. Or in other words, only 300,000 km more to get to the moon.

Every single run I’ve taken for this period has been on the same route at the same time. So, I know who the regulars are (there aren’t many). I think that gives me the right to shake my head at the poseurs that run fleetingly through my hood from time to time.

But maybe you’re serious about your New Year’s resolution to get fit and start running. In that case, I want to help you. There’s nothing I’d like more than to see some more regulars out there sharing the pain and glory. If you’re interested in becoming a bona fide runner - these are some tips. Take this advice for what it is - a personal reflection on how I ended up being a runner, not actual medical advice or a panacea to achieving your shiny new goal.

Let me get this out the way first: your resolution to start running in the New Year will probably fail. January is a terrible time to start running outdoors (in the Northern Hemisphere that is - if you live in Australia then go for it). If you really want to run through the winter, start in the Spring. Over the coming seasons, your body will slowly acclimatize to the changing temperatures. By the time January comes around, you’ll hardly notice the cold, where noobs will be choking on the frigid winds blowing down from the Arctic.

If you heed just one piece of advice, this is it: the only way you will ever stick with running is if you make it a habit. Physiologically, there is no difference between a bad habit and a good habit. I’m sure smokers don’t enjoy sucking on their cancer sticks sometimes. It’s the same with running. There will certainly be days when you don’t feel like running. There will even be days when you hate every minute of your run. But take solace in the fact that you will almost always feel better after your run. Whether that’s because of the exercise or because you’re just so relieved it’s over, you will be glad you made the effort.

By the way, when I talk about forming a habit, I’m not talking about chasing after the so-called runner’s high. You might get that rush of endorphins at first, but your body will quickly adapt. Like the drug addict who yearns for the rush of his first high by escalating his drug intake, you will eventually reach a plateau. You will only get a heart attack if you try to push past it.

You’ll definitely need some help to get going. The only reason I’m running today is because I initially joined a running group. Over the years, people dropped out and the group disbanded. But by then it didn’t matter because running was a habit. And true habits are hard to break. Running solo is no problem for me now because I don’t need inspiration or somebody to kick me in the butt. The dogged, inexorable call of habitual action forces me out there every time. Honestly, I’m not into sports. I would rather read a book than run. But skipping a run is like skipping the next episode of a TV show you’ve been watching for a few months. Even though it turned out to be a terrible show, you can’t abandon it now.

Habits are even harder to break when you schedule them into your routine. Like you, I’m a busy guy with a full-time job, young kids, and all the rest of it. I don’t know about you, but there’s no way I would ever wake up at the crack of dawn to run before work. I might force myself to do it for a while, but that all-powerful nemesis called “sleep” would win that battle in the end. Running after dinner is also tough when you have family and in the winter it’s just as dark and gloomy as the morning.

The absolutely best time to run is on your lunch break. If your place of employment has a shower, then you’re all set. Running midday is awesome for several reasons: It’s the warmest time of the day and it usually isn’t raining. It breaks up your day, gives you some fresh air and helps you stay awake in the afternoon (especially if you’re a desk jockey). Lunch is at the same time everyday - you won’t find any other block of time that is so regular. It is precious time away from work that you can use wisely. You can always munch on lunch at your desk after the run.

To avoid injuries, you should take the next day to recover. So a Monday, Wednesday, Friday run works well. Speaking of injuries, briefly stretch before and after the run. Also, the fastest way to get an injury is to sprint your way to one. Just run at a steady pace and forget about interval training unless you know what you’re doing. Listen to your body. If you’re extremely short of breath, feel like fainting and you throw up, then you’re overdoing it. No smartwatch could tell you that in any more certain terms.

Here are some additional tidbits:

  1. Don’t run in bad weather. Just take the day off. Nothing screams “poseur” more than some dude stoically running through a rain storm. Also, you’ll quickly associate running with torture and drop the habit.

  2. Don’t run hungry. Eat a small snack half an hour before you run. If you’re weak and lethargic, your run will feel like torture (see point 1 above).

  3. Don’t overdress in cold weather. I’m not kidding - if it’s above 5 degrees celsius then all you need is shorts and a T-shirt. Especially if you’re acclimatized. Wear a light windbreaker and gloves if it’s below 5.

  4. Always wear a hat. It’ll keep the sun and sweat out of your eyes. Don’t bother with sunscreen on a short run - a little vitamin D is good for you.

  5. Nobody gives a toss what sort of running shoes you wear unless they’re Vibram FiveFingers, which are unbelievably dorky and should never be worn under any circumstances.

Just enjoy it. Sure, you could get some inspiration by training for a race and trying to beat your times, but when the race is over, what then? Just breathe the air and watch the seasons change. Look at the wind rustling through the leaves, and the clouds scurrying in the sky. Leave the smartphone behind and just relax for an hour without the distractions of life bursting your zen bubble. Let your thoughts wander and the answer to a problem that’s been bugging you will come to you unexpectedly. Or you will come up with a brilliant shower thought to post on Reddit.

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