Amelia Nielson-Stowell: Reasons to Run: Five tips for winter running

Published: Thursday, Nov. 3 2011 8:01 a.m. MDT

The other day, I did something I hadn't done in months — set an alarm for 5 a.m., inhaled a high-carb, high-protein breakfast, put on running clothes and waited for my running group to pick me up.

On a Saturday.

You know you're a runner when you get up earlier on Saturdays than on any other day of the week. After a busy summer in which one of us was always out of town, our running group is back to our usual weekend early-morning long runs. I've returned to my running school after a summer of sporadically looking at the assigned reading. And I couldn't be happier.

Last year, I confessed I hated to run in cold weather and, since the "dreadmill" was my only other option, I made it a goal to master cold-weather running. It was a success. I trained for my first marathon (the Ogden Marathon) in the winter and learned to love cold-weather running. This California girl who anticipates summer like a kid anticipates Christmas was actually dreading summer running.

After mastering winter running, I found summer running is just too hot. I can't sneak a run in when my daughter naps because, well, running in the heat of the day is brutal — I can only make it two to three miles before feeling as if I'm going to pass out. It's not just the heat of the day — in Utah, it's hot in the evenings, too. In the summer, my regular running routes are packed with winter hibernators. And I feel like a camel, carrying and drinking insane amounts of water just to stay cool.

I've now seen my usual Saturday running route — the Jordan River Trail — in every season. My favorite is the winter: it's uncrowded and draped in snow. The crisp breeze blows on my face, the cold air fills my lungs, the steam comes off my legs as I sprint to the finish — it's wonderful.

How did I convert to a winter-loving runner? Here are five tips that made winter running an enjoyable element of training for me:

Wear layers: lots and lots of breathable layers. This is key to making winter running enjoyable. My usual winter running gear is Under Armour pants, compression calf sleeves, long-sleeve shirt, tech shirt, jacket, gloves and a beanie. If it gets any colder, I add another layer on top and bottom, extra socks and a ski mask or a scarf over my neck and mouth (so that hot air I exhale will come right back to my body). Since I run a loop on most Saturdays, I often leave clothes on the side of the trail to pick up later, or I just shove clothes into my jacket pocket. My goal isn't to be warm right when I start running — I expect to be cold until I've warmed up after the first five minutes — but to stay warm after the warmup.

Run with partners. Run with a friend or running group — especially when you're first learning how to feel comfortable with winter running. Extra running buddies motivate me to get out of bed in the morning, motivate me to avoid walking and distract me from the fact that we are running in freezing temperatures.

Have a goal. It's much easier for me to get out of bed early on a freezing Saturday when I know today's 16-miler is part of marathon training, or I know that my speed workout will benefit the 5K next week. You can then consider winter running as part of the race process, not a demonic workout routine.

After you're finished, enjoy warmth. Hot car. Hot chocolate. Even better: hot shower. Shed your damp layers ASAP and get into some dry clothes. It makes a huge difference.

REPEAT: Winter running is not dangerous. I used to think running in cold weather was horrible. "Our bodies are not meant to run in such cold temperatures!" I thought. Not true. There's no such thing as contracting frozen lungs. Our bodies emit so much heat during running that exercising in the winter may be less dangerous than in the summer, when runners are at risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion. Yes, hypothermia and frostbite happen ... rarely. But you're likely not running on a snow-packed trail in negative degrees. If you're on a road or urban trail and you're always a mile jog from a warm shelter (home, gas station, bathroom), you'll be fine.

Happy winter running!

Amelia Nielson-Stowell is a writer, editor and photographer. She lives and runs in Salt Lake City.

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