Well & Good
Scene: It's so dark outside, it could as easily be 2am as 5.30. The neighbourhood dogs haven't started barking, nor the birds chirping. It's just dark - and now, as you lie there wondering, you detect a wind blowing. Not from the direction of your snoring partner, but outside. Excellent.
You are awake because the alarm has just blasted you out of your dream and into reality. Why was it that you set that alarm? Oh yes, because last night you'd had the very brilliant idea of going for a run first thing, before the day got hold of you like it did yesterday (and perhaps for several days before that) and robbed you of the chance to fulfill that promise you'd made to yourself about maintaining your summer fitness over winter. To think, only seven hours ago you were utterly determined to leap out of bed at 5.30 and head off into a cold, windy pre-dawn morning. What were you thinking?
Winter throws up certain challenges for runners. It's the season for colds and assorted lurgies; it's easy to eat and drink more and disguise the excess under layers of clothing, which then makes you feel sluggish and disinclined to exercise; motivation can take a hit if you've run hard through summer and have no specific goals. It rains. People tell you you're mad even more often than they do in summer. But deep down you know you're not mad and that running through winter is worth it.
University of Wolverhampton sports professor and runner Andy Lane helps treat Seasonal Affected Disorder sufferers. SAD is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain and stems from the lack of natural light available in winter. It's pretty sad if you get SAD living in Australia, but nevertheless the short daylight hours can leave runners feeling ripped off.
"Evidence suggests that during the winter, people feel down more often than usual and research shows that taking regular exercise is an effective way of enhancing how we feel," Professor Lane says. "For struggling winter runners my approach is: a) plan - get your running gear ready the night before. This makes the decision to put it on easy in the morning. b) Go out shortly before the sun rises. It's a fantastic experience to be exercising when the sun rises - this helps keep your mood up; c) plan to run in the day - in the daylight - if this is possible.
"If you have trouble acting on your good intentions, make them as "if-then" plans. An if-then plan is when you put the solution ("then" part) beside the problem ("if" part). If I say negative things to myself and start talking myself out of going for a run, then I will say to myself, I'll get my kit, get out, do nine minutes and make the decision then."
Other British runners - who can legitimately complain when winter rolls around - offer these tips:
"Join a group to tough out some winter runs with. My training buddies and the sessions we did over the winter this year have given me the most solid base ever this spring, it's a great incentive if you're meeting with others when you're looking at gloomy skies outside. Also, if the days are short and you find yourself having to run in darkness during the week (morning or evening), make sure you get a nice daylight run on a favourite route (countryside/trail for me!) on the weekend. You appreciate this session so much even if the weather is bad." Andy Walsh
"You guys [Down Under] don't know what winter is. When you are running in three layers in a blizzard, snow blind, then you'll know. Winter isn't the problem for me. I hate rain! My top tip is to have a good stretch goal of a race and keep that in mind every time you roll out of bed at 5am. Get off road and do your miles there and enjoy nature at its worst." Dave Owen
"I have set myself a target of achieving 500 miles running this year (not huge, I know). I get my running kit on whatever the weather, take the kids to school and run straight from there, aiming for five miles each time. If I don't run on my free days, I know I won't get to my target so I just make myself do it. If I don't go, I know I'll be annoyed with myself later in the day. Get some decent music in your ears and just do it!"Helen Bates
And once you have made the decision to run in winter, here's a checklist of ways to make it a safer, more bearable experience:
Run into the wind on the way out and with the wind on the way back; that way the sweat you've worked up won't chill you so much.
Wear reflective clothing such as vests, caps with lights and illuminated armbands. Arm warmers are good as they can be removed. You lose most body heat out of your ears and head so a cap or headband is useful. Plus a pair of gloves does wonders.
Warm up before leaving the house. Do some skipping, bridges and push-ups, and dynamic stretches inside.
Apply lip balm. It's also good around your nostrils, and eyes if you care about wind burn making you looking older than you are. To minimise streaming eyes, wear clear-lens glasses.
Change quickly after your run so that the sweat doesn't cool your body.
When it's raining, wear a cap to keep the rain out of your eyes and consider it a dress rehearsal for a soggy race day.
Finally, some words of wisdom from Joel Wolpert, writing for runningtimes.com in 2010:
"Running in the winter and enjoying it is a lot about getting out the door and being open to the possibilities the weather can present. Rather than let the cold numb the senses, try letting the season sharpen your perceptions. Running in the dark, in the cold, in the snow, can all be opportunitites to experience another facet of the world we think we know so well."
- Sydney Morning Herald
How do you keep motivated to run through winter?