Sure, the treadmill can be a valuable training tool in winter. But most of the time, gearing up, embracing the outdoors, and hitting the roads is the better option. What’s the difference, you ask? Training outside any time of year—but especially during the year’s darkest days—unlocks a host of mental and physical benefits. Here are four reasons to take your workouts outdoors this winter.
You’ll Kick SAD to the Curb
Amy Kugler understands firsthand how running can help combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Back in 2013, when the 30-year-old content strategist had just moved to Seattle, she found herself unconsciously upping her mileage as a way to cope with the lack of sunshine. “The rainy season kicked in around September and it was gray all the time,” she says. “My husband would encourage me to get out the door because he saw that when I returned from my runs, I was much happier.”
Robert J. Stock, a California-based psychotherapist, says that about 5 percent of Americans suffer from SAD, and as many as 10 percent more have a subclinical variant they may not recognize. “There are theories that the lack of light in winter triggers hormonal changes, with the leading belief being that the brain may create less serotonin, one of the important chemicals to create a sense of well-being,” he explains. Running, then, can be a great antidote. “Running outside, preferably in daylight, creates endorphins that give a runner a happy feeling and greater energy rush,” Stock says.
Even with a schedule and climate that often prevents her from training in the sunlight, Kugler feels better after training outdoors through winter. And that's no coincidence. A 2016 Harvard and Syracuse University study showed that the elevated levels of carbon dioxide often present in indoor environments can have negative effects on cognitive function. Translation: breathing fresh, oxygen-rich air—not just exposure to sunlight—can positively affect more than just your mood. “Would I love a sunny day?” she asks. “Yes. But more importantly, I am out there, and the endorphins make all the difference.”
Winter Weather Beats Summer Weather
Truly, it does. Instead of slowing the pace to build endurance in the heat, winter weather makes everything better: you’ll sweat less and remain better hydrated. You’ll feel more energized. Your heart will run slower and you might find yourself adding on a mile or two some days, rather than quitting early. “Breathing in the cold air wakes you up and makes you feel alive,” says Baltimore-based running coach Alison Staples. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
You’ll Feel like a Boss
If you haven’t noticed, there aren’t many people out running on the roads in the middle of winter. If you have the chutzpah to get out there, your tenacity deserves a few pats on the back. When he first arrived at the University of Wisconsin to join the track team, Under Armour runner Morgan McDonald was a bit unsure about running in the cold. Originally from Sydney, Australia, he’d never encountered real winter conditions (the average low temperature in January in Madison, Wisconsin, is a bone-chilling 11 degrees Fahrenheit). “It can be a bit daunting,” McDonald says. “But once you get used to it, you’ll be glad you tried.”
Professional runner and coach Breanna Sieracki, who lives in Minnesota and runs in just about any temperature, agrees. “You have to be tough to get out there,” she says. “It will make you more resilient and ready to handle anything.”
You’ll Make Real Gains
Winter running is about mental toughness, to be sure. You’ll emerge stronger and ready to handle the rough spots in a race come spring. But it also adds up to physical benefits. “With the exception of a few big marathons, like Houston, most of your races will be in warmer months,” says Sieracki. “So winter can be great for base building.” With the break from races, winter is the perfect time to build up your base so that you’re ready for that harder training come spring.
Use this time to work mostly in your aerobic zone, laying down a firm foundation. Think of your training as a pyramid—your wintertime base miles form the bottom layer on which your other efforts can rest. Skip out on this step and spring training and racing won’t get you nearly as far. The case for winter running couldn’t be stronger. As the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, make a plan for joining the ranks of winter warriors. Your mood and your body will thank you.
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