Winter Running: Performance

For my friends who don’t really train through a long stretch of snow, wind, cold, and poor footing for more than a few days, then you may not find much use of this blog. For the rest of you, you are probably like me and wonder if you are literally just spinning your wheels. The end result can be an unwarranted lack of confidence as you head into a winter or early spring marathon. Today, I want to discuss what common concerns I get and then provide you a case study as to why we don’t need to throw our original goals out the window.

Running in the Snow

There’s a few questions and concerns I get this time of year, but the biggest reflect around a sudden loss of fitness (or apparent) because of familiar loops being slower than they were in the fall. For instance, this morning we ran a loop that we run throughout the year. On a normal easy run, I will run 6:30-7:00 minute miles. Last night we got a little dusting of snow which made the sidewalks and side roads a mess. The pace of today’s run was about 7:30 per mile, but it felt like I worked harder than my 18 mile long run yesterday (that was 6:30/mile average). What gives? Over one day, I assume that most people chalk it up to the previous day’s long run and the fact that there is snow. However, it’s like this all winter and it gets in our heads. I am averaging 30 seconds per mile slower all the time. There’s no way I am going to be ready! I get it, especially in this age of social media where we all see our friends just crushing life.

The truth is, even though the paces may not line up, the effort is still there. I know what many of you are thinking- but you hate using heart rate, power meters, and all that, so aren’t you contradicting yourself? Well, maybe, but I say the same things about those tools as I do GPS. That is that they are tools and they all have a place. Here, I don’t mind any of those, as long as you look at those numbers afterwards to really analyse. In a perfect world, and some of my Boston runners got a little lecture about this with hills, is that I certainly want you to know your paces. However, along with that, I don’t want your workouts to be GPS only. Along with keeping track of that data, one should also internally note how they feel at those paces. How do they feel when not pushing hard enough? Too hard? If we note these things and ACT ON THEM, then we can be pretty close at our desired paces because we know what the effort feels like. Further, when we get in a situation where we aren’t in ideal weather, or doing a workout on a hilly route, we know what the effort feels like. Later on we can correlate what paces lineup so that we know that even though we were 15 seconds slow per mile for that tempo, the right effort was there due to a -10 degree windchill (or whatever factors involved). The key here is to recognize effort to paces in better conditions so we can utilize effort in far less than ideal conditions later.

Ok, so how is performance actually affected by the cold?

  1. Extra weight:

    For some of us it is that extra Holiday weight we found lying around the cookie plate. However, think about how many layers you are putting on! I would bet there are times I am wearing 5-8 pounds of extra clothing during the winter. We have all heard the adage of every 1 pound of non energy producing weight (usually referring to fat) costs us 2 seconds per mile at race pace! (Insert Ric Flair: WHOOOOO!) That’s a good 15 seconds plus per mile on an easy run! Just think about how that will affect you on that marathon tempo!

  2. Decreased range of motion:

    Along those lines, with all those extra layers, especially on the legs, we don’t get the same range of motion which means strides are probably a little shorter and we just aren’t as efficient as we are in shorts.

  3. Poor surfaces:

    This one is a given. Poor traction, dodging ice patches, and doing pirouettes along the sidewalk all take their toll on us.

  4. Reduced force of muscle contraction:

    Cold weather will reduce the force of our muscle contraction which means it takes a little more work to run at any given pace.

  5. Decrease in lactate threshold:

    Because we are physically working harder to run, our lactate threshold will be lower. So, say in normal weather your LT occurs at 75% of your VO2max (which would correlate at say half marathon pace) now occurs at say 65%, which might be slower than marathon pace.

  6. Increase in use of carbohydrate:

    Because your LT is lower, you’ll have a higher reliance on carbohydrate. Lactate is a by product carb breakdown, so workouts that normally don’t cause carbohydrate depletion can now put you in the danger zone.

  7. Increased intensity at same pace:

    Because of everything we mentioned, all paces become inherently harder. Then when we see we aren’t hitting paces, we tend to try harder. This tends to only set us back further over the coming days and weeks.

  8. Dehydration:

    I don’t have any scientific stats on this, but winter seems to be a primetime for chronic dehydration. Just look at our skin in the winter. Whether it’s because we don’t think we need fluids in the winter, harder to take in during winter, or what, but chronic dehydration and electrolyte loss seems like it would eventually take its toll on us, as well.

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How much do these factors all add up to?

It is hard to put exact numbers. If you want ballpark numbers, you can certainly use our calculator that lets you factor in cold and windchill. This isn’t exact by any means, as you can’t put numbers on some of the factors listed, but it let’s you see how much time really can be affected. When we put it together, we also factored in what you were doing, so easy run paces will be affected less than speed work. You can check out the calculator HERE.

Now, some of you are reading this and thinking that ole coach is blowing smoke, so I wanted to use a case study from this past weekend. HCS Coach Mo Hrezi and I have been running together most of the winter here in Rochester. This winter has been brutal, especially the end of December and into January. December was Michigan’s fourth snowiest in history and we had a couple week stretch where we never got above 10 degrees F for the high. That’s air temperature, not including the wind chill. We have been doing a lot of workouts at Stony Creek Metropark where footing wasn’t the greatest and the temps were tough. The long of the short of it is this- say we were doing 3 miles- 2 Miles- 1 Mile at Stony. Under normal circumstances, we’d do these at about half marathon pace. Mo really wanted to break 1:03 at the Houston Half Marathon, so that would be about 4:48 per mile (ballpark). Mo came close to that for 1 mile, where he had good footing and a wind at his back. All the workouts we did in December and early January amounted to one lousy mile run at his actual goal pace.

Needless to say, Mo ran Houston this past Sunday (1/14/18) and ran… 1:02:11!!!

This was a personal best by nearly two minutes and is the fastest ever run by a Hanson’s ODP member.

The moral of the story is don’t focus only on what the watch is telling you during the winter months. If you keep the faith that you are working hard and putting in the training, that you don’t need to adjust goals (as long as you are racing where weather won’t really be the issue). Take the time throughout the year to know how paces feel and what effort you are putting in to hit those paces. That way, you can have confidence that your fitness is still there and you’ll be ready to fly on race day!

Dressing for winter running

Winter running can have a wide range of effects on people. For some it might mean actually having to wear a shirt on those chilly 65 degree mornings. For others it might mean growing a glorious beard to protect against the snow and wind (at least that’s what I tell myself). I get a lot of questions about winter running, but one of the main ones is, how do I dress for this stuff? To me that’s a loaded question because there’s a lot of variables going into it. In November if it’s 32 degrees I’ll be wearing tights because it’s so cold! If it’s 32 in January? Shoot, I’m breaking out the half tights and debating wearing a shirt (ok, I’ll put a shirt on), but will probably be wearing half tights on a day that warm in January!

In all seriousness, how we need to dress depends on our exposure to the elements. For instance, today was 11 degrees with a pretty brisk wind. However, despite it being that cold, it was actually the warmest it’s been in a while. I actually felt a little over dressed!  On the flip side, today it snowed in Florida! The folks who live there probably thought it was the end of the world today. They probably couldn’t put enough layers on. In fact, I would bet there were people dressed with more clothes on in Florida today, than the Hanson’s Brooks team had on our wind chill advisory morning here in Michigan. Given all that, I still think there are a few truths that we can all use, regardless if winter is a few days a year for you, or if you feel like you’re in the arctic circle with no sun for six months.

  1. The wind is worse than the cold.

    If you can block the wind, I feel like you can take away a lot of the  discomfort in cold weather running. These days there are a lot of wind resistant shirts and lightweight jackets that don’t add a lot of weight, but block out that bone chilling cold. Also, consider something for the legs, or at least the most sensitive region below the waist… Seriously. Find good briefs/undies to run in, especially ones with a wind panel in front.

  2. Focus on extremities like the head/face, hands, and feet.

    Your head loses most of your heat and your face takes a beating in the wind. Offering up protection to your noggin is crucial for those cold and windy days. When I run, my hands are always the first to feel the effects. For others it is there feet. Investing in really good gloves and mittens is a must if you want to brave the elements for any length of time. Even a good glove with a mitten shell will work wonders for blocking the wind and keeping the body heat in around the fingers. As for the feet, you need to be careful. As some teammates found out, you can’t just put a bunch of socks on and shove your foot in your shoe. They did this for a few days, but found their shoes were now too tight and hurt! Get some good light wool running socks.

  3. Dress in layers.

    I recommend your base layer be pretty form fitting. This pulls your sweat away from the body right away and can be dissipated better through the second (or third) layer. The second layer should be fairly loose to allow your body heat to be trapped and be a natural insulator. If wearing a third layer, then this should be your wind breaking layer. For the legs, you will probably be wearing tights. If you find your legs still getting cold, then go ahead and put a wind pant on over the top. They are lightweight, will trap body heat towards legs, but still allow sweat to evaporate. Plus, you’ll get that ever important wind block.

  4. Dress like it’s warmer.

    The rule of thumb is dress like it’s 20 degrees warmer than it is. Now, I understand that if it’s 5 degrees F, then does it really matter if I’m dressed for 25? Well, no, it’s still cold! But if it’s 20 degrees out and you dress like it’s 40 degrees, that’s a big difference. So, take it relative to what the air temp is. The colder is, the less this will matter, but can really make a difference when you are in that grey area. You might be a little chilly the first mile, but your body heat (see above) will take care of you.

  5. Is it the shoes?

    Going back to the socks and feet a little bit. Shoe companies have all developed a couple shoes that are great for winter running. For instance, every winter I get a pair of Brooks Adrenaline ASR (All Season Running). These babies have a more aggressive tread and a water resistant upper. Having these definitely allow me to keep the needed socks minimal with a much better fit. Shoes like these are something to consider if you are dealing with months of treacherous running!

Now, I don’t think anything I just wrote was earth flattening for anyone, but a necessary discussion. I think the real question is “How should I dress for different days?” Like anything, we have to look at what we are trying to accomplish for the day. In essence, the faster you are trying to run, the more we have to think about it.

Easy Days

On a nasty day, an easy run really does become a matter of putting the time in. These are the days I am going to have the most time to let my mind focus on being cold, so I want to be as comfortable as possible. I’m willing to overdress on these days!

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Long runs

During the winter, or if it falls on a nasty day for you, the long run is an extended easy day. However, many of us want to run a little faster on the easy days. We also are talking about putting A LOT more time on our feet. While I want to be comfortable, I don’t want to be overheated. I try to keep my regular shoes, unless it’s just completely snow covered. I focus mostly on keeping my feet and hands warm. I will wear a fairly heavy tight with the appropriate, er protection. And then I will usually wear the standard base layer and a warmer jacket or a middle weight shirt and a very lightweight windbreaker.

The faster stuff…

Marathon or faster work does require a delicate balance of how much I’m willing to be uncomfortable, but avoid hypothermia. Up top, I’m less worried about it. I can get by with the base layer, and the thicker warm layer. The tights is where things can get tricky. The thicker the tight, the less range of motion (or the less I feel I can get a full stride). I tend to dress down a level of warmth. When you are running fast, you’ll notice it less.



Given that, there are a couple points I’d like to make with the clothing and workouts. You may have heard the saying that one pound of fat equals losing two seconds per mile. Now, what that really means is that for every pound of weight that is not involved in the propulsion of your body forward, you lose two seconds per mile. So, think about that when you are dressed in your extra layers and even more when the sweat that left your body is now frozen to your outer layer. It’s there and it slows you down. So, when you are working hard to run slow, keep this in mind and focus on effort over pace.

The second point is more about when you are done running. When you are running hard, you’ll notice the cold less. You’ll really be feeling that difference between what the actual temp is and how warm you feel. Now, once you stop, you are a lot more susceptible to getting the bone rattling chill. While I know many of you go straight through your warm up to workout to cool down. If you have the opportunity, I say warm up like you are doing an easy run. Then, adjust your layers accordingly for the workout. Finally, if you can, take off your wet top layers, replace with warm, dry layers, and then do a cool down. If not, then I urge you to get warm and dry clothes on as soon as you possibly can.

With that, you can see how I approach winter running in dress and with specific days. I hope you find soe use of this as it guides you through the tough winter running we endure. Feel free to keep the discussion rolling!

Here’s some other good reads on dressing for winter runnning


Of course, I had this written last night and ready to be published this morning when @sweatscience publishes something to Outside Magazine. Here is another great read on winter running and wear you want to keep your body warmth levels.