As the year grows older, and the long summer nights fade into colder autumnal and winter days, it is all too easy to lose the incentive to head outdoors and enjoy all the benefits that running can bring. But the winter can be a time that defines the running year, providing an opportunity to develop the strength and endurance that underpin training and racing for many months to come. Ask any serious or elite athlete, and they will almost certainly see the winter as the most important time of their competitive season. As well as the obvious benefits coming from fresh air and the great outdoors, there are plenty of reasons why running in the autumn and winter is both easier, and possibly more important, than running during the warmer months of Spring and Summer.
Benefits of Winter Running
- Reduce physiological stress
- Body weight maintenance
- Improved health
Reduced Physiological Stress
Recent research conducted by sports scientists at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, home to the highly regarded Endurance Performance and Coaching Centre that has produced the likes of Charlie Grice and Beth Potter, found that running in the cool of a British winter was up to 30% easier than running in the warmth of a British summer. In the winter, the combination of lower heart rates, less dehydration and reduced “thermal stress” all meant that winter running can feel much easier, enabling runners to train harder and for longer, and consequently helping them to achieve better race times.
Body Weight Maintenance
Inevitably, for most people the shorter daylight hours of winter mean that more time is spent indoors, and as a result, energy expenditure is lower. The best way of addressing this, and avoiding a gradual rise in body fat and body weight, is of course to run. Most of us use around 100-120 calories per mile, which increases when the terrain is undulating with twists, turns and – of course – hills and mud! For many, the winter temptation to run less whilst eating the same amount of food will inevitably and inexorably result in a gradual rise in weight, which has a negative impact on fitness and performance, whilst increasing the risk of injury.
The health benefits of running are well documented, and extend way beyond the scope if this article. That said, getting outside in the winter can help to boost Vitamin D levels, and ensures that core strength and cardio-vascular fitness are sustained.
The mental benefits gained from running are also substantial, and likely to be even greater during the darker winter months. The running-induced release of the body’s natural opiates, endorphins, create a “feel good” factor, and whilst experiencing the countryside and trails is great at any time of the year, the changing colours of autumn and the rugged landscape of a frosty winter’s day can easily and quickly provide a boost to mental health that spending a day inside or in the office certainly will not.
Challenges of Winter Running
Let me see you!
Of course winter running brings additional challenges, and at the forefront of these is the need to maintain personal safety. Reflective running gear is essential, even if you don’t think your run will take you anywhere near a road or a car. If you can’t be seen, you are a danger to yourself and anyone - or any vehicle - that you come close to, and even the most accomplished trail runner can get lost, and end up in a place or on a road where personal safety is at risk if others can’t see you. Investing in a head torch is worth considering, helping you to see, and be seen.
Temperatures will also be lower in the winter, especially if your run takes you on trails that gain altitude. It is all too easy to react to a chilly winter’s morning by wearing copious quantities of outer clothing, and whilst this might be fine for the first mile or so, the body will soon start to generate heat as a result of the energy being produced when running. Even in the coldest of conditions, this heat needs to be lost, either through sweating or by conduction into the external environment. If heat loss is inhibited by too much clothing, body heat will soon increase to levels that are uncomfortable, and this may soon have a detrimental impact on performance. Staying warm is important, but getting too hot can easily spoil the enjoyment of a long run, so avoid the temptation to over-layer with clothes, and bear in mind that it is often preferable to suffer from a degree of chilliness for the early stages of a run, until the body creates its own heat and core temperature rises.
Winter fuelling is more than just throwing another log on the fire. Eating well to sustain training and – importantly – the body’s immune system, is crucial at this time of the year, with the added precaution of not over-indulging too much during the Festive Period. As well as high carb foods to energise performance and enhance recovery, trail runners need to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to help fight viruses and infections, and with the lack of sunshine, it may be wise to consider a precautionary Vitamin D supplement.
So the over-riding message is that winter running really can brighten up even the darkest and coldest of winter’s, boosting physical and mental health, and providing a great chance to enjoy the countryside. May the most of each day, and each daylight hour, by planning your routes, preparing properly and get ready to enjoy your winter trail running.
Author: Prof. John Brewer
See also "Run hot or cold?"