Why You Should Keep Running Outside in Winter
Sticking to a running routine through winter can be a challenge. Not only do shorter days leave less time for heading out before or after work, but colder temperatures make snuggling up on the couch just that much more appealing. Add to that snowfall and slippery sidewalks, and it’s quite understandable why many runners opt for the treadmill (or a season of inactivity!) instead.
And while there certainly isn’t anything wrong with taking your workouts indoors, you might be surprised to learn that braving the cold has some pretty awesome perks as well. So layer up, head out and prepare to reap some fantastic benefits!
Improved endurance performance
Researchers from the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts studied a combined 86 years’ worth of results from the New York City and Boston Marathons, as well as a handful of marathons in Vancouver, Canada. The results indicated that elite marathon runners run fastest in colder temperatures, namely between 41 and 50°F. It was also found that elites are approximately 5% slower on a 77°F-day if compared to a 41°F-day.
And the effect is even bigger on amateur runners. According to the same study someone who is capable of clocking a 3-hour marathon in 41°F weather may run up to 12% slower in 77°F weather. Ouch! The bottom line? Enter that chilly fall or winter marathon. It might be just what you need to clock that elusive PB!
As far as training goes, researchers from the University of Aberdeen have found that the ideal temperature for making endurance performance gains is 10 to 11°C (or 50 to 52°F). It is believed that temperatures both warmer and colder than this will result in a decreased ability to sustain activity of a certain intensity.
More efficient oxygen use
Training in cold weather could potentially teach your body to utilize oxygen more efficiently. A 2001 study by scientists from the Northern Arizona University found that regular cold-weather training improves the running speed of goats by up to 29%. This increase in speed was attributed to an increased oxygen uptake. And while environmental factors makes it difficult to duplicate this study in humans, its results certainly are encouraging for the two-legged speed goats among us.
A potentially slimmer waistline
The fact that total energy expenditure is higher when exercising in cold temperatures comes as no surprise. But what’s even more interesting, is the fact that exercising in the cold also leads to a number of complex biochemical changes in the body. One such change, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is an increased ability to take up glucose. And what exactly does this mean? Well, in very simple terms, it means that ingested sugar is burned instead of stored as fat. And while the mechanism behind this phenomenon is not quite clear yet, scientists believe that it has to do with forcing the body to burn “brown fat” to generate warmth. Brown fat is metabolically active tissue, which improves the body’s ability to process sugary foods.
A team from the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research has found that regular cold-weather training can boost your immunity system. In fact, it can decrease your chances of falling ill with the flu by a massive 20 to 30%.
Be careful! The risks
And while all of this certainly is great news, keep in mind that running in wintry conditions comes with its fair share of risks. These include:
- Less coordination, feeling in the limbs and motor control, which may lead to clumsiness and trips
- An increased chance of muscle strains and joint injuries if not properly warmed up
- Exercise-induced bronchospasm
- Exercise-induced asthma
- Slips and falls on slippery surfaces
- Limited visibility as a result of shorter days and longer nights
And while its good to take note of these risks, a few simple precautions can ensure your safety when running outside in winter. Be sure to do the following before you head out:
- Warm up properly. Taking the time to properly warm up will limit your chances of straining a muscle or injuring a joint.
- Layer your clothing. Not only will layering help trap warm air against the body, but it will also give you the option of stripping off layers when things heat up. Start with a synthetic layer against the skin, that will wick away sweat and moisture. Wear an insulating layer, like fleece or wool, over that, followed by a wind– and waterproof outer layer.
- Cover those extremities. Be sure to cover your fingers, ears and parts of your face, if possible (think balaclava). Head inside if your skin starts stinging or feeling numb – the last thing you want is frostbite!
- Be slip savvy. Iced paths and sidewalks could have you kissing the pavement in the blink of an eye. To prevent this, make sure that the tread on your running shoes isn’t worn out. You could also invest in a pair of running cleats to increase your grip. Lastly, be sure to slow down over icy patches – better safe than sorry!
- See and be seen. Always wear bright-colored or reflective clothing and carry a bright headlamp if visibility is limited. Carry your phone with you and always let someone know where you’ll be going and when you’ll be back.
- Wear warm head-wear. Choose head-wear (skull caps and beanies) made out of wool to protect your head against the harsh weather conditions.
So if you’ve made yourself guilty of fair-weather running in the past, let this be the winter that will see you getting out there and making your mark. Not only will you be boosting your performance, but you’ll also be doing your body a favor in the process!
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