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Why winter’s the perfect time to take up running

November 2nd 2020 / Ayesha Muttucumaru Google+ Ayesha Muttucumaru / 0 comment


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From banishing the blues, to supporting your immune system, there couldn't be a better set of reasons to take your workout outdoors

Has your get-up-and-go got up and gone into hibernation with the onset of winter? With the days getting darker and the temperature only going to get worse before it gets better, who could really blame it. However, (and hear us out here) going for a run in the winter could be the best way to see the season in a whole new light.

“Running gear is so efficient now that you get to both enjoy the freshness of winter, while being able to keep warm in lightweight clothing,” says William Pullen, author of Run for Your Life: Mindful Running for a Happy Life. “And there is nothing as life-affirming and invigorating as feeling strong on a winter’s day. It’s incredibly empowering and a perfect way to develop a robust and positive attitude for the year ahead.” Sound intriguing? Here’s why when it comes to running, winter is the new summer.

Why is winter the perfect time for running?

Incentive 1: it can help banish winter blues. With the couch, TV and all-important central heating making it even harder to leave the house these days, a dose of fresh air can prove extremely effective for blowing the cobwebs away. “In the winter, many people find that getting out to run is ideal as the winter months mean that we are often stuck inside for long periods of time,” says Dr Michael Burdon, Consultant in Sport and Exercise Medicine and Head of Sports Medicine at Pure Sports Medicine. He adds, “An interesting study by the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry found that people who exercised in green spaces reported higher levels of revitalisation, positive engagement and reduced stress and tension.”

Providing a pocket of escapism, scheduling in a winter run can create the space needed to reprioritise and recalibrate accordingly. “How well we relate to ourselves perhaps plays the most significant role in our mental health. Doing this well means taking time to care for ourselves, as well as acknowledging and meeting our needs,” says William Pullen. “Those needs often include quiet time and time spent alone. Running offers all of this and does so in the arms of mother nature. As you get out, the world opens up again in front of you. It’s a great chance to feel free, find space, and let go. Running is also great for finding clarity and creative thinking, so it helps you in other parts of your life too. Altogether, it’s an incredibly proactive and positive hobby.”

Incentive 2: it can help ward off unwanted colds and bugs. “Exercise in short to medium bouts has been shown to improve our immunity and therefore at a time when colds and other viruses are circulating, this can be a positive step to help,” explains Dr Burdon. “If you have a cold and feel well otherwise, it is generally safe to exercise, but any fever or other symptoms in the chest should mean you should avoid exercise until you feel fully better,” he cautions.

Incentive 3: it can help re-focus your race training. If you’ve signed up for a race or event next spring or summer, winter running can make for one of the most effective PB boosters. “For many people winter means confirmation and acknowledgement that you have a bib for a major race - such as the London Marathon - which you need to start training for,” says Nike Run Coach Bec Gentry. “Motivation and inspiration is commonplace for this reason, as for a fair few people these races signal the start of a whole new training programme and way of life.”

In Bec's experience, the winter elements can help give your running goals a kickstart in the right direction: “When we first start running, many people struggle with breathing and regulating their body temperature - when you’re puffed and hot and sweaty, enjoying a run can seem like wishful thinking. In winter, it can feel like both of these are slightly easier as we are naturally a little cooler due to the season temperature changes and the air is slightly thinner, less humid, and smoother to breathe in,” she says. “This can often be a big draw to new runners for getting out there as opposed to sticky summer months. However when it drops very cold, the dangers of getting chills from sweat and chesty coughs from the very cold air are high, so make sure you check the weather and dress appropriately for your session,” she cautions. “If you're running from and back to a warm place at a relatively even tempo, then there are some great easy kit options but if you've planned a speed session with lots of stops and starts for recovery, I'd suggest layers!” We’ll get to that in just a little bit...

Incentive 4: it can help give your summer fitness goals a headstart. “If we set our intentions for training and stick to them from when the weather is at its worst, when the days are their shortest and our social calendars are full, we will see continuity all the way through to summer,” says Bec. “Not using excuses when it is by far the easiest time of year to pull them out the bag, will set you off on the path to success a lot more easily and with a lot more time.”

Incentive 5: it can help boost your vitamin D levels. “Other benefits of exercising outdoors include increasing your vitamin D levels - although clearly this is more pronounced in sunny summer weather than in cold, long and dark winter days,” explains Dr Burdon. It has been estimated that around 10 million people in England may have low vitamin D levels, with a deficiency having been linked to an increased risk of developing a range of chronic health problems such as diabetes and depression. With the days getting darker, using the time when the sun is out to its maximum can only be a good thing for helping keep winter levels on an even keel. Proper supplementation can also be sought too. “I take a vitamin D supplement throughout the winter to keep my vitamin D levels optimal,” says Dr Burdon. Find out more recommendations in our guide to getting enough here.

What are the best ways to boost your winter run?

1. Warm up properly

Increasing your body temperature so your body’s ready for your run makes for a key part of your prep. “Try to keep your core temperature even before your training session or run,” advises Bec Gentry. “If you're too cold before you start out or too hot, the change will be really felt and you may struggle more on the run as your body is working hard to adapt quickly.”

Couple with the right stretches to lay the right groundwork. “If the weather is particularly cold, don't just head straight out there and into your pace, do some light dynamic stretching at home and then some moving drills as you head down your road to wake the legs up,” says Bec.

2. Take care in icy conditions

We’re in the midst of a pretty mild winter however, if the unpredictable weather has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected and ensure you’re always putting your best foot forward - no matter the forecast. “The first thing which applies all year round is to have good running footwear,” advises Dr Burdon. “In the winter, cold weather may reduce the shock absorbance of your running shoes, so this is especially important.”

Planning your route will also ensure a greater degree of certainty and safety too. “There are the obvious risks with icy/snowy weather where slipping or tripping may occur, so even more reason to have good shoes and know your route well in order to avoid any hazardous areas,” says Dr Burdon. “In dark conditions, wearing some fluorescent clothing is vital. There is evidence that most pedestrians are injured between 3 and 6pm in the winter months, so it is always vital that you keep visible to others and to traffic.”

Furthermore, take extra steps to avoid reactivating old injuries. “In the winter, we need to be more aware of the conditions we run in to keep our bodies safe from injury - when you're cold for example, you're more prone to injury,” says Bec Gentry. “So, especially if you have old injuries or niggles, keep your joints warm. Cover your knees and ankles and try to keep your torso as warm as possible in the low temperatures.

“When it is icy and slippy out, try not to be deterred, but instead activate your core well before you leave, work on some plank variations and some cross body slow bicycle crunches. By doing this, you will have made your body a little more stable and it will possibly come to your rescue to stop you from slipping over.”

3. Use the right foods for fuel

“Before your run, ensure you have eaten a good meal - a balanced plate of lean protein like poached eggs, some slow release energy carbohydrate, such as organic rye bread, and some good fats such as avocado should set you up well,” advises Bec. “Eat this and if you like caffeine, a black coffee won't hurt - but even it out with a large glass of water too!”

3. Be a more mindful runner

Want to get more out of your run than just the physical? William Pullen’s new book, Run for Your Life: Mindful Running for a Happy Life, £7.99, could help you achieve just that. Taking inspiration from mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy, he provides a a range of tailored thought exercises designed to be implemented during a run or walk in order to better strengthen the mind-body connection. His top tips for being a more mindful runner and boosting your mental health? “While mindfulness is about being in the here and now, rooted in the present and the world in and around you, it is also about commitment,” says William. “So tip 1 would be to lean into what, sometimes, looks like some unpleasant winter weather. Enjoy it. As you become more comfortable with the storms outside, so will you be with the ones inside.

“Tip 2 - take your time. There is no rush. Get into your inner human being and out of the human doing. Find a nice pace. Let go. My last tip is if you feel confident, put yourself into a sort of trance with your body and nature, counting every other breath or every other step. It's a great way to let go.”

4. Plan time to cool down properly

Plan now, less pain later - make your cool down as essential as the workout itself in order to keep seasonal soreness to a minimum. “After the run, have a good cool down stretch and foam roll,” advises Bec. “Loosening out the muscles slowly should encourage less soreness and if you can, I would suggest having a WestLab Epsom Salt bath, £14.99. Refuel with some protein and greens after the run and rehydrate well. Stay clear of caffeine for about one to two hours after you train hard too,” she advises.

5. Layer up, don’t bulk up

In terms of the best kit - look for thin, well constructed layers rather than bulky and stiff ones. “Wearing layered clothing is usually the best approach when you head out, as you can remove and add layers as necessary during the run,” recommends Dr Burdon. “Clothing layers need to be breathable and with wicking to trap heat but not sweat. During exercise, the blood will be shunting to the working muscles which can mean that extremities such as the face and hands get cold. Wearing gloves and a hat may also be sensible too.”

In terms of post-run rituals, change as soon as you can. “Once you finish the run, remove any wet clothing as soon as possible to reduce the risk of excessive cooling when you stop and therefore avoid risk of hypothermia,” cautions Dr Burdon. “Hypothermia can occur in cold weather and may develop if your running slows or stops for any reason. On this basis, I would usually advise shorter more intense running in cold weather rather than long slow runs.”

MORE GLOSS: 7 exercises to boost your mental health

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