Running and Coping during the Winter and Holiday Season

11/28/2014 - 16:08

By Lena Hollmann
It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, and the weather is getting colder. Those morning runs that you used to head out on after the sun got up are now done at least partly in the dark. Or maybe you are an evening runner, running in the dark as well.

As I am writing this, we are still on daylight savings time. Today was a beautiful day, with afternoon temperature in the 70s. I couldn’t resist going out for a short and easy run, even though I ran a 10-mile race yesterday and normally take a day off after such a long race. But as far as the weather is concerned we are on borrowed time, and when you read this it may already be past Thanksgiving.

Which means it may be getting harder to focus on running and staying healthy! Not only is it getting darker and colder outside, but we also have a number of distractions to deal with this time of year. Holiday shopping, office parties, and get-togethers with in-laws can easily throw a monkey wrench in any running schedule. So we have to learn how to find the time to run and exercise in the middle of all the mayhem, or maybe how to let go and resolve to start anew come January 1. Or maybe how to find a happy medium – run when we can, skip it when we can’t, and still be content!

Not all of us have to deal with freezing temperatures, at least not every day. Most of my readers live in the Southern states, where mild weather prevails at least for part of the time in the winter. And if you live in Florida you may even look forward to this time of year. Gone is all that summertime humidity and those unpredictable afternoon thunderstorms. And you don’t have to dig out tights and gloves each time you are going for a run. But the rest of us must have some extra layers on hand for those times when we get a blast of cold air from the north.

And not everyone has to run in the dark either. If you are retired, work from home, or have a flexible schedule you may be able to fit your runs in during daylight hours. I am fortunate to be able to do almost all of my runs when it is light outside, and for this I am very grateful.

Not everyone celebrates the Holidays either. But for most of us, whether we celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, it means festivities that are not part of our ordinary daily life. Food needs to be prepared, gifts purchased, cards written, and trees decorated. And even though these activities can be a lot of fun, they also take time. So our running can easily go wayward during this time of year.

Fortunately, most experts and renowned coaches recommend we take a recovery period at least once a year. To maximize performance at a marathon or other goal race, they recommend we first build up distance and endurance for several weeks, then sharpen by doing more speedwork and slightly lower mileage, then run our goal race or races, and finally take a few weeks off with only minimal running. This concept is called periodization, and I will save for another column to discuss it in detail. But as you sit down for your Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham, all you need to know is that your body needs some rest and recovery time. So, if you miss a couple of runs here and there, it could in the long run (no pun intended!) improve your race performance and maybe even save you from injury.

This being said, I know that some of you want to run those extra holiday calories off. And maybe you also have a major race planned within the next couple of months. Here in the South we are able to race in the middle of winter, and there are some good races to choose from during January and February. Signing up for a race early in the year could be one way to acquire the discipline and focus you need to carve out some regular training time throughout the holiday season. It may become the inspiration to get some miles in even if it is dark and cold out there, and your favorite TV show is on.

We each have to come up with our own plan of how to cope with weather, darkness, holidays, and other obstacles to our running this time of year. As you read this we have a long winter ahead of us, although not as long as those who live further north are facing. And even though there’s the Farmer’s Almanac and other long term predictions, we don’t really know what Old Man Winter has in store for us until he is here. Last year we had a tough one, and at least I hope for less cold, snow and ice this time around!

So what can we do to “survive” until springtime? Again, one thing is to schedule some recovery time. Make it active recovery if you can, fitting in activities other than running. It can be a cycling or yoga class, a walk in the neighborhood, or lifting some weights in your basement or at the gym. Anything that gets you moving, and preferably something that you enjoy!

If you prefer to stick to running as much as you can but need some extra motivation, sign up for a race that takes place early in the year. Then set up a tentative schedule, but be prepared to change some workouts around if the weather gets ugly or your schedule too busy. Or find a group to run with that runs at a regular time and place. Or get a running buddy! It is so much easier to get out there if you are not going it alone, but know there is someone else waiting for you who will miss you if you don’t show up.

To make your runs more comfortable, dress appropriately for the weather. This can sometimes be more of an art than a science, and we all have to figure out what works best for us. Your best friend may be comfortable in shorts when it is in the 30s, while you prefer to wear tights when it is below 50 degrees. Also keep in mind that it is a common error to overdress. I still do it myself sometimes! It is better to feel a little cold on the first mile than too hot on the rest of the run. And if you run in the dark, don’t forget to put on some reflective gear!

On snowy and icy days, use your judgment. Although I have known a few people who went for a run no matter how icy it got (don’t ask me how they did it!), I don’t recommend it. It is better to take a day off or do cross training than risk serious injury if the roads are covered with ice. And here in the South, snow and ice will often melt in a day or two anyway.

With some creativity, flexibility, and good judgment, we can get through the winter safe and sound. One thing I like about living this far south is that our winters are short. There are runners from Boston, Chicago, and other cold places who always seem to be ready and in peak shape for the spring races. And if they can be ready, so can we!

Lena Hollmann is a certified personal trainer with American Council on Exercise (ACE), and also the Southern Region Director for RRCA. She lives and runs in Cary, NC, and can be reached at

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