For many, the thought of running more than a couple of miles is torturous even before adding inclement weather into the mix. But for the countless Long Islanders training for spring races, or those who simply want to maintain their muscles over the winter, running in cold weather is unavoidable.
“From a training standpoint, it’s good to get out there in the winter to keep the gains you made from the previous year,” said Greater Long Island Running Club coach Ed Melnik. Fortunately, research has shown that they don’t suffer in vain. Besides benefitting from leaner muscles and maintaining bone density, cold-weather joggers are also privy to a wealth of additional benefits.
While it might seem counterintuitive, running in the cold is actually more ideal for the body than a steamy summer jog. “Higher humidity is more of a strain on your body than running in the cold. The optimal temperature to exercise is 40 degrees in shorts and a t-shirt,” said Dr. Robert M. Otto, professor and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Adelphi University. “At first, that temperature might not be too comfortable, but you won’t need to expend a lot of energy to keep the body cooler, so you’ll have an easier time dissipating the heat from the exercise.”
Another benefit of maintaining a winter workout routine has to do with the most important muscle of all: the brain. According to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, about 4 to 6 percent of the population suffers from depression as a result of bad weather, often called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). A Duke University study found a direct correlation between cardio exercise and an increased amount of serotonin in the brain, which reduces depression symptoms. “Winter depression is often times associated with the light and dark cycle,” Otto said. “By the time I get home in the winter, it’s dark. Exercise and endorphins can facilitate lessening the negative effects.”
Cold-weather running can be crucial in building mental toughness too. Seasoned marathoners often say that completing a race is 90 percent mental and training in the cold helps develop that kind of grit. Melnik schedules runs with others to help plow through the drudgery. “Misery loves company,” he said. “Knowing someone is going to be there is so important, otherwise you’re going to be staying home.”
Maintaining a winter running regimen can also help prevent seasonal illnesses. “Moderate amounts of exercise assist in immune function because it can improve the natural killer cells, which are the first line of defense against infection,” Otto said. “Elevating the core temperature can assist the body in destroying germs.” Otto also remarked on the added benefit of exercising outdoors in fresh air: Less chance of using gym equipment coated with cold and flu germs.
But despite the benefits, simply running outdoors in December isn’t enough to remain healthy—in fact, the potential risks could outweigh the benefits without proper preparation. “When it’s cold, your running shoes become hard as rocks, especially the mid-sole,” Melnik said. “I’ll bend and manipulate them if it’s super cold, but changing your shoes more often can help too.”
Brendan Barrett, co-owner of Sayville and Smithtown Running Company, recommends dressing in layers to avoid things like frostbite or hypothermia. “Wearing a few thinner layers is less bulky and the different layers trap heat between them,” Barrett said. The base layer should be moisture wicking to pull sweat away and keep off the chill, followed by a thermal layer that will contribute the most warmth. The outer layer should be a lighter shell that blocks wind and water. It’s especially important to cover extremities in colder weather with warm socks, hats and gloves. When daylight is at a premium, visibility becomes imperative. “In the winter, unless you’re lucky and out in the middle of the day, you’re going in the early morning or late night when it’s dark,” he said. “Refl ective gear or a headlamp allows traffic to see you.” Adding extra tread to running shoes, with bungee-cord-like Yaktrax, can also help winter runners avoid nasty spills on ice or thin layers of snow.
With the right safety precautions, winter running can be just as beneficial as workouts throughout the rest of the year. That’s good news for the thousands who train for spring races on Long Island or the weekend warrior who doesn’t want to put workouts on ice.