I’m a born-and-bred Minnesota runner. I’ve drilled sheet metal screws into the bottoms of my sneakers to navigate icy terrain. I’ve gone through rolls of duct tape to fortify the uppers of my shoes to withstand sub-zero wind-chills. I’ve become accustomed to applying Dermatone to my face to protect my skin from frostbite. During those cold snaps that are truly unique to the Northland—where the windchill factor is often 20 to 30 degrees below the actual temperature—my eyes water and lashes freeze together making me look like a crazy person. And do you know what? I enjoy the heck out of winter running!
The landscape and terrain is truly unique, forcing you to slow down, take in the scenery and simply enjoy the solitude of the run. Sounds are muted by the hip-high snowbanks, trails are uncrowded, and there’s just something magical about running amidst gently falling snowflakes. With all that said, there are some days when it’s downright dangerous to run outside in the winter. While I go to great lengths to avoid indoor workouts, I occasionally opt for an alternative on those days when it’s so icy I can hardly make it down my front walkway without wiping out, or it’s simply too cold.
As such, here are some of my favorite indoor workouts when the weather outside is frightful.
READ MORE: How to Weather Winter Marathon Training
Treadmill or Indoor Track
While there’s no substitute for outdoor workouts, treadmills and indoor tracks offer a decent option. As Chicago-based coach Bill Leach told me, “If the choice is between the treadmill and not running at all, the treadmill is a worthy alternative.”
When the weather forces me to do a run indoors, I often schedule a speed workout on the treadmill. There’s also something to be said for getting in a speed session if you’ve been trudging out a lot of slow miles on snow-packed trails. For example, that might entail running 6 x 400m at 5K race pace on an indoor track. “You could head outside for your run, but the quality of that workout might be reduced due to weather conditions,” adds Dan Walters, another coach based in Chicago. “In those situations, heading inside to a track or treadmill allows you to safely get quality work done.”
If you’ve never selected the “hill workout” option on your treadmill, take advantage of the inside time to give it a try. It’s a sneaky way to mix up your workout and keep you engaged. Still get bored? Try switching out your playlist for a podcast.
READ MORE: Making the Most of the Treadmill
Aqua jogging allows you to get a similar workout to a real run, but without the impact. “You can take any running workout and replicate it in the pool by implementing the same intensity level and the same duration as you would running outside—you could do a tempo run, repeat 200s, or even a long run,” Leach says.
Unfortunately, runners don’t always get much out of these types of workouts because they aren’t doing them correctly. You aren’t just treading water. “Pool running as a way to maintain run-specific fitness is excellent, but it also depends on how it’s being done,” explains Mike Hamberger, a Washington D.C.-based running coach. “In order for pool running to be effective, it has to mimic outdoor run mechanics.” If you’re not getting your heart rate up and utilizing proper run form–using a flotation belt helps–you’re better off simply swimming laps.
If running on a treadmill, indoor track or in a pool aren’t options, other forms of cardio training should be considered. Again, you must run to get better at running, but mixing things up once in a while isn’t a bad thing. “If there’s inclement weather and no treadmill access, it’s time to cross train,” Walters says. “My favorites for maintaining running fitness are pool running and the elliptical machine, but rowing, cycling or spin classes are all fantastic as well.”
Test out the other cardio machines in the gym–you know, the ones in the corner, like the stair climber, Nordic skiers or climbing (arm and leg) machines. All deliver killer workouts and are complementary to running. Have a garage? Grab a jump rope and make it your own personal gym. I usually have my bike on a trainer in my basement for those truly brutal winter days when I don’t want to leave the house to run or drive to the gym.
I tend to do most of my running on my own, so I welcome an excuse to workout with other people. That might mean a sculpt yoga class, a spin class, kick boxing, Orange Theory, CrossFit Endurance, TRX Suspension Training or some kind of high-intensity interval training or boot camp.
“I love what yoga classes often provide—they facilitate a high level of mindfulness in every aspect of an athlete’s life,” Leach says. “And spin classes offer a great anaerobic challenge, plus there’s a cool interpersonal experience where people compete with each other, so there is definitely value in having that social interaction in a healthy environment.”
“Spin, yoga or bootcamp all can contribute to full body fitness and strength without the pounding of running,” Walters adds. “In the winter it’s a good idea to mix up your routine and keep your body mentally and physically fresh—just make sure you’re getting in enough running to build towards your big spring or summer goals.”
Hamberger echoes that point, saying that if you want to build optimal running fitness, high-intensity interval training type classes are only a good thing to do on occasion. “HIIT workouts are good calorie burners, which is an off-season goal for some runners, but they lack a run-specific element, so it’s definitely a trade-off,” he said.
For me, wintry weather is a perfect opportunity to deemphasize the data output from my GPS watch related to pace and heart rate. Instead, I give renewed focus to strength training.
That could mean sessions of CrossFit Endurance or TRX Suspension Training, working with a personal trainer, pumping iron or some type of modified body-weight routine you do on your own. While your goals will dictate the specifics of your strength training plan, Hamberger says, “In my opinion, strength training is absolutely priority number one during this time of year.”
Leach combines strength work with drills for a great all-around indoor workout: “All of my strength and core work is done in a circuit workout that includes drills such as high knees, skipping, cariocas, bounding and heavy bag boxing to improve integration of the lower and upper body function.”
I especially like Leach’s combination indoor workout because it allows you to put some strength work in, while also getting your heart rate up. Plus, it’s a session that can be done in the comfort of your living room so you don’t need to set foot out in the elements.