How to Weather Winter Marathon Training

How to train consistently through the winter for a late-winter or early spring marathon

If you live in an area with cold winters and are planning to run a late winter or early spring marathon, you need to prepare for one more layer of complexity: long runs and difficult workouts in harsh, cold and possibly snowy conditions.

Some of the best marathons in the U.S. are held between early February and late April, including the Surf City Marathon, Austin Marathon, LA Marathon and, of course, the Boston Marathon. Training for a spring marathon in the winter isn’t ideal, but plenty of pros and committed amateurs manage to get through it and still wind up setting PRs in the spring.

Brad Hudson, who mentors a group of elite athletes from often cold and snowy Boulder, Colorado, says that the ideal temperature for marathon performance is 54 degrees. “Anything colder than that is going to wear on you mentally and physically,” he says. That said, we can’t set the weather. With that in mind, here are seven tips to help you prepare for the winter:

1. Do your long run in loops.

Sam Sunstrom, one of Hudson’s runner, who is aiming to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, is no stranger to battling the elements. A Minnesota native and recent St. Cloud State graduate, Sunstrom prefers to do her long runs along the same 4-mile loop near her house. “I like the loop concept, because it’s safer and I can drop off extra clothes and pick up drinks without having to worry,” she says. Clint Verran, a Michigan-based physical therapist who specializes in running injuries and a top-10 finisher at the Boston Marathon, made the most of winter long-run loops by going to a nearby university that always had the best salted and cleared roads in the area. “I always liked to go to places that I knew would be maintained no matter what,” he says. “You want to work out where you know you won’t be slipping around.”

2. Dress for success.

Most runners take a look outside, see blustery weather and instinctively overdress. Remember that the body’s temperature at rest in the cold is not the same as what it will be at after running a few miles. Overheating is something you want to avoid, so consider dressing in layers that you can easily shed—including hat and gloves. Sunstrom also factors in the wind before she heads out. “If it’s 20 degrees and really windy out, then I will always wear a face mask and my jacket,” she says. Verran had a hard-and-fast rule for ensuring he wasn’t overdressed. “I always would say that if you are slightly chilled in the first 5 minutes of your run, you are probably dressed perfectly.” But Verran contends that there are no absolute rules with clothing. “Everyone dresses differently. Everyone has some part of their body that gets colder than another person, so it’s important that you know what works for you. Figure out what part of your body is the limiting factor and address it.” Just remember, there is no bad weather, just improperly chosen gear.

3. Find alternate workout locations.

The treadmill is first thing that may come to mind in foul and frigid weather, but there are other alternatives if you dread running on one. In snowy and icy conditions, when the Boulder roads are unsafe, Hudson takes his runners to an indoor parking garage early in the morning before it opens. There, they measure out a loop and do repeats as well as tempo runs. If your schedule calls for some hill work, consider using ramps on multi-story parking garages. However, the treadmill is still an option for shorter recovery runs, especially if the conditions aren’t safe outside.

4. Err on the side of caution.

If the weather conditions get really bad or there are especially treacherous conditions—like black ice or a whiteout—Hudson believes it’s better to either skip a run or change a planned workout. “Do an easy, moderate run instead of something harder,” he says. “It’s not worth getting hurt.” Hudson says the same caution should apply for high-velocity anaerobic workouts like short repeats or tempo runs that are faster than your goal pace. “You should be doing those kinds of workouts inside on the treadmill or in a covered area like a parking garage,” he says. Of all the winter-marathon tips, Verran maintains that staying safe is the most important. “Don’t get injured in the winter,” he says. “You can fall on ice or slip with your foot and injure your hamstring. You are at an increased risk in this season, so you need to be smart. Look at the running conditions and the weather forecast. Plan your runs with footing in mind. You don’t want to run on ice.” The end goal is making it to your late-winter or early spring starting line healthy and ready to race.

5. Wear traction.

For long runs, recovery runs and warm-up runs in snowy or icy conditions, consider wearing trail running shoes with knobby lugs or strap on after-market traction devices like Kahtoola Microspikes or Ice Trekkers Diamond Grip crampons. You can also create your own spiked shoes by getting a handful of hex-head sheet metal screws from your local hardware store and screwing them into the perimeter of a pair of shoes you’ll use for high-mileage training. Another good option is an IceSpike traction kit.

READ MORE: 7 Great New Shoes for Winter Running

6. Hydrate.

One of the biggest challenges facing marathoners in the winter is dehydration. Just because it’s cold out and you may not feel thirsty, doesn’t mean that your body doesn’t need the liquids. “Dehydration is one of the biggest mistakes I see winter runners make,” Hudson says. “They forget how much they are sweating, because it doesn’t feel as hot, but they are still losing a lot of fluids.” Hudson suggests that runners consume 3-5 ounces of water or energy drink for every 5K segment run. Maintaining your hydration during the day is equally important as maintaining your hydration during and after your workouts.

7. Follow a Training Plan.

As with any half marathon or marathon, you should follow a training plan that matches your abilities and goals. That’s especially true when you’re training during the winter months for a late-winter or spring marathon. Cold weather and inclement conditions will test your motivation, perseverance and tenacity, but following a plan will allow you to remain accountable to your goals and also stay on track when you have to skip a day because of weather, illness or holiday travel. Consider giving yourself a slightly longer buildup period to your spring race, perhaps as long as 16 to 20 weeks. For example, the Boston Athletic Association released its official training plans for the 2018 Boston Marathon on Nov. 20 and training officially began on Nov. 27 for that April 16 race. Also consider training with a few running partners or a group several days a week for added accountability and inspiration.

READ MORE: Dialing In Your Daily Hydration

Duncan Larkin
Duncan Larkin is a freelance writer and 2:32 marathoner. His latest book, "The 30-Minute Runner," will be published in January.