Put on the Tights, Bertha! Embrace Winter Running

On any mid-January evening, Bertha sets down her hot cocoa, remembering she has a spring race to train for. She opens her phone to check the week’s forecast and cringes. Eighteen miles in THAT?!

In past years, my spring race training has found me drop-kicking Bertha and angrily pounding out a run on the treadmill. Oh I’ve tried all of the Treadmill Tips of the Week and I’ve stockpiled shows and movies and podcasts to keep me sane. I’ve done ladder workouts and “speed play” and have written motivational messages on a chalkboard by my ‘mill. I’ve survived, but I’ve rarely enjoyed it. I pounded out the miles and I grimaced every time I looked at the weather forecast.

This year has been a little different though; Bertha has been pretty quiet about the frigid forecasts allowing me to embrace the weather I once dreaded. And I am having a blast. How did this giant change of heart come to be?

This fall, this Minnesota girl was given the gift of a long, mild season. Some years winter weather begins by October, but this year I wore shorts well into November! But, like I said, this is Minnesota, the state with the worst winter weather in the continental United States. December hit and, just like that, everything turned to ice and Bertha reappeared in my life. I begrudgingly went for my morning run on a treadmill for the first time in over eight months; that four miles felt like it took four hours. Torture! The next day I grumbled at work about how I was going to go run on the treadmill when I got home, and recounted how horrible the previous day’s ‘milling had been. But then, I had a revelation during my drive home!

But I don’t actually HAVE to run on the treadmill. I could run outside, couldn’t I?

I had every reason to shut down that thought immediately. It was dark. It was windy. It was cold, like Minnesota sub-zero windchill kind of cold. But for whatever reason, the thought of running in that sounded less miserable than going nowhere on the treadmill. It sounded kind of thrilling to test my grit, as I’d never run in weather that cold before.

I drove home and executed the Bertha cure known as “Robot Runner-mode”. Don’t think. Just do. I dug through my dresser and found all the appropriate base layers, and had to sort of wing it as I tried to figure out what I should wear in -5º windchill. I found a pair of YakTrax in the closet and out the door I went, as my children yelled to me, “You’re crazy to run in the cold!” and before I could take the time to consider that they might be right.

Once I found my rhythm on the ice and snow, I felt fantastic. The power of low expectations! At no point in the run did I feel cold, nor did my lungs seize up in the frosty air. In fact, I was able to run even a little faster than normal that night. And during that run, as I marveled at my newfound bravery, I decided that as much as possible, I was going to run outside. If I can survive -5º and ice, I could take on most of what winter has to offer. Take that, Bertha!

Since that night, it seems like my whole view of winter has shifted. Winter, once the enemy meant to be endured and avoided at all costs, is a season for enjoyable running. Sure, it’s not enjoyable in the same way throwing on shorts and heading out on a sixty degree sunny day is enjoyable, but winter running is truly great in its own way.

When I began to focus on the positive aspects of winter, rather than the negative, the thought of running through drifts of snow and braving a windchill actually felt … exciting. I wanted to be like those badass people who posted pictures to Instagram of their frosty hair and eyelashes. Just like that, the forecast didn’t matter much anymore. There is an old saying about winter: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Layers and proper clothing are key to enjoying the winter, so I have been adding to my collection of winter running gear and am prepared for anything Mother Nature throws our way.

Certainly there are still occasions when I choose to run indoors, because even with the best gear, there are still conditions that can be unsafe. But now that I don’t feel forced to run on the treadmill for the entire winter, even my treadmill runs feel more enjoyable. For me, it has been all about a mindset shift. Once I started looking for the joy in winter, I started to see people everywhere who are embracing the winter too. I see runners, bikers, and snowshoers all over town, not letting weather be a barrier, but rather letting it be a fun challenge.

Do you embrace winter, or do you hide indoors on the ‘mill?

I'm a college mental health counselor, runner, cyclist, wife, and mom to two strong-willed children. I started running in 2011 after the birth of my last child after years of love-hate relationships with fitness. My favorite distance is the half marathon, but I love the challenge of tackling the marathon. My biggest challenge is the mental aspect of racing, but my greatest strength is I'm stubborn and never give up! I'm a free spirit, an open book, and try to be authentic both in real life as well as in my internet life. Running has given me a place to face my fears, chase goals, and stay humble. Side note: I love cats and coffee and tacos.

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  1. Respect!!! I spent 5 years running snowy/icy trails during Montana winters, but then I lived 2 years in Brazil. When I got back to the States, I had a really hard time readapting to winter running. I can do short runs with little issues in the winter, though we rarely get -5˚ windchill here, but I really, really struggle with long runs in cold (and snowy) conditions. Unfortunately, I still can’t get myself to go to a gym and run on the dreaded treadmill for even 3 miles… I’m still working out how to handle running in the cold (especially with wind) and snow. It’s been a challenge.

  2. I’ve run on the treadmill once this winter – ONCE! Granted, I am not training for anything right now so on the worst weather days my kids were home and I didn’t run at all. But I have run outside many times I would have run inside in previous winters and I have to say that it’s really been super enjoyable running in super cold temps and even on snowy roads. It’s not been since I trained for a spring marathon, more or less my first winter of serious running when I was too naive to know any better (over think it), that I enjoyed it this much. Not dreading the cold is game changing for me!

  3. I don’t own a treadmill nor have access to one so I either run outside in the winter or I don’t run at all. I could use some gortex shoes or something to help keep my feet dry. We’ve had a bunch of sleet/rain/ice this week and the puddles make things interesting. Our winter has been unseasonably warm and rainy. In some ways it makes me miss the snow.

    1. Wool socks! I haven’t found shoes yet that will prevent wet feet from the giant soaker puddles, but with wool socks (I love smartwool or ice breaker) your feet warm up quickly and don’t feel wet.

    2. A lot of popular running shoes come in “trail” versions that are nice in the winter! At least a little water-proofed but also a tighter mesh so less ventilation. Seconding the wool socks, too. I’m a smart wool fan!

  4. Nice article honey. You are getting better. Not once did I see the treadmill referred to as the dreadmill in this article. 🙂

  5. I’d rather run outside than on the treadmill in most conditions. Berlin in the winter means running on lumpy ice until march, but still… If a hard workout/tempo run is on the agenda, and its icy out, I’ll head to the gym and do it on the treadmill.

    That’s mostly because the treadmill sucks all the joy out of my soul, but also: how much do people pay for cryotherapy? And here we are basically getting the same thing for free:p

  6. Loved this! I struggle with the long, dark and snowy early am runs during the winter but always feel like a BA afterwards. Good gear and lights for sleepy unaware drivers is key!
    And just a thought for any trail runners- the Solomon snowcross shoes rock for ice/snow. They have built in gaiters and small spikes for grip.

  7. I waffle. I used to only run outside, but then after I hurt my hamstring, ice and were not friends. Last year, the treadmill and I began a new, amicable relationship. Basically, I look at the forecast and ask myself which sounds more appealing, and then do it. Somedays that’s layering up and going outside (hey, the windchill was 0* here a few weeks ago and I did my 14 miles in it!) … sometimes it’s inside. I will admit that darkness plays a big role, too — I’m more likely to go outside if it’s daylight, even if the weather is gross. But gross AND dark? Treadmill often wins.

    Either way, getting long runs done in either frigid winter weather OR on the treadmill are both badass and we should all feel good about getting them done!