Smutty Fitness: Running in extreme cold

Hayley Posted by Hayley at February 23, 2018 17:45:56 February 23, 2018 17:45:56

Hi Hayley,

I have decided I want to run a half marathon in September, but am struggling to work out how to go from where I am now to where I need to be in September.

For the past few years, I have been running or cycling multiple times a week, including a long (6-8 miles) weekend run. Summer 2017 I moved to a new city (Astana, Kazakhstan!) with a very different climate (I was previously in Berlin), for a new job with a very different schedule. We get really serious winters here, a lot of snow and ice, and regularly -60 Fahrenheit, sometimes in the 90s. I love to run outside, so I bought crampons and bundled up and am still running outside. That is my long weekend run, around 2.5 to 4 miles, and then I also do one yoga session and two strength workouts a week. I used to workout 6 days a week, but last semester (I am a university lecturer) I just got too burned out doing that. I have also previously had some minor knee issues from trying to extend my running distance too quickly. 

I know I need to start running more distance. As well as running outside (only really practical on the weekends right now, it's too dark and icy in the evenings), I have access to a gym with treadmills etc. I hate treadmill running, but I guess I need to get over it. How can I build my running base back up so that I can start half marathon training for real in the summer? What is the best way do that whilst protecting my knees, and not exhausting myself? Do I need to drop my strength workouts? 

Thank you!


You’re still running outside??? In minus 60? That is like running on Mars! You are one dedicated runner!  It is minus 5 Celsius in Vancouver right now (which is 23 Fahrenheit) and I wouldn’t be caught dead running outside in this weather. You are my hero.

So how can we get your ready for half marathon season without injuring your knees or risking your eyeballs freezing? I am going to suggest you take up indoor cycling, either in a class or on your own, and use the cycling workouts to replace the longer runs, until it warms up a little bit outside, as well as cross country skiing.  

Why cycling? Cycling is a great way to build your aerobic base, which is key when it comes to being a good distance runner. The problem with running is most people do not have the aerobic capacity to run long distances so when they go for a run their bodies are working too hard. This puts you into a different energy system and makes it almost impossible to cover the mileage you need to complete.  Another issue is many of us have a poor running technique, which can increase the strain on your joints and muscles, resulting in injuries. Combine poor running technique with a poor aerobic base and you are doomed. However, if you get on a bike during the off season training, you will not only increase your aerobic capacity, but you will also help build the strength of your running muscles, which will hopefully help you stay injury free once you hit the pavement running.

There are two types of workouts you should focus on on the bike. Interval classes, which will bring your heart rate up to higher levels, are a great replacement for tempo runs and track workouts, which may be hard to do in such cold weather. Longer, slower rides, where your heart rate stays at a much lower level, are great to build your aerobic capacity. Interval rides are intense and usually run less than an hour whereas a longer, slower ride, should be at least 90 minutes in duration. My suggestion is to do one of each in a week.

Now I don’t know much about Kazakhstan, except for the fact that some incredibly amazing cyclists have come out of that country, so I looked into it and it seems as though cross country skiing is also popular.  If you have never done it before, don’t worry. I tried it for the first time a few years ago and even as a complete novice it put me into the best shape of my life. I am not sure if it is an option for you, but I highly recommend you give it a try. If you are new to the sport then take a lesson but if you can get out once a week, even once every other week, your running game will thank you.

In regard to your strength workouts, absolutely keep up with them. So many runners ignore how important strength training is for them. My suggestion would be to do 20 to 30 minutes of strength training, 2 days a week, and add in some treadmill intervals on those days. I get you in your disgust for treadmill running (I hate it too) but when you break it up into shorter intervals it isn’t that bad. Start with a 10 minute easy jog to warm up, do your strength routine which should focus on your core and functional exercises like lunges and squats or more of a HIIT workout focusing on your entire body, then hit the treadmill for 30 minutes of interval work. There are so many different ways to interval train so make up a routine before you hit the gym and give it a go. Try doing 8 ¼ mile sprints, with a short rest between, or do a pyramid where you do 8 intervals starting with a small distance, working up to a longer one then back to a short distance. Just have fun with it.

Keep up with the yoga too! If you have anywhere that you can do a hot yoga class, you will benefit much more. Hot yoga will help you get a little more range of motion, especially while living in such a cold climate. Just be careful not to push your body too hard as it is a bit easier to injure yourself in a hot yoga class.

Once the air warms up and the ground is no longer frozen lace up your shoes and get outside. Start your training with your mileage broken up over 5 days a week. Smaller, more frequent runs can help prevent injury and then as your body adjusts to the running volume, start to increase your daily mileage, possibly bringing it back to 4 days a week.

Good luck and stay warm!


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