The Case for Winter

snowtire

(Photo: The Swellesley Report – theswellesleyreport.com)

It’s hard to believe, but only three weeks ago, Boston’s total snowfall for the winter of 2014-2015 stood at less than six inches. Since then, nearly six feet of snow has fallen on the region in an unprecedented stretch of winter weather that has set records for the amount of snowfall in a 14-day, 20-day, and 30-day period, with even more in the forecast. With all that snow to contend with, towns have been exhausting their snow removal budgets, schools have been canceling classes, the MBTA has been experiencing repeated operational failures and closures, and runners have been… well, running, actually… although maybe not in the way they would have liked.

I suspect that for most runners, weekly mileage has suffered, long runs haven’t been as long, and tempo runs have been scrapped (or moved indoors to treadmills). There may even have been a few unplanned days “off” with running replaced by hours of shoveling. I’m sure I’m not the only runner who feels aggravated at the weather, not because it wreaks havoc on an entire region and brings our economic life to a standstill, but because it feels like Mother Nature has taken a personal interest in making my training more difficult by burying my usual running routes.

But is there a case to be made that a tough winter — even a historically ferocious winter like this one — is actually a good thing for one’s training? If you’ve just spent the better part of an afternoon shoveling out your driveway AGAIN and haven’t had a normal run for two weeks, you might find that proposition hard to accept. Nevertheless, there might be a silver lining to all this winter weather, and I don’t just mean the silver lining of icicles hanging like a sword of Damocles from your eaves.

Before we look for glimmers of hope among the snowflakes that continue to fall, let’s acknowledge that heavy snow does, indeed, make “normal” training almost impossible. Snow chokes the sidewalks and narrows the roadways making it an adventure to complete even short runs around the neighborhood. Favorite running routes become impassable or hopelessly hard to share with automotive traffic. It takes more mental energy to plan and execute the daily run, not to mention the  physical energy required to hurdle the snowbanks or stay on one’s feet while pushing off from the surface of slippery roads. The muscular patterns of movement are disrupted. Suddenly, there’s no such thing as an easy day.

Or, as the sixteenth-century poet George Herbert wrote, “Every mile is two in winter.

So what possible upside is there to such mid-winter misery? If there is one, it is this: that bad weather is the ultimate resistance training.

I don’t mean that bad weather makes for ideal training in a physiological sense. On the contrary, bad weather makes it very hard to run fast enough to get the specific benefits from running at the “right” pace. Slipping along at nine or ten minutes per mile isn’t the best preparation for throwing down sub-six miles in a race. Instead, what I mean is that few things present you with a greater mental challenge than a harsh training environment. And developing the ability to continue training in the face of such adversity develops mental toughness.

If that sounds too much like an old-school high school track coach, consider that much recent research has focused on the role the brain plays in determining our level of fatigue and our ultimate performance limits. Matt Fitzgerald has written about the contrast between the “catastrophe theory” of fatigue (fatigue as the involuntary drop in performance caused by hitting one or more physiological limits) and a more brain-centered theory that sees fatigue as the brain’s mechanism for never letting you get close to those limits in the first place. If you believe the brain-centered theory, you are likely to accept the proposition that the brain must be trained to resist fatigue, that is, to resist its default behavior of disabling muscle activation long before muscles become incapable of providing more power for running.

One theory even suggests that non-running mental exercises designed to practice overcoming mental fatigue — exercises like counting backwards from 350 to 0 by sevens — can have benefits for running performance by training the brain to keep going when it wants to stop. Whether you believe that or not, the idea of developing mental toughness through adversity has gained new currency, and is no longer pedaled exclusively by football coaches, marine drill sergeants, and other purveyors of physical pain.

Maybe the great snowfall of 2015 should be seen an OPPORTUNITY to train your brain to get you out the door and training even under the most difficult of circumstances. Now maybe, if given a chance, you’d trade that opportunity in a heartbeat for a couple of months of good training in a more mild climate. I don’t blame you. In fact, I probably think about escaping the winter and moving to a more reasonable part of the country a least three times a day — just before, during, and just after my run. But even though I’d like to flee this snowbound city, since I’m here, I need to deal with the weather, and that makes me a little tougher. Maybe.

If you think that this hate-love relationship to bad weather afflicts only amateurs like us, consider this final anecdote about training, told by Frank Shorter, describing a tough winter run in the mountains with Steve Prefontaine:

We were running down this road from about 9000 feet, and the wind was blowing up the hill so hard that you actually had to make an effort to run down the hill. It was 32 degrees and blowing ‘corn snow,’ which is snow that has melted and then frozen again. And this pelting corn snow was hitting us in the face. So we were running down this road with this wind blowing in our faces, and I’ve got Pre all dressed up in ski goggles, mittens, and stuff… And Steve was a chronic complainer anyway. He complained under the best of conditions. And he was really off on a jag. ‘What am I doing here? What is this crap?’ Finally, I turned to him and said, ‘Steve, you know no one in the world is training harder than we are right now.’ It was the only time I ever ran with him that he shut up. He didn’t say another word the entire run.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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4 Responses to The Case for Winter

  1. Kevin says:

    I get the being tough part but I still come away from this article wanting to punch the guy dragging the tire in that picture.

  2. Jon Waldron says:

    I know what you mean. The article called that guy a candidate for a “Darwin Award” (given to those who “…improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it”).

    Actually, with all the snow emergencies and the need to get equipment on the streets, I’ve found myself really hesitant to be out when there’s any chance I’ll be interfering with cleanup efforts, or making it more difficult for motorists. It’s less about self-preservation (although there’s that), and more about trying not to be a jerk.

    I should have mentioned in the post that moving several tons of snow around can be pretty intense exercise. You always read about how many people suffer heart attacks, or screw up their backs. I’ve been trying to think of my two-hours-a-day of shoveling as a really good core workout, and last night at the track, I really felt how much lifting I’d done in the last few days.

  3. Tyler says:

    I came here to wax romantic about the joys of the equatorial lack of seasons in Quito, but I found myself more interested in commenting on the brain/fatigue stuff. I’m reading Magness’s book “The Science of Running” and he talks a lot about the idea of increasing performance through training the brain to accept a further level of fatigue. A very interesting concept – I’d love to see you tackle it from a more training-specific context.

  4. Jon Waldron says:

    Thanks for the comment, Tyler. I agree with you that the topic of organizing (physical) training to train the brain, or “central governor” to resist fatigue deserves its own detailed post.

    I’m also reading Magness’s book (thank you, Joni!) and I need to figure out where he agrees with or differs from Noakes. An interesting topic, to be sure!

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