Winter UnFit and How to Deal
By Heather Tanner
There comes a day every winter when I’ve absolutely had it. Time to give up on the whole gig of running outside. Time to fly to Aruba on a one-way ticket. I recall a February day at the University of North Carolina when I announced that it didn’t seem worth wearing anything besides sweats. This is the definition of giving up.
You know what was going on then? It had rained for 32 straight days. I was sick of running in it. Sick of going outdoors. I mean, who wants to trudge into the darkness during a 35-degree downpour to crank out a 12-mile marathon pace run? You know when I want to do that? On a cloudless Saturday morning with 14 hours of daylight ahead, when I am in prime condition, i.e. rarely.
Call it Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Call it a normal reaction to gloom. Mike McKeeman, my college teammate, called it something that stuck with me. WUF: Winter UnFit. It’s real. Fortunately, our bodies need seasonality. WUF means we get built-in downtime. Moving to Seattle from California a year ago was a welcome and refreshing change, but I found it a little harder than expected to roll with the weather punches. In early winter, I was trying to train as though it was 60 degrees and sunny. As winter progressed, I realized this wouldn’t work and tried to embrace a different approach. Still, there were days when I nearly wanted to throw in the towel entirely. If this struggle is relatable to you, here are a few ideas to help you during the next WUF season:
Do: Focus on alternative strengths
It’s a good time to do other activities. Maybe other winter-oriented sports, like showshoeing, functional cross training, like aquajogging, or just other hobbies entirely. After a disappointing marathon in December, I realized that I had neglected strength work over the fall. I started going to Pilates regularly, often replacing runs with class, mostly because I was enjoying it more. Classes were warm and dry and taught by friendly free spirits. The instructors liked to laugh at my inflexibility and I got to feel good about entertaining them. I also attended French class in the evenings a couple nights a week. This was more enjoyable than using that same time window for more running, while still providing a (large) challenge.
Do: Put a fun goal on the calendar
Even putting a soft goal on the books helps with workout accountability, without added pressure. Maybe shoot for an off distance, like a 5k if you’re a marathoner, or a trail race if you’re a roadie. During one memorable Saturday tempo run, I laughed as Lana Lacey’s hood became a wind catcher against a 25 mph headwind. Yeah, I wanted to bag the workout at 2 miles. But I knew I couldn’t because I was racing the Fort Ebey Trail Half Marathon. Lots of fun by the way.
Strava is also a good resource for external motivation. On any grotesquely bad weather day, you can find examples of people who have found a way to move. It can be motivational to mindlessly scroll through the miserable runs posted by those who have gone outside before you.
Do: Stack the deck in your favor
When you do need to run a quality workout, help yourself out. Go to your favorite workout location. Run with people you like. Get your favorite flavor Gu. I personally love Green Lake loops. I like wearing my favorite hand-knitted beanie, warmest mittens and the heaviest top I can get away with. Bulky, yes, but I prefer to start the run cozy and it helps me avoid having to bail early due to cold feet or blue hands. If you’re running through deep puddles, black ice (ok, not ever a good idea), 25 mph headwinds, you should give yourself little things to be happy about.
Club Northwest has also some access to the very warm Dempsey indoor track, pretty much a simulation of the lovely, dry air in Arizona. There is no better place for winter speed workouts.
Don’t: Go for the hardest things during the hardest time of year
While “fun” races make sense in December through March, this may not be the best time of year for a goal race. With the exception of the Olympic Trials Marathon, which is often in January or February, there aren’t all that may big races during winter anyway. The year’s goal races can fall during a more optimal time, after at least 8-12 weeks of consistent, good weather training.
Before a key workout in my December marathon build-up, I watched dozens of teammates sprint uphill into a cold, precipitation-filled headwind at the Woodland Park XC Regional Championships. I shivered in awe while wearing a puffy jacket and two pairs of pants. I didn’t skip my tempo run that day, but it was a challenging one and recovery was longer than usual. For me, it may have been more ideal if my CIM race plan hadn’t required a 12-mile tempo that day. December-March marathons are likely not optimal choices for me.
Don’t: Expect ideal training in less than ideal weather
Not hitting assigned paces can be very discouraging. If a dangerous all-or-nothing philosophy is applied to winter workouts, it’s easy to be defeated, when in actuality the effort is on target given the conditions. Tom Cotner is adept at pointing out stretches of expected headwind, which is helpful reminder when a 6:10 mile suddenly feels like a 5:40 mile. You aren’t being a wimp. The effort required is likely that different. Splits do not tell the story. Besides, without a goal race around the corner, any effort is a bonus.
Don’t: Become isolated
It’s easy to withdraw from routines and group workout meet-ups during the winter. It’s dark. No one’s face is visible at the Roosevelt High School track. Attendance drops. Absence of goal races leads to a lower sense of collective purpose. Even a group recovery run can help break up the monotony and distract from the misery of 30-something degree rain. Also, meeting up for cross training can be a fun change of pace. Drea Garvue knows all of the hard fitness classes in town, be it a quad-searing barre class or a “try not to look at your watch” extended spin class (70 minutes, for the record). Even if running minimally, there are ways to socialize while also reuniting with the pain cave during winter.
So while the struggle is real, we can make it less struggle-y. We can also rest easy knowing that spring has sprung, cherry blossoms are managing to stay alive, and WUF is starting to give way to the most glorious time of the year for our sport. Meanwhile, I still want to know how people can barrel through January-March workouts without skipping a beat. You’re the people I want to hear tips from.