Winter training can be exhilarating, but runners - novice or experienced - need to closely monitor their body signals
Angela Morello was excited about her first long run of the new year. Dressed in the winter gear her mother gave her for Christmas, she was ready to do loops along the Charles River to prepare for this year’s Boston Marathon. The 23-year-old Boston University grad is new to marathons, but she is motivated by the runners she has watched pounding past her apartment on race day, cheered on by throngs along the route.
“I want to be on the other side of that,’’ she said.
To get there, she plans to log many miles in the cold.
Training for a marathon is itself a test of endurance, requiring a detailed plan, months of preparation - and grit. The challenge, while pounding out the miles, is to build stamina, stay healthy, and fortify the mind for the 26.2 miles that will begin in Hopkinton on April 19.
As there is for most outdoor physical regimens in the winter, there will be pain, there will be boredom, but first there will be cold.
Around the world, veteran and novice marathoners training for Boston have been at it for weeks, if not months. In New England, that means running through crisp fall days, slushy first snows, and the icy winds of winter. Sports medicine and exercise specialists say successful runners stick with a few common-sense principles - good for marathoners and weekend warriors alike.
The first is to take an incremental approach. Runners should build up their weekly miles gradually, progressing to longer and longer individual runs. The same incremental approach holds for training in the cold, according to Joseph McConkey, head coach at the Boston Running Center in Brookline. It takes a few weeks for people to get used to being out in the cold. Even then, it’s a good idea to warm up with an extra five- or 10-minute jog before more intense running, just to make sure blood is flowing adequately through the muscles, he cautioned.
Dressing appropriately is another key to an effective and efficient workout when it’s cold outside. That means layers of clothing that wick sweat away from the skin and resist wind. Cover up to avoid frostbite - the actual freezing of tissue - but don’t overdress: Running in this weather means feeling cold when you first go outside, but feeling just right when you get moving, Nick Littlefield of Marathon Sports advised.
Extreme cold, with temperatures around zero or below, is to be taken seriously, said Dr. Arun Ramappa, chief of sports medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Hypothermia - when your body’s core temperature dips to 95 degrees or lower - is one concern. So is frostbite. If you see patches of hard, pale skin, get out of the cold and seek medical help. Do the same if numbness sets in for fingers, toes, ears, or nose.
“As you go out in extreme temperatures and you’re out there for a longer period of time, the risk of hypothermia goes up,’’ he said. “In the cold you can’t feel so much, so you have to be careful.’’
Ramappa wouldn’t endorse running for extended periods in subzero temperatures, but he concedes that a cold winter run can be exhilarating - as he knows from running along the windswept Charles River.
“You have to be aware of the conditions,’’ he said. “Dress appropriately, warm up appropriately, remain hydrated, and be aware of hypothermia. Shivering and feelings of confusion may be signs of hypothermia; if you start to notice them, get out of the cold and get medical advice.
Dr. Arthur Siegel, director of internal medicine at McLean Hospital, says runners should be more conservative in how they approach adding miles in the winter, being sure to respect the cold and wind chill. Motivation can flag, too, when it hurts to go outside. “It’s harder to get started and it’s harder to increase,’’ he said.
A veteran of Boston Marathons from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, he remembered running a pre-marathon race in February through a bitterly cold snow squall. Be prepared, he advises, with layers and wind protection. That includes more than one layer where men might forget, and risk - pain alert - penile frostbite.
Less fearsome than frostbite is fatigue, but once it sets in, you may be more susceptible to colds and other viruses, Ramappa said. Running in the extreme cold can wear down your body, lowering resistance to disease. If you’re already feeling ill, especially if you have a fever, don’t continue running.
McConkey tells the runners he coaches to take time off when they are sick and not rush back to training. That way the illness won’t linger. Gradually building back up to the target number of miles in a week, even skipping a scheduled long run, can pay off in a smoother recovery, rather than pushing too hard and getting sick again.
Runners hate to miss a day, though, even in the cold and dark of winter. Mary Tolland of Walpole, who has run 24 marathons and plans on running her ninth Boston Marathon this April, missed a run recently when she ran out of time. She couldn’t wait to go back out, no matter what the weather.
“It’s not if, it’s when I’m going to run,’’ the 52-year-old schoolteacher said. Every morning, at 5:50 sharp, she meets her running buddies in the center of town to do 6 miles. It’s a key motivator to have someone waiting in the dark.
“To be honest, I hate the cold. I hate it going to and from the car, but when you wake up in the morning and put on your shoes, before you have a chance to think, you’re off and running,’’ she said. “You warm up quickly.’’
In the ice and snow, she doesn’t rely on products like YakTrax, which are the equivalent of snow chains for sneakers. Nor does she don a ninja-style face mask, although coming home with icicles on her face makes her wonder why. She has learned that water you carry in a pack on your back will freeze on longer runs. She dresses in layers and respects the traffic and the snowplows. “Basically you don’t think about the cold too much. It has to be pretty bad to stay in.’’
Why not stay in and run on the treadmill?
Jennifer Green, a physical therapist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital who works with runners, says personal preference will dictate who hits the road and who hits the gym. But she sees the value in running outside if you’re training for a race. “It allows you to simulate more race-like conditions than being on a treadmill,’’ she said.
At this time of year, runners often must negotiate icy sidewalks and roads narrowed by snowbanks. Even when the ice and snow melt away, they still have to contend with varying road surfaces, just as they will when they run through the eight towns from Hopkinton to Boston.
You won’t find that on a treadmill, McConkey says.
“Until they have races on treadmills, you should run outside as much as possible.’’
Elizabeth Cooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org