The pros and cons of running in moderate winter conditions

Even the BCRR McTuesday training group runners have been wearing shorts on winter nights due to moderate temperatures. (Photo by Joe Boyce)
       OK, so it’s mid-January and there’s not a flake of snow to be found.
      Daytime high temperatures in the 30s and 20s? Not happening.
      New England ski resorts? Struggling to stay open.
      If you’re a runner and always prepared for the worst when one year blends into the next, this probably feels like a welcome respite.
      And while it’s true there may be a number of reasons to celebrate this drier, more moderate winter, there’s also a list of benefits you might be missing.
      First, let’s state some of the so-called “pros,” which are fairly obvious.
      Without snow and ice, footing is much better and safer. Once the sidewalks are shoveled, the driveways plowed and the roads salted, there’s less chance of a nasty fall.
      Many days have seen highs in the 40s and 50s, so the heavy clothing has remained, for the most part, in the closet.
      For some people with breathing issues, the absence of bitterly cold winds has made for a more comfortable intake of oxygen into the lungs. Just ask someone with asthma.
      All that said, believe it or not, there are plenty of folks out there who enjoy cold weather running and a number of those actually prefer it over the hot and humid conditions of summer.
      There is science behind that preference, by the way.
      For starters, in an article published in VOA News (2017), studies conducted at St. Mary’s University in London have shown that running in lower temperatures reduces stress on the body. How so? Because when you run in cold weather, your heart rate and body’s dehydration levels are lower than in warmer conditions.
      Research reveals runners lose a certain amount of energy when the body is heated and sweating, which takes place in the process of transporting blood to the surface of the skin.
      “That puts more strain on the heart,’’ said St. Mary’s professor John Brewer. “Particularly in hot conditions because it’s much harder to lose heat when the external environment is warm as well.’’
      In other words, running in cooler temperatures requires less energy. Brewer believes runners could cut valuable seconds off their personal best times by choosing to run in the winter.
      So that’s the physical side of the benefits from running in the cold. What about the mental?
      According to an article in Runners World magazine, exercise physiologists agree that cold weather running can be a “simultaneously soothing and invigorating” experience.
      Ever notice that after a morning run in chilly conditions, the rest of the day outdoors doesn’t appear so daunting?
      There’s actually a bit of legitimate science behind that, too.
      The RW piece states that on the first frigid day of the season, your sympathetic nervous system bolts into action. Blood shuttles inward from your skin and extremities to preserve your core temperature and your vital organs.
      As you repeatedly encounter cold weather with no life-threatening consequences, your body learns to tone down its stress response, a mysterious process called “cold habituation.” As winter wears on, fewer stress hormones flow through your bloodstream. The more blood that stays close to your skin, the merrier.
      Now here’s another topic which seems to be gaining traction in the health community: Dealing with mood dips in colder months – officially called “seasonal affective disorder,’’ a condition caused by less exposure to natural light which tends to throw off our circadian rhythms.
      Training outdoors can help reset those rhythms. Sunlight exposure also increases the natural production of vitamin D, a key component of mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin (vital to a healthy immune system).
      As for the benefits of running this time of year, just check with the two hundred-plus striders who take part in the Bucks County Roadrunners Club Winter Series on an annual basis.
      Many of these participants are training for races in the spring, such as the Boston Marathon.
      While these folks might not miss the ice and snow so far, you won’t hear too many complaining when the thermometer reads below freezing. They look forward to standing around the big communal fire at the dam pavilion at Tyler State Park.
      In a sense, you want the conditions to be somewhat demanding (i.e., frigid) to get you ready for those uncertain race conditions, such as the aforementioned Boston Marathon in April.
      Kimberley Dawson, a Ph.D. and performance consultant at Laurier University in “chilly” Waterloo, Ontario, Canada puts it this way: “You get this really nice sense of ‘I am mentally tough, I can do this,’ If I can navigate this, I can navigate through that spring marathon in terms of whatever it throws at me.”
      The good news is there are plenty of articles like these to be found online. New information about running in the different seasons comes out all the time.
            In the meantime, keep an eye on that forecast. We still have a long way to that first day of spring and we might as well make the best of it, whether it’s moderate or traditionally cold.
      >Race calendar
      Sunday, Jan. 22
      BCRR Winter Series Polar Bear 8-Miler, 9 a.m., Tyler State Park, Newtown. Contact www.bcrrclub.com
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About Wayne Fish 1948 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.