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It's All In Your Head

Two women run together during the winter on a snow-covered track

Put yourself in an awkward encounter. It can be a grocery checkout line or your daughter’s seventh-grade production of “Our Town.” Odds are, if you talk with someone about something, you’ll talk about the weather.

Chatting about the weather with strangers is a safe way to start an encounter, but it takes on greater importance amongst runners. While non-runners in the developed world may find themselves momentarily inconvenienced by a polar vortex when going from their heated car to their heated home, a runner exists in the elements. Even dressing properly for the cold weather won't alleviate the fact that it’s -20 degrees and snowing outside.

Just talking about a polar vortex and a 3 p.m. sunset can leave the hardiest runner depressed, but pushing through the winter months has less to do with equipment and more to do with mindset. Establishing winter running goals and sticking to a running routine is key to getting (or staying) fit during the winter months. But how do you will yourself out the door in the first place?

A runner stands in the snow

The Power of Delayed Gratification

In the 1960s, Stanford researchers designed a simple experiment. They put a marshmallow on a plate in front of a child. The child was told they could eat the marshmallow right away, or they could wait 15 minutes and have two marshmallows. According to Psychology Today, “the children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow without eating the first one scored higher on standardized tests, had better health and were less likely to have behavior problems.”

This decision-making seems elementary to us as adults; we save for vacations and dutifully stash money away in IRAs and 401Ks. But how often do we settle for sleeping in under our cozy covers (one marshmallow) instead of getting outside and putting the miles in (two marshmallows)? Or eating a handful of cookies (one marshmallow) instead of a tangerine (two marshmallows)?

Those two-marshmallow alternatives are the ones that help us achieve our long-term goals even though the one-marshmallow category brings immediate pleasure. From a species survival standpoint, it makes sense to reward eating calorie-rich foods and staying warm. But we’re not trying to just survive; we’re trying to thrive. It can be all too easy to settle for the path of least resistance and hunker down on the couch for the day unless those big goals are kept front and center.

This isn’t just a running thing. In fact, the doing of things – any engaging activity, really – has been proven to be more enjoyable than passively resting or consuming mindless entertainment. The human mind and body like to be challenged. So, even though breakfast in bed sounds great on paper, you’d probably be more fulfilled if you just opened that door.

Opening the door means the run is happening. You’re moving one foot in front of the other. But it’s hard. Harder than you like. Maybe you should just smile?

Two runners in warm clothes jog down a snowy road

Smiling Can Make Running Easier

It’s been less than two years since elite runner Eliud Kipchoge blitzed around the race track at Monza and nearly broke two hours for the marathon, but the story already has an apocryphal feel to it.

Forget the phalanx of pacers or the laser beam precisely positioning the runners in a race-cum-science experiment. The legend springs from a smile, or rather a handful of genuine smiles radiating off a man running faster than most thought humanly possible. Kipchoge already had a reputation as a running Yoda, a man who considered each word before speaking it with great wisdom. At Monza he put his Jedi tricks to task, exuding joy in the tensest of situations.

Kipchoge was wise to smile. Recent studies posit that smiling reduces your rate of perceived exertion and increases your running economy. These are characteristics you want in your favor when working hard, and Kipchoge knew it. Calculated as the smiles were, they were also genuine. This is key, for it’s the authentic Duchenne smile (one where you’re lifting the cheeks and making crow’s feet under your eyes) that has been linked to producing positive emotions.

There’s an entire school of thought known as facial feedback theory that looks at how our expressions and body language influence our emotions. The crux of this theory is that certain muscles get activated when we are happy; therefore, activating these muscles consciously (such as making a Duchenne smile in the middle of a marathon) will cause you to feel happier and more relaxed.

Lest you think this is crazy psychobabble, understand that we can be affected by emotional cues even when we don’t know they’re there. As Alex Hutchinson points out in his fantastic book, “Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance,” research participants who saw a smiling face projected on a wall for 16 milliseconds (roughly 1/10th of a blink) made it 12 percent farther in a time to exhaustion cycling test than those who saw frowning faces. “Saw” is a perhaps putting it too strongly, as we can’t consciously process an image that quickly. Both groups believed they rode in front of a plain wall. Yet the results were significantly different.

Two runners work out in the snow

How to Motivate Yourself to Run

As nice as smiles and sugary treats sound, our motivations don’t exist in a Stanford laboratory. We battle work obligations, family stress and wavering motivation in addition to the winter weather. With that in mind, here are a few practical ways to apply this advice to keep you opening that door every morning.

  • Always strive for two marshmallows. They may be the most nutritionally void food ever, but for our purposes we want to keep saving up for that big marshmallow payday. Getting through the winter isn’t about succumbing to the temptation of immediate pleasure. It’s about realizing what’s important in the grand scheme and then working hard to accomplish it. Whether that’s an April 5K or losing 15 pounds this year, the work you do every single day matters toward achieving those goals.
  • A smile each mile. If an apple a day can keep the doctor away, why can’t a smile each mile do something wonderful, too? If you’re someone who has a chirping Garmin, consider smiling for 30 seconds after each alert. If you’re in a workout, try smiling once every few minutes. Does it relax you? Lower your perceived exertion? If so, consider implementing smiles regularly. Think of inside jokes with friends. Laugh at the nonsense of your brother-in-law. Whatever it takes to make it authentic. Remember: no smirking!
  • Make your own subliminal cue. We don’t all have smiley face projectors, but we can set our alarm with a favorite song. Creating positive emotions through music (or a motivational poster or favorite garment) works just as well. Getting yourself in the right frame of mind is what’s going to make this process enjoyable. Frame it wisely, and you may just find winter running is actually kind of awesome.

By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World,, and He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).

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