Routine Matters: Show Up and Make it Count

Runners cheer on a fellow friend.

Winter running throws obstacles at most of us that other seasons’ extremes can’t match.

The concept of going out for a walk, much less implementing a training plan during these darkest of times, can seem daunting. But it’s not impossible. Establishing a routine with clear goals for the warmer months can make winter running an automatic and rewarding process that gives you the boost you need to run your best when those April showers give way to May flowers.

A woman runs in the snow.

The Best Types of Resolutions

Exciting as the prospect of good training in the spring may be, setting a goal to “run more in the winter” is a sentiment that’s doomed. Many New Year's resolutions fail within the first half of the year. The biggest contributor to this failure? Ambiguous goals. Achieving goals is all about being able to measure meaningful progress, but when your resolution is “to be healthier,” how do you quantify that? Is replacing five doughnuts per day with four “meaningful?” Having a clearly defined, measurable goal eliminates this vagueness.

Another problem with many of these goals is they’re not inspiring. New Year’s resolutions are often about subtracting an enjoyable indulgence. In this sense we’re lucky, as running-related goals add value at zero cost.

Combining these two concepts to create a meaningful and inspirational goal. This is a deeply personal concept and speaks to what you want from this sport. Do you dream of running a personal best in the 5K or finishing a marathon in 2023? Make that the major goal of the year and then work backwards, setting benchmarks along the way. For instance, if the goal is to work up to 26.2 miles, give yourself ten months to do so. That way, if you work up to 8 miles in the first month, you’ll know you’re ahead of the target and making meaningful progress toward the ultimate goal.

Routines Help Your Running

It may not sound sexy, but the best way to achieve your goal is by establishing a routine. At its core, a routine is a set of actions repeated in a familiar way. A routine is an important step in achieving consistency and giving a sense of order and purpose to our lives.

Carving out a designated time to run can eliminate many of the obstacles that procrastination is likely to produce. My wife, for instance, sets her alarm for 6:12 a.m. every work day. Whether she’s had a wonderful nine hours of sleep or a broken six, she is up to turn off the alarm (yes, a real alarm clock that’s located 10 feet from the bed), change her clothes and perform the exercise of her choice before going to work at 8 a.m. While she would rather sleep in, she found over the years that having to run after being on her feet for nine hours as a doctor was not conducive to good training, and by the time she got in her car all she wanted to do was come home and be with our two young daughters.

Routines also remove the effort of fighting temptations that can compete with exercise. We are more likely to make good decisions in the face of appetizing (but less productive) options if we’ve established a routine. The short-term allure of lounging around in your slippers is a powerful force, but a routine can neutralize its appeal and keep the long-term benefits of exercise squarely in sight. Plus, to paraphrase Boston Marathon champion Des Linden, no one ever regretted going out for a run once it’s over.

A man and woman run together down a snow covered path.

“If” vs. “When”

The sleet, snow, slush and 33-degree rain will still be there no matter how long you put your run off. Winter is a bear, and all the hoping, wishing and dissing isn’t going to make it go away anytime soon (and if you live in Phoenix, Arizona, now is not the time to chime in about how wonderful your January is—we’ll talk to you in July).

But now you’re armed with a goal. You want to break 30 minutes in the 5K. You want to run your first marathon in October. Goals are motivating and exciting. You want it to happen, and you’re willing to change your routine to include the necessary time and energy to ensure it happens. But the weather outside isn't getting any better.

There’s still one more arrow in your quiver, and it’s an important one to use when you look out the window and see winter is still in control—your life’s narrative. After all, actions and events aren’t inherently good or bad. It’s what we tell ourselves and others that defines how we view every action.

This is the time to change your narrative. Instead of telling yourself, “If I run in the snow…” change it to “When I run in the snow….” Such a small semantic change may seem meaningless, but removing the element of choice is huge when it comes to surmounting obstacles. Use this affirmation long enough, and the response will become automatic.

At that point the barrier is gone. The world is open. You are no longer someone who runs.

You are a runner.

[This article was updated on Jan 1, 2023]

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