Routine Matters: Show Up and Make it Count

Two runners in warm clothes jog down a snowy road

It’s a good thing the weather doesn’t have an advertising team. Can you imagine the following commercial?

Do you like falling on your face for no apparent reason? What about spontaneous ice skating in the middle of a workout? If you enjoy holding the fear of immediate loss of control close to your heart, then have I got a product for you: black ice! It’s invisible, dangerous and could literally be anywhere. Possible side effects including meeting the sidewalk intimately, tearing crucial knee ligaments, giving yourself a black eye, staying indoors all winter, and, most seriously, loss of all aerobic fitness. Please use only as directed.

Black ice doesn’t sound terribly appealing, but neither do the ads for extreme cold (Ladies, do you love when your man comes home with frozen eyelashes…), snow (Grab the shovel, it’s time for 3-hour abs with your favorite Nor’Easter!), or slush (Want to make your Smartwool socks feel really unintelligent? Guess if I’m a pile of wet snow or a 9-inch deep puddle of 33-degree water!).

Put simply, 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.

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 2019? Make that the major goal of the year and then work backwards, setting benchmarks along the way. If your goal is to lose weight, figure out how much weight you want to lose, and follow the same formula. In both instances, you want to establish a timeline. For instance, if the goal is to lose 15 pounds, give yourself six months to do so. That way, if you lose three pounds in the first month, you’ll know you’re slightly 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 Desi Linden, no one ever regretted going out for a run once it’s over.

Two runners work out in the snow

“If” vs. “When”

Back to that black ice that’s lying in wait. It’s still there. Same for the sleet, snow, slush and 33-degree rain. 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 25 minutes in the 5K. You want to run your first marathon in April. You want to run four times per week in an effort to help you lose 15 pounds before July. 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 that black ice, it’s not melting.

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.


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, runnersworld.com, and ESPN.com. 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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