Use Mindfulness to Embrace Winter Running

You may have no trouble getting out the door for a run on a sunny 65-degree day, but what about when the mercury drops and the snow flies? While I’ve been training through frigid Minnesota winters nearly my entire running career, procrastination often remains a barrier to my regular runs. Excuses abound. I think, “I should wait for it to warm up.” “I don’t know what layers to wear.” “What if the trails are slippery?” “I hate being cold.”

The longer I sit, the more fearsome the run becomes. Even with the right winter running clothes and gear, I catastrophize and worry about how uncomfortable I’ll be, whether I might slip and fall. Despite my experience, every year around this time I encounter this same ice-cold mental block.

Among the most effective methods that I’ve discovered by which to combat this cold-fueled procrastination is mindfulness. It may sound a bit far out, but stay with me. The major issue I face when it comes to getting in my winter running is simply making it out the door. I drag my feet and worry about the “what-ifs,” needlessly wasting time and mental energy. Once I drag myself from couch to trail, I’ve calculated it takes no more than five blocks to warm up and feel comfortable, even on some of the most brutal days.

As I began to practice mindfulness via traditional seated meditation and running meditation, I found that I often skip the agonizing deliberation. Mindfulness simply calls you to focus on the present moment—what’s directly in front of you. This means that instead of worrying about how cold you’re going to be or how much the run is going to suck, you concentrate on lacing up your shoes, layering up and hitting the trail. No back-and-forth and no wasting time checking the weather app in hopes it’s gained a degree or two.

Research helps to explain why mindfulness can work to lessen worry. By training your brain to observe thoughts (“I am going to freeze!”), acknowledging them (“that’s just a thought, not necessarily truth.”), and then redirecting to the present moment, your anxieties about the run ahead don’t have as much power over you and are less likely to pull you off your intended course of action.

Indeed, other studies show that mindfulness training can the tendency to catastrophize pain and discomfort by promoting acceptance of a situation, a skill that comes in handy on a sub-zero, negative wind chill day. Rather than waging a Sisyphean Battle in your head the first half of the run about how much you hate the cold and how your toes sting, you simply notice thoughts and physical sensations, acknowledge the discomfort without attaching emotion and direct your concentration to the task at hand: putting one foot in front of the other.

While this sounds simple, in practice it can be quite challenging. By making an intentional effort to focus on the moment as you get ready for your run each day, you gradually train your brain to be more present-focused. Over time it becomes part of your mode of operation. As you log more and more winter miles, you may even find that cold-weather running is something you actually look forward to.

By Mackenzie L. Havey. Mackenzie Havey (née Lobby) writes about endurance sports, mind/body health and wellness, and adventure travel. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, SELF, Triathlete, TheAtlantic.com, ESPN.com, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. In addition to completing 14 marathons and an Ironman triathlon, she is a USA Track & Field-certified coach, an instructor in the Physical Activity Program in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, and has done training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

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