Like me, you probably groaned when you had to dig out your winter running gear from the back of your closet.
Sure, you could gear up and run outside every day over the winter if you have enough warm clothes, but sometimes it’s better to stay inside and hit the treadmill.
But how cold does it need to be before you are better off facing the boredom of the treadmill over braving the cold outside? In this guide, we are going to make that decision a little easier for you, and give you 9 tips to handle stay motivated….even if your marathon training schedulerequires monster workouts
3 Reasons To Stay Indoors for a Winter Run
When it comes to treadmills, runners tend to fall into two categories; love it or hate it. For those people who enjoy that you can control your environment, get in a rhythm, and know exactly what you are doing, the treadmill is a lifesaver, especially if you have kids.
For those who fall on the other side of the fence, the treadmill is boring, hot, and to be avoided at all costs.
However, sometimes the treadmill is necessary for every runner, and although we recommend doing a combination of the two, especially after comparing treadmill running vs. outside running in a previous post, it is a reliable friend who can help us when mother nature is in a bad mood.
It’s too cold outside
The first is also the most obvious: sometimes, it’s just too cold out.
With enough high-tech running gear, it’s possible to run outside even when the temperature dips well below zero, but the kind of equipment that allows you to do that is expensive.
If you don’t have the right clothing, running outside in subzero wind chill is downright dangerous.
Our tips and tricks for running in the winter will only take you so far, especially on those days the temperature dips to life threatening levels.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, when the wind chill dips below about -15° F, frostbite can occur on exposed skin in less than half an hour.1
Granted, running increases your body’s internal heat generation, so it can push these boundaries out a bit, but you also create wind for yourself as you run—running ten minute miles on a calm day creates an effective headwind of six miles per hour.
Think about this:
If the ambient temperature is five degrees with no wind, you effectively encounter a -5° F wind chill just by running!
Unless you’re very experienced with running in the cold, it’s probably better to hop on the treadmill when the wind chill is below zero.
Snow and ice turns the road into an ice skating rink
Another perennial winter running problem is traction.
When a cold snap is preceded by a few days of warmer temperatures, puddles on the road can freeze into ultra-slick ice patches.
Worse, if these get covered by a dusting of snow, they become an injury waiting to happen.
Carrie Tollefson, a 2004 Olympian in the 1500m, nearly ended her career after she slipped while running in the winter and tore several muscles in her pelvis and abdomen. You can hear more about Carrie’s story in our podcast interview with her last year.
Usually, snow isn’t a problem by itself, and many cities do a pretty good job plowing and salting bike paths as well as roads.
However, if you’re in doubt about the quality of the roads, it’s better to stay indoors and run on the treadmill instead, especially if you’ll be doing any faster running in your workout.
Better to be safe than sorry with running workouts
Finally, if you have a very important workout, or want to be able to hit a specific pace for a run, you should consider doing it on the treadmill if the weather is too cold or the roads are too slippery.
According to a review article by Thomas J. Doubt at the United States Naval Medical Research Institute, some research shows that oxygen consumption goes up for a given exercise intensity in cold conditions (meaning you are less efficient, and thus get tired more quickly).
This may be because muscles are less mechanically efficient when they are cold.2
Though it should be possible to keep your muscles warm by wearing the right running gear, thick jackets and restrictive running pants surely impair your efficiency too.
Statistical analysis on finish times at major marathons by researchers at the Biomedical Research Institute of Sport Epidemiology in France found that the average finish time for the top quartile of marathon finishers is slower when temperatures are colder than about 40° F, which coincides with when most people start to wear tights or running pants instead of shorts.3
Sometimes, it’s okay for the pace to be a little slow, in fact, we encourage runners to make 80% of running easy running, some workouts, like threshold sessions, are based more on effort than the absolute pace you’re running.
If you’re trying for a Boston qualifier or another goal that is very important to you, there’s no cold-weather adjustment, so you need to be ready to run the right pace on race day, and this means hitting that pace when you work out.
So, when should you run on the treadmill instead of running outside?
The answer depends on your workout, the conditions outside, and your experience level with winter running.
If it’s dangerously cold, it’s a no brainer: stay inside if the wind chill is below zero, unless you really know what you’re doing.
In the aftermath of freezing rain or a brief thaw followed by a cold snap, you should also think about staying indoors—if the roads aren’t safe to drive on, they are probably not amenable to running either.
Finally, if you’ve got a really important workout, like a long run with segments at goal marathon pace, you might want to do it on the treadmill if the temperature is below freezing.
How Do I Beat the Boredom of the Treadmill?
So we have convinced you that it is better to stay indoors on those days where running outside is no longer safe.
If you are marathon training, it is not even worth risking your big race for the sake of your pride, and we know that, but those treadmill runs get boring very quickly, and it can be difficult to motivate yourself, especially for those longer workouts and runs.
Here are our nine best tips for staying motivated when you are confined to a treadmill for hours:
Listen to music
Studies have found that runners are able to perform better when listening to music, especially when the cadence is high enough to match your step rate.
Music has a great effect on our mental state. Not only do we feel better when listening to music as we cannot hear how hard we are breathing, or think about how bad we feel, but it also makes it a little more fun as you are able to listen to music you enjoy.
Make sure you check out our article on how you can increase your step rate if you cannot keep up with the music!
Add “hills” to make it fun
We know that fun may not be the word that comes to mind when you think of hills, but it definitely makes the time pass quicker.
By adding in random bouts of incline between 1-4% gradient, you are closer to simulating being outside, and can focus on just “making it up” each hill, rather than thinking you have 40 minutes left.
This way, when you put the gradient back to flat, it will feel downhill, even if you are not running downhill!
Bring a buddy
One of the great things about running on a treadmill is that you can have a friend join you on the treadmill next to you, no matter what their speed or level. You can each run at your own pace, without either of you running too fast on your easy day or sabotaging your long run.
This also means you can catch up with a friend who you have not seen in a long time, rather than going out for a triple-frapacchino at your local coffee shop!
Listen to a motivating podcast or audiobook
Maybe you have heard great things about the Runners Connect podcast, or your friends are all raving about Serial, but you haven’t had the time to listen. Sound familiar? Listen to them while you are on the treadmill!
You will become so enthralled in the story, that the time will pass by quickly, and you will be hooked, excited for the next opportunity to listen!
Simulate your race
If you are racing Boston marathon (check out our ultimate Boston marathon guide) or any other hilly race, you can find a treadmill with a decline setting and practice those tough downhill sections.
This way your body is more prepared for the ups and downs the race brings. Matt Fitzgerald talked about the importance of this in his post about handling the ups and downs of the Boston marathon in another post.
It keeps it interesting, and helps you prepare!
Visualize your race
While you are using the simulation of those ups and downs, imagine yourself attacking those hills on the race course, and see yourself make it up and over, feeling strong.
It is one of the 7 strategies we recommend for becoming a mentally strong runner, and now is the best time to practice!
When it comes to race day, your mind will remember how you handled it in practice, and will feel more confident as you travel the course, you will also be able to remember that you handled this in a hot sweaty room a few months back, so surely you can do it with beautiful scenery changing all around?
Rather than going at one constant speed the whole time, break it up using surges of various speeds.
Here is an example if starting out at 7 miles per hour, and you have a 50 minute run.
Run the first 10 minutes at 7 miles per hour, then do the following
7.5 mph for 7 minutes
6.5mph for 3 minutes
8.0mph for 6 minutes
6.5mph for 4 minutes
8.5mph for 5 minutes
6.6mph for 5 minutes
9.0mph for 4 minutes
6.5mph for 6 minutes
7.0mph for 10 minutes
That goes a lot quicker than a 50 minute run on its own. By breaking it up into manageable chunks in your mind, it makes it easier to handle, and you feeling like it really “wasn’t that bad”.
Cover the screen
When you are on the treadmill, it becomes way too easy to just stare at the timer, watching each second pass agonizingly slow. If you cover the monitor, and look ahead (or outside if you are so lucky), it can reduce the urge to keep looking.
Cover the screen with a towel (which can double as a sweat rag!), and your run will go by much faster!