Psychological Barriers to Winter Running

Richard Bowles — 1 July 2019
The biggest challenges of winter running aren’t physical. They’re mental.

As daylight hours become noticeably shorter, and the temperature cools considerably, it’s not just the thermometer that drops into negative digits. That enthusiasm for the once colourful ribbons of remote single track plummets too, right on down into the gloominess that is considered the most dismal of the running seasons – winter.

The bleakness of the season could have a significant effect, beyond simply turning the landscape grey – and that’s SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. Yeah, it’s a real thing; it’s a well-documented phenomenon, whereby depressive symptoms occur in conjunction with seasonal changes. Even without reaching the full criteria for SAD, most people experience changes in their energy, motivation, sleeping patterns and mood as the seasons change. Luckily there is one thing you can do, which can help to minimise the effects of the colder weather on your running schedule – and that’s to run.

Lacing up to brave the blustery sub-zero conditions requires a little more than long thermal sleeves and insulated running tights. It takes will-power. Indeed, some of the most significant gains during Mother Nature’s darker days are not physical; they are psychological. Winter running allows you to develop your mental toughness and up your doggedness in preparation for the brighter months.

Credit for Images: Red Bull Content Pool/Graeme Murray/Alexis Berg/Justin Sand

It all starts with acknowledging the realities of winter’s adverse conditions. Not so much by developing an understanding of frozen fingers and chilled cheeks. More so by grasping and accepting your reluctance to venture out into the barren wilderness on such days. Because, of course, the discomfort starts well before you take that first step on the trail – you feel it in anticipation. That’s why running is more psychological than physical.

By considering the internal obstacles that hinder your ability to head out onto some remote route more frequently, you gain your advantage over the cold. Determining your inner frailty to nature’s sombre characteristics is paramount to building your mental strength and, in turn, your physical conditioning.

What are the uncomfortable thoughts that may arise when you consider an early stride out in winter-time? Dwelling on the very notion of braving wintry elements is, of course, one of the very reasons it becomes difficult to get out and front them. However, rather than suggesting you think about the positive benefits of running out in the cold to motivate yourself, my recommendation – as counter-intuitive as it sounds – is to continue the negative thought process. Now, before you start to believe that my mind is as dark as winter itself, or that I’m some backwards loony proclaiming that the very thing that holds you back is the thing that propels you forward, know that science proves this to be true.

Studies are showing that when people limit their thinking to imagining positive outcomes, they tend not to put forth the effort to make those outcomes come about. Now, the idea here is not to be entirely pessimistic about the mental barriers that put a pause on heading out on the trail. Because indeed, you need something to look forward to. The idea is to balance your thinking. Positive thinking about a venture out into the cold, mixed with a realistic outlook on the challenges and obstacles that may arise in the wet, cold and miserable conditions, is much more likely to entice you to pound the frosty kilometers, than just positive or negative thinking alone.

However, there is a critical caveat to this whole idea. The impact of the method is dependent on expectations of success. But, seeing that you’re reading this stream of trail running thought on traversing the hills in the bitter, bleak and brisk months, I’m guessing you’re already devoted to trail running, and want to rack up kilometres in the cold? So, with your high expectations of running regardless of what Mother Nature throws your way, you are already well on your way to striking out in the starkness of the season.

I’m sure you’ll find, like me, that finishing a run under miserable weather circumstances is an incredible booster of confidence and courage, which in turn constructs a positive mindset against the adverse elements.   

Winter is a great time to focus on the mental aspects of running, rather than the physical ones. A schedule of winter running means that, come the more welcoming trail days, you’ll have a reliable attitude and durable approach to the physical components, and you’ll relish in going further and faster than ever before. 

Running is the remedy!


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