When is it too cold to train outside?

Some runners and triathletes are lucky enough not to have this problem. But, for many of us up in the great north, we deal with freezing temperatures for several months a year. This year doesn’t compare in the slightest to last year’s polar vortex frigidness. Average temperatures thus far this winter (for the most part) hovered in the single digits or teens. The high twenties, like today, seem like a thaw.

So, when it’s this cold, should you still train?cold temps

Winter is a prime opportunity to log some quality base miles. If you plan to run a spring marathon this is even more critical. You have no choice but to train during January and February.

But, should we bundle up and waddle like a penguin for two hours outside? Or, suffer through the mind numbing monotony of treadmill running?

My advice (and my own approach) is to do a combination. Treadmill running isn’t the same as running outside. It’s easier and softer on the joints. This can be a good thing, but it can also make for a hard transition back to road running. Running outside in extreme temperatures (whether hot or cold) can also be counter-productive, especially if you haven’t adapted to the conditions. When it’s that cold, slower, aerobic efforts aren’t the issue, it’s the quality sessions that suffer.

runningSo, mix and match depending on your goals that day. If you’re doing 1-minute intervals or half-mile repeats, do those quality sessions on a treadmill. If it’s a lighter day with less intensity, try to brave the cold and head outside. Or, as with the up and down temperatures we’ve had lately here in MN, take advantage of “warm-up” days in the 20’s and 30’s and do all of your sessions outside. Then, when the temperature plunges below zero, hit the treadmill.

When asked this question about training outside in the cold, I recall a great coach putting it this way. If you’re compromising quality by running outside, you’re wasting your time.

Training outside in freezing temperatures might make us feel macho and tough. But, effective training isn’t about whose the toughest, it’s about whose the smartest.


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