Expert tips on running and biking in the winter

Lacing up your shoes or hopping on two wheels might feel daunting in cooler temperatures, but according to two local experts, it can be done.

woman stretching on snowy road before a run
© LMproduction / stock.adobe.com

Yes, it’s cold. And it’s probably going to get colder. That doesn’t mean you should stop outdoor exercise altogether, says Henry Dunbar, director of BikeArlington

“Be flexible, have the layers and push yourself a little bit,” says Dunbar. “It’s OK to be a little cool to start out, but you’ll warm up pretty quickly.”

To help you tackle winter exercising with ease, we spoke with year-round cyclist Henry Dunbar of BikeArlington, and Dave Ringwood, training program coach at the Formula Running Center in Clarendon. Below, find their best tips for beating the cold and staying active while waiting for spring to arrive.

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Let’s start by discussing the challenges of biking and running in the winter. Other than the cooler temperatures, what makes this time of year more challenging?
HR: One of the challenges is really just the amount of planning you have to take into account. The weather in this region can be anywhere from 10 degrees to 50, and with many cold-weather activities, the key is layers. You have to be able to adjust to what the temperatures may be at any point in the day.

DR: Winter mornings provide anything but a warm welcome to us runners. We get up those mornings and know what’s on the other side of the front door: any combination of freezing temperatures, darkness, snow and ice. By contrast, we could remain inside with the ability to turn up the heat, turn on Netflix and tell ourselves, “I’ll get my run in later.” But laying out your outfit the night before, planning to run with a friend or group and preparing a post-run meal are all valid ways to increase your motivation to run on those mornings. The more consistent you become with your morning routine, the easier it becomes. 

If you’re someone who already has a biking or running schedule during the warmer months, should you readjust it for winter?
HR: As a year-round cyclist, I would stick to the same time frame, but the light changes, so make sure you have good light on your bike and reflective equipment. Being able to see and be seen are essential.

DR: I strongly recommend adjusting one’s training to account for winter obstacles. Freezing temperatures, darkness, snow and ice are just a few aspects of winter that impact one’s running. With that said, I have several recommendations. First, focus on effort and time over speed and distance. Instead of mapping out a specific distance run to be covered at a certain pace, consider how long that would take in ideal conditions and then run on that length of time for the same effort. You’ll get the same aerobic benefits as you would any time of year, despite the wintry conditions. Second, allow yourself flexibility with your schedule! No training plan should be absolutely set in stone, especially when winter elements can be so unpredictable. While braving a blizzard to get in your long run might make for a cool story, staying healthy and setting a new PR makes for an even better one. 

What are some tips you might suggest to someone who is just starting out this winter, or who is looking to add biking and/or running to their New Year’s resolutions?
HR: Biking offers transportation flexibility and the opportunity to not be locked into one particular mode of getting around. The exercise benefits are the same as in the summer too. But I would say the secret to starting is having that windproof outer layer. That really goes a long way in keeping warm. I find that I don’t have to wear that much clothing if I have that shell. Also, waterproof gloves. The other thing is, even if you don’t want to ride when it’s under 40 degrees, you can still ride some days throughout the winter. Even if it rains on Monday, you could be guaranteed perfect riding conditions for the rest of the week. The weather will change.

DR: I think the most valuable advice I can give to a beginning runner (or one getting back into the game) is to find your support system. This could be family, friends, a running group, heck … even pets make for a great support system! As long as you feel supported and held accountable, you’re setting yourself up for success. As for tips, I definitely have a few that I have learned from personal experience. First, it can be easy to overdress for the cold. A general rule of thumb is to dress for 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature, as your body will naturally warm up throughout the run. Second, make sure you continue hydrating. Despite the colder temperatures, we still sweat while running. Third, shorten your stride to stabilize your center of gravity. This becomes especially important when running on uncleared sidewalks. You have to stay on your feet if you want to keep running!

Are there any equipment tips you might you offer to runners and bikers for the winter?
HR: The real secret for me was when I discovered Bar Mitts. They’re big, mitten-like things that fit over the handlebars. Those are the only things that truly made the difference in making sure my fingers didn’t freeze. 

DR: Warm up before you head out the door. A dynamic warmup routine should be performed inside to ease the transition from your warm house to the cold outdoors. Understand the purpose of each clothing layer to stay warm. Your base layer should be made of a fitted, dry-wicking material to retain heat while allowing moisture to escape. A second, middle layer can be worn depending on how cold it is. This is looser fitting and can even be fleece material. A jacket should be worn on top to both retain heat and block the wind. For safety, reflectors should be your best friends. Running out in the brisk winter air is a great way to feel alive, while remaining visible to vehicles is a great way to stay alive. Finally, gloves are good, but mittens are better! When you’re out on a run, your body is the lone source of your warmth. While gloves prevent the colder elements from reaching your hands as quickly, they also prevent your hands from warming themselves. Investing in a quality pair of running mittens was one of the best running-gear purchases I’ve ever made! 

And if it’s just too cold outside, any suggestions?
HR: Everyone has to make their own choice. I don’t ride when there’s ice, but that’s where Capital Bikeshare can come in handy. Those bikes are very sturdy and forgivable, even in bad conditions. I know a lot of people won’t ride their own bikes when it’s slushy out, and the local bikes are designed to withstand weather conditions. 

DR: I’m a strong proponent of treadmill running, especially during the winter months. Treadmills provide a control of external variables in such a way that can’t be replicated outdoors and, as a coach at the Formula Running Center, I’ve seen runners of all abilities benefit tremendously from that control. 

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