Mental toughness is indispensable no matter what distances you run.
Sub-zero winds pierce the skin, reverberating a chill deep to the bones. Percussion sounds of fresh snow crunch under foot. Driving rains blow headfirst, making forward progress a major chore. Darkness comes quickly, gobbling up precious daylight hours. Ah, the sensations of winter. While Old Man Winter beckons us to stay bundled in a warm bed or by a toasty fire, the harshest elements will bolster the mind, intuition and body.
On paper, Minnesota was hardly ideal training grounds for the high Sierra mountains and boiling American River canyons of the Western States 100. Still, I spent many sub- zero mornings punching my way along rolling snowmobile trails, trying to stay afloat on the styrofoam-like snow. Often my feet and hands got so cold they would tingle with pain, and my head throbbed with an unwelcome “ice cream headache” from the bitter wind.
No, the Western States canyons wouldn’t have frigid gusts—more like 100-degree blow-torch blasts—but the cold morning runs made me mentally strong, giving me confidence that I could get through any temperature or adversity the race threw my way. When winter conditions make training difficult, the mind is forced to deal with newly added stress, ultimately leading to deeper reserves of mental fortitude. And mental toughness is indispensable no matter what distances you run.
The Pacific Northwest is known for winter months filled with relentless streaks of dark rainy days, but, for a Minnesotan, it initially sounded like a tropical vacation. I spent 11 winters training in the Cascade foothills on the outskirts of Seattle and learned it was definitely wet, but far from warm and tropical.
Cool downpours at sea level turned to cold, driving sleet and then to wet, blowing snow as I worked my way up my Tiger Mountain route. The rooty, rocky trail changed from gooey muck to slippery slime, giving way to glare ice at higher elevations. Dark clouds overhead made the morning light seem like nightfall, and as I climbed I became engulfed in a sea of fog and clouds. Little predictability lies in Northwest winters, except that it is always wet. Those changing winter conditions helped me train my instinctual ability to adapt on the fly and accept whatever was tossed my way.
As modern, evolved humans, our intuition is seldom tested and trained. Comfort and consistency are the preferred choices. By training in unpredictable and changing winter conditions, we train the “sixth sense” to survive and thrive so we can make the right decisions without even thinking when they matter most.
My winters in Minnesota got me prepared for running on snow, but I didn’t think I would eventually find myself post-holing through two feet of fresh powder and careening down steep, icy luge, singletrack trails in Colorado.
Big snowfalls and sunny days in Boulder can turn the trails to skating rinks, but they’ve helped me come out on the other end of winter with a stronger and more balanced body. The icy and wet surfaces of winter roads and trails force the stabilizing muscles of the legs, hips and core to engage, thus enhancing proprioception, strength and coordination, which can benefit all runners. Deep snow and wet slush provide natural resistance, ideal for strengthening running muscles while receiving the cardio benefits of running. Ice and snow might cause speed workouts to be a challenge or down right impossible, but they make for an ideal outdoor strengthening gym.
When winter plays you a tune to stay in bed or by a warm fire, embrace the cold, wet and dark. You’ll become a stronger and better runner because of it.
This column first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.
About The Author:
Based in Boulder, Colo., Scott Jurek is a seven-time winner of the Western States 100-mile trail run.