How to Train for a Marathon in the Winter

My training for the 2015 Boston Marathon began on a cold Monday morning. December 14, 5 AM, barely anyone on the roads. Just me, my breath, and my headlamp.

Sure, I could have hurried home from work to squeeze in an 8 miler in the fleeting sunlight, or I could have stayed indoors and logged some treadmill miles in the warm comfort of my den. But there was nothing wrong with the roads on that particular morning. There was no reason to look for an easy way out. I chose to venture out alone into the cold darkness as will often be the case for the next 18 weeks.

So after training through last winter, I had my doubts about doing another spring marathon. Then I registered for Boston. I couldn’t let a qualifying time go to waste.

Here’s my list of things I learned last winter that just might help make this winter’s training a little more bearable.

Buy cheap hats and gloves

A $25 beanie from your local running store will compliment any winter running ensemble, but what will you wear on your run tomorrow? Hats get sweaty and need to be laundered post-run. I buy fleece hats off the clearance rack at Old Navy. They’re $2 or $3 each, warm, and quite comfy. The same goes for gloves. The dollar store is a great source for cheap knit gloves, especially if you lose them as often as I do.

hat glove scarf

Have a schedule but be willing to deviate from it

Everything seems to be in limited supply in the winter: less daylight, lower temperatures, shorter tempers. If you’re an afternoon runner, sometimes a late-day meeting could mean a pre-dawn run. A kid’s basketball game might mean swapping an off day. And I haven’t even touched on the biggest X-factor…. WEATHER.

runners calendar

Check the weather forecast often

new-jersey-weather-forecastjpg-b43cb855742018c1_largeHow did we survive without weather apps? In mere seconds, one can access the forecast for the next week for any place conceivable, down to the very minute. Keep that in mind, especially when planning important workouts.

During marathon training, Fridays are my tempo/race pace days. But I’m willing to make adjustments for particularly blustery days. Equally important to consider is scheduling your long run. Who wants to be ten miles into an out-and-back when the blizzard hits? Weather forecasts are awesome. Use them. Of course, sometimes all preparation in the world won’t get you outside.


Treadmills are a necessary evil

Treadmills being used in a gymnasium in Birmingham UK

Last winter was truly a challenge for anyone in the North East who was training for a marathon. Therefore, I sunk a sizable portion of last year’s tax refund into a decent treadmill. If you don’t have one, make friends with a neighbor who has turned his into a $1,000 clothes hanger or take advantage of the special New Year’s rate at your local gym.

Yes, treadmill running sucks, and there is no magic formula that will make it as fun as running outdoors. I’ve heard infomercials are a great distraction. I like Sports Center and Spanish soap operas while jamming out to my 300-song workout playlist.

On the other hand, treadmill training can produce some positives. I actually prefer to do my speedwork on the treadmill. The biggest reason is that you have to keep the pace consistent. After all, you have two options: run fast or fall off the back. There are tons of speed workouts available online, and this interview with 2010 US half marathon champ Antonio Vega is especially helpful:

So is there any difference between running on a treadmill and running outdoors? Essentially it’s the same motion; however, it’s difficult to replicate wind resistance indoors. If you’re a real stickler for pace (I am) and simply running by perceived effort isn’t going to cut it (It doesn’t), allow me to suggest this table as a reference. It calculates your pace using the treadmill’s incline to compensate for the lack of wind resistance.

Safety first


So you’ve got your fleece beanie, your cheap knit gloves, layers upon layers of insulated, heat-trapping, moisture-wicking tech gear. But if you’re like most of us, you spend the daylight hours at work.

That’s why it’s important to stay visible, especially when the snow along the sides of the road pushes you into the oncoming traffic. Don’t just rely on brightly colored clothing. Get a reflector vest, preferably one designed for athletics, and not stopping traffic during road construction.

A headlamp is also essential. If you do a lot of predawn runs, you’ll find that a decent headlamp will allow you to run faster since you’re field of view is much greater.

With all that gear on, will you look like an idiot? Of course! But what’s worse, “I never saw that runner until it was too late,” or “Hey everybody, look at the glow-in-the-dark idiot running about a half-mile ahead of us!”? I rest my case.

Photo Courtesy of

Photo Courtesy of

Enjoy the snow

When you do bundle up and venture out into the Garden State winter wonderland, take the time to appreciate it. Even your most travelled running routes will be exciting and new. Enjoy the snow below your feet and above you on the tree limbs. Breathe deep as the cold fresh air fills your lungs.

In spite of the beauty, I am still by no means a fan of the snow. What motivates me to run is the satisfaction of cheating Old Man Winter. Not even he can stop me once I’ve decided to go for a run.

snow beard

For the men out there; consider a growing a beard to get you through those nasty ice storms!

Prepare for race day conditions

Last year I ran the Ocean Drive Marathon in Cape May County on March 30th. That’s the eleventh official day of spring. I ran into sideways rain and 20 MPH winds in 40 degree temperatures over the final two miles. It was every bit as grueling as any training I had put in over the course of the winter.

If you’re racing a marathon in the Northeast in March or April, you need to be prepared for anything. High winds, downpours, sudden snowstorms are all possible in early spring.

Two women run down Mountain Avenue in a snowstorm.

Don’t lose focus

Whether your marathon build up is 20, 18, or even just 12 weeks, you still need to make every run important. We all hit lulls; we all hit rough patches during the training cycle. What’s important is that you keep focused on your goal. That way, when you toe the line on race day morning, you’ll know that all the hard work and perseverance will pay off. Trust your training and remember why you put in those long miles.

Marathoners, at minimum, are misunderstood, and outsiders (including casual runners) view us as obsessive crazies. Still, none of that matters when you cross the finish line. Only a runner understands that no one else can get you there. All those cold, dark, and often lonely miles will be worthwhile in the end.



Jeremy Smith is one our newest contributors here at Run Jersey. Please comment below to let him know what you think!


Featured Photo Courtesy of MNIrisguy

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