Why embrace running in the cold

Running in winter: train like Anthony Joshua and embrace running in the cold

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Thinking of heading to the gym to beat the wind and cold? Throw on that extra layer and head outside instead if you want to reap a whole load of mental and physical health benefits. If it’s good enough for professional athletes, it’s good enough for us. 

There’s nothing worse than setting an alarm for your morning workout, only to wake up to a freezing cold, pitch-black morning. Just peeling the duvet away feels like it requires mammoth effort and that’s before you’ve dared to quickly switch your PJs for your gym kit and actually braved it out of the door.

But we should embrace winter and the change to train in the cold, says boxing superstar Anthony Joshua. When he’s not recovering with ice baths and cold showers, he’s out running. In the cold. 

“Running, I believe, is integral to training as an athlete,” he explains at an Under Armour panel talk. “It’s always important to keep running. People have been running for hundreds of years, animals run to stay healthy – it’s once you stop that you get stiff and tired.”

Those of us who run know that to be true; running tends to feel fine… until you stop. No matter how fit you are, coming back from even the shortest of breaks from running can feel brutal when you next lace up. But Joshua is a massive running advocate, despite not liking it at first.

“I actually never used to like running too much,” he explains, “but one day, I was driving to training at 7am and I saw a group of people running… and they were doing it like they were enjoying it. It was probably before work – and (sport) is my job – but I thought if they could do it with a smile on their face, I could.” From that moment, he stopped looking at running as a chore and tried to focus on the positives like the feeling of getting it done and feeling accomplished back home. 

Running outside makes you mentally and physically stronger

To be clear, we’re not talking about running on a treadmill here. AJ is a road runner and we’re focusing on the overwhelming positives of clocking up the miles outdoors, right now. Paul Winsper, director of athlete performance at Under Armour, explains that one of the main benefits of training in the cold is the mental strength it can build.

“The mind is stronger than the thoughts,” he says, describing the process of overriding the urge to stay in bed on a freezing morning to train. “It’s a way of stepping outside your comfort zone; being comfortable with being uncomfortable is crucial in becoming a great athlete.”

He points to research that backs up the fact that being in the cold improves mood and alertness. One study found that taking a cold shower for five minutes up to three times a week helped to relieve symptoms of depression by activating the sympathetic nervous system and releasing endorphins.

Even just having a 30-second blast of cold at the end of a hot shower can offer benefits, thanks to the fact that when we’re cold, blood moves to protect the vital organs (a process called vasoconstriction). That vasoconstriction on the surface of the body causes blood in your deeper tissues to circulate at a faster rate to maintain ideal body temperature and, according to some studies, its effects can last longer than the initial exposure.

Training in the cold can also help us to tap into our brown fat cells, which help us to generate heat. Interestingly, they’re mainly located in the neck and shoulder area so you can prompt the body to use them in a cold shower or an outdoor run (just leave the scarf at home!).

Finding the motivation to move in the cold

At first, AJ might seem like an unrelatable fitness figure for most of us (and particularly women) but it turns out, he goes through the same struggles as the rest of us when it comes to motivation. The difference is, he knows how to push through.

He recalls a time when he had planned to go running and it was “freezing outside”. He asked the coach if he had to go for the run: “In my heart, I knew that I had to go outside but the thoughts were overriding what I knew I had to do.” In response, his coach sent him a picture of someone running in the snow – with no text attached. AJ knew what he had to do. “I felt alive when I came back,” he says.

The benefits of cold water and cold air training

We all want to be comfortable but according to Joshua, being in a warm environment all the time – warm car, warm home, warm office, warm gym – causes us to relax and “shut down”. “You need to be alive. We see these people who are full of life and energy every day and you think they’ve had 10 coffees, but they’ve actually been in the cold (like an ice bath or training outside).” 

The cold environment, he explains, sends signals from your brain to the rest of your body to wake up. “Being alive is using those signals and putting your body into an uncomfortable situation, and (learning to be) comfortable with it.”

It might seem nicer to be indoors when it’s freezing outdoors but being surrounded by closed windows and central heating does nothing for our immune systems. Vitamin D is one of the most important drivers in fighting off infection and if we choose to do everything inside, we lose the opportunity to get vitamin D (however weak) on the skin. One trial from the Netherlands, published in the journal PloS One, even found that those who take cold showers take fewer sick days. 

While you could just take a vitamin D supplement, there’s also the fact that sunlight helps to regulate our circadian rhythm (our internal clock). Being in contact with little natural light can impact our ability to sleep soundly later on and, as we’re becoming ever more used to hearing, sleep is one of the most important building blocks when it comes to training. “We can improve sleep by getting in the cold,” says Winsper.

“Even if there’s no sun, it’s important to be outside,” says AJ. “Cold is looked at in the wrong way. It’s important to get outside, wake yourself up and do something that you don’t want to do. We’re at home a lot but there are so many reasons to run and train outside. Use that time to be amongst nature.”

Run stronger by having a go at one of our Strength Training for Runners videos

Images: Under Armour

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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