Three proven benefits of outdoor winter running

By Lucas Zanetti, Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa

It’s that time of the year when temperatures are dropping and finding the motivation to get out for your run seems harder and harder. I get it. Maybe you have a fireplace, a cup of hot chocolate, or a nice warm blanket convincing you to stay inside but, while there’s no shame in hitting the treadmill, there are also many scientifically proven benefits to running outside in the cold that can improve your running performance as well as your overall well-being through the winter:

  • Increased Metabolism

When we run outside in the winter, our core temperatures won’t drop enough to begin shivering, provided that we’re dressed appropriately for the weather (Check our article on how to dress for winter running). However, research by Anouk van der Lans, demonstrates that after 10 days of cold acclimation, a phenomenon called nonshivering thermogenesis occurs which is an increase in the body’s metabolism through increased activity of brown adipose tissue (aka ‘good fat’). Brown adipose tissue is specialized for energy expenditure and thermogenesis, while white adipose tissue (aka ‘bad fat’) is specialized for energy storage. So by getting acclimated to the cold by doing your runs outside, you can help kickstart your metabolism and burn more calories over the winter months!

  • Decreased impact of seasonal sadness

As someone who certainly suffers from the winter blues or general seasonal sadness that comes with winter, I can honestly say that running and making sure I get outside plays a huge role in mitigating those feelings. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing that is linked to less exposure to light, which decreases the release of mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin, throws off our circadian rhythms, and can suppress our immune systems. So by getting outside to run in the winter, not only do you get the benefits of physical exercise which is positively linked to better moods, you also get that much needed sunlight which also helps with improved moods!

  • Builds mental toughness

Naturally running outside in the winter is a challenge. It requires more preparation, different gear and, most importantly, strong mental skills to get yourself out the door, and stay focused on the run itself. These mental skills are crucial difference makers when it comes to racing performance as well as maintaining a consistent training schedule, and the best way to improve these skills is to practice. Since the winter conditions have such a large effect on pacing during runs, it’s also a unique opportunity to shift your focus away from the watch and onto your perceived effort levels which also helps build mental toughness. A great way to get motivated for winter running is to enter a winter race! Sign up for Run Ottawa’s Richmond Road Races to kickstart your winter training today! 

Good luck and stay safe and warm out there!