The temperature was below freezing as I prepared for a 100-mile winter ultramarathon. I was still in my hotel room going through my pre-race rituals. But for this race, because of the cold, I did things a little different…
After I held my breath for 3 minutes and jumped in an ice-cold shower for 10 minutes, my body was well prepared for race day.
I will explain the breathing and cold showers later, but first, let me start by saying I LOVE running in the heat.
In the past, I’ve always run 100-mile races or longer in the summer. I love running in the warm weather. Sunshine, less clothing, summer mornings…what’s not to like? I even ran 116 miles across one of the hottest states in the US: Florida.
So as you can imagine, running 100 miles in below freezing temperatures was out of my element. It was more of a painful process than one of growth and achievement.
Despite my sensitivity to the cold, I knew with the right strategy I could run 100 miles in below freezing temperatures with little issue. Deep down I know that like how our bodies adapt to longer mileage, we adapt to temperatures too.
When preparing for a winter ultramarathon, there are specific steps you can take to prepare your body for the cold. And being that I recently ran a 200-mile ultramarathon in 100-degree temperatures, I can tell you the methods I used worked. And they worked well.
Each tip you will soon read contributed to keeping my body less cold while running 24 hours in below freezing temperatures. Taking my body to the extreme took an extreme strategy.
Take It To The Extreme
To accomplish extreme goals, you must take extreme measures. And we can all agree that running a winter ultramarathon, especially the 100-mile distance, is extreme.
Non-runners who find out I’m an ultramarathon runner typically ask about my knees. They usually ask, “Aren’t you afraid your knees will not work when you’re older from running too much?”
I typically reply with, “Aren’t you afraid your eyes will not work when you’re older from seeing too much?”
The point is our bodies adapt to new stresses. If you progressively increase the load placed on your body, it will adapt. Adaptability is survivability.
It’s no accident that a camel has a hump for energy and thick hair in it’s ears to keep the sand out. That’s an adaptation.
Whether it’s the long neck of a giraffe or the hollow bones of a bird. Adaptation is a part of life. So I think it’s safe to say we can adapt to running extreme distances in extreme weather conditions. It just takes time and a progressive effort.
Acclimate To The Cold
When I say adapt to colder temperatures what I’m referring to is acclimation. Meaning, the more acclimated you become to cold temperatures during training, the better off you’ll be on race day. Wiki explains acclimation this way:
“Acclimation is the process in which an individual organism adjusts to a change in its environment such as a change in altitude, temperature, humidity, photoperiod, or pH, allowing it to maintain performance across a range of environmental conditions. Acclimatization occurs in a short period of time (hours to weeks), and within the organism’s lifetime.”
There are two points to pull from this explanation. First, your body will adjust to a change in temperature. And second, this change occurs in hours to weeks.
So if you are preparing to run a winter ultramarathon, then take the necessary steps during training to acclimate to the cold. A month or two out from your race is plenty of time.
I transformed my body into a polar bear before race day. And this is coming from the guy who spends most weekends trying to persuade his wife to move to a desert.
This is also coming from the same guy who has run 200 miles in 100-degree weather.
My thermostat is set high, and my body thrives in hotter conditions. The cold…not so well. Still, I was able to pull myself together and tolerate the cold during a 100-mile winter ultramarathon. And that’s even when the temperatures dropped below freezing and even when it snowed.
And of course, I’m now sharing my strategy with you. So read on for 8 winter ultramarathon tips for running in the cold.
8 Winter Ultramarathon Tips For Running In The Cold
During training and on race day, there are measures you can take tolerate the cold. Below are the exact methods I used. I offer 4 tips for training and 4 tips for racing. Follow them to achieve similar success.
Please note: I am not a certified health physician and do not claim to be one. I’m only sharing the methods that worked for me. Remember, sometimes when you push the limits, the limits push back. So proceed with caution and never forget that safety comes first.
Winter Ultramarathon Training Tips
Read below for 4 winter ultramarathon training tips.
1. Perform Heavy Breathing Exercises
Every morning during training I spent the first 15 minutes performing heavy breathing exercises. Ancient pranayama, one of the eight limbs of yoga, helps create warmth from within the body. It’s a collection of breathing exercises that can be energizing.
I just call it heavy breathing.
But I did pick up a technique from a man by the name Wim Hof. You may know him as the Iceman. This guy swims in ice water, sits in ice cube containers, and runs shirtless up snowy mountains. If anyone knows about keeping your body warm, it’s this guy.
When I set sail on a new goal, I look to those who have accomplished a similar goal but on an extreme level. That’s one of the reasons I became an ultramarathon runner.
One day I wanted to improve my marathon time, so I read about ultramarathon athletes. In my mind, I’d rather learn from someone who routinely runs four marathons in a row than one. Next thing you know I became an ultra runner.
So when I wanted to stay warm under extreme conditions, I thought, “Who better to learn from than the Iceman?” The guy who takes cold to the extreme.
Wim Hof power breathing is considered controlled hyperventilation. During this power breathing, the intervals release energy that influences your nervous systems. Basically, you are teaching your body to warm from within.
Here’s the steps I took:
- Sit up straight or lay down, whatever’s more comfortable.
- Rest your hands on the ground or on your thighs.
- Inhale fully with force.
- On the exhale, let go. Don’t force it. Let the air fall out.
- In and out is one breath. Take 30-40 breaths.
- On the last exhale, hold your breath for as long as possible and time it.
- 30-40 breaths is one set. Perform 3-4 sets total.
Each day, I tried to hold my breath a little longer than the last. Eventually, I held it for 3 minutes straight. This heavy breathing exercise was part of my morning routine through my entire winter ultramarathon training program.
I noticed I could hold my breath longer in the morning. My heart rate was slower, and my body was relaxed. So each morning, directly after I opened my eyes, I began.
After breathing exercises, I then took it to the shower.
Note of caution: Some of these practices may lead to slight lightheadedness, so always make sure you’re in a comfortable, safe place, preferably seated on a couch or cushion.
For more information on the Wim Hof method, click here for his website.
2. Take Progressive Cold Showers
With my body warmed up from heavy breathing, I would then hop in the cold shower. This was another method I picked up from the Iceman.
I took progressive cold showers every day for over 30 days straight. My first cold shower was 30 seconds in length. From there I increased the time by roughly 10%. I ended up reaching around 10 minutes.
TIP: Take a warm shower first. Next, slowly reduce the temperature until reaching max coldness. Then begin counting.
Cold showers are not only beneficial for acclimating to the cold, but they are incredible for the immune system. Cold showers have the potential to prevent illness. And as ultra runners who are preparing for race day, this becomes priceless.
Grabbing handles with you shirt sleeve, staying away from crowds…heck… I’d probably live in a quarantine room during training if it were up to me. But giving my already compulsive ultra running behaviors… my wife would probably draw the line somewhere before plastic bubble living.
Anyway, I’m only telling you this from experience. Ultramarathon training strains your immune system enough, cold showers helped me stay healthy. And eventually, like with running, my body expected the discomfort.
If you read up on the science of cold showers you will find that they increase the number of disease-fighting white blood cells in your body. You’ll also read about how after the cold shower, your body tries to warm itself up which activates the immune system.
Think of it this way. If you jump into a freezing cold lake for the first time, it causes oxidative stress. However, if you do it on a regular basis, eventually your body adapts. Soon your body is capable of combating oxidative stress more effectively.
And this was the kicker for me. For the last 10 years, every October I caught a cold. And it wasn’t like a sneeze and a cough type of cold. I’m talking one of those knock you off your feet sicknesses.
Well, this year for the first time in 10 years I did not get sick. In fact, I’m still taking cold showers and haven’t caught a cold yet. We will see how long it lasts.
If you decide to try the progressive cold shower approach, read on for instructions.
Here’s what to do:
- Turn the shower on warm and take your shower like usual.
- At the end of your warm shower gradually lower the temperature.
- Once the water reaches ice cold, count for 30 seconds.
- Move your body back and forth. Don’t keep the water in one spot.
- At the end of 30 seconds turn the shower off.
- Increase your time by 10% each day. For example, if your first day is 30 seconds, your second day is 33 seconds.
- Perform your cold shower progressions for 30-45 days building up to race day.
REMEMBER— just like running, when taking cold showers you should progress slowly. Give your body time to adapt. Soon, your body will expect the freezing water, and you may implement it as part of your daily routine.
3. Go Shirtless Outside
Most likely, if you train for a winter ultramarathon, then you will train in the winter weather.
So on cold days after my cold shower, I would go outside with the least amount of clothes as possible (watch out neighbors!).
Okay, I didn’t go outside naked, but I did go outside shirtless. For example, after my shower, I walked outside with my bare feet and no shirt to start my vehicle. I would then stay out for a few extra seconds and run back inside to warm up.
Not only did this help acclimation my body to the cold, but it helped take control of my mind for race day. Forcefully stepping into cold conditions when your mind tells you “NO” helps to combat hesitation. This naturally transfers over to race day when you are cold, lonely, and tired and the mind tells you to quit. Now, you can tell the mind “I OWN YOU!” and get back on your journey to that winter ultramarathon finish line.
4. Lose the Jacket
For a solid month, I did not wear a jacket. I starved myself of heat to the point where race day was a reward. That’s because I bundled up on race day.
But during training, when I wasn’t running, I lost the jacket. To and from work, stores, time outside, I did my best to wear the least amount of clothes as possible. Even when the heat broke in my work vehicle, instead of fixing it, I opted to keep it cold for a month. This would force my body to stay colder for longer.
Your race day experience is the exact reflection of how much effort you put into training. The colder I stayed during training, the more cold weather I could handle. This made my ice-cold 100-mile winter ultramarathon more tolerable.
Winter Ultramarathon Racing Tips
Read below for 4 winter ultramarathon racing tips.
5. Pump Your Arms
Now that your body is acclimated to cold temperatures, I will provide a few tips to help warm your body on race day. The first tip is to pump your arms hard whether you are running, slogging (slow jog), or walking.
Pumping your arms will keep your blood flowing and your body warm. Even if you must walk during your race, still pump your arms like you’re running. Never stop.
Aggressively pumping your arms will prevent you from reaching that tipping point. You know, where your body becomes so cold that your warm car seems like a better choice than the finish line.
Especially towards the end of your race where your pace significantly drops. One hundred mile runners know this best. However, although your feet slow down, your arms can speed up. So pump your arms and move those feet to the finish line with a less cold body.
6. Stay on the Edge
When I say, “stay on the edge”, I’m NOT referring to running as fast as you can for as long as you can. This would tire you out prematurely during an ultramarathon. As ultra runners, we understand more than anyone that you must pace yourself.
To stay on edge during a winter ultramarathon means to constantly stay on the pedal. Don’t let off. Meaning, even when you slow down, keep moving at a steady pace. Don’t put the pedal on the floor, but keep the gas flowing.
Even when you approach an aid station, don’t stop. Quickly grab what you need and continue to run forward. The longer you stop, the colder you become. And if you’re dealing with below freezing temperatures, if you stop long enough, you may not start back up.
Also, don’t go inside or stand next to a fire for too long. Some races light fires or have an indoor aid station or bathroom. On nights where temperatures are cold, if you warm up, going back outside is brutal.
Especially during the later stages of the race. If you hang inside long enough, walking back out in the cold can feel like a kick in the stomach.
I’ve found I do much better with cold temperatures when I stay in them; that is, when I embrace the cold. Remember–you must suffer to overcome. To become an ultramarathon runner is to overcome suffering. Accept that, and there will never be a finish line you can’t cross.
During my first 100-mile ultra marathon the temperatures dropped 40 degrees at night. One of the aid stations had a bonfire. A runner was sitting next to it. His body was wrapped in a blanket, and he was shaking. His body was in shock.
You may be familiar with shock after a race. That’s why marathons give out heat blankets. It’s designed to keep the heat within your body after you finish.
Well, no heat blankets are given out after an ultramarathon. Instead, we get a thumbs up, a bowl of chicken broth, and a long path to waddle down in hopes to reach our car. And then we sit in the cold car until it warms up.
The point is this: you may find it more helpful to stay in the cold the entire race versus going indoors for a few minutes. That’s if going indoors is even an option.
Own your mind and stay cold. Because once you give in, it’s a rough road back to race mode. So on race day find your comfort level within being uncomfortable and hold on tight.
7. Don’t Be Afraid of Layers
After the race, I took off my compression shirt, thermal, half zip, winter running jacket, full fleece zip, ski mask, snow cap, tights, and gloves.
I wasn’t joking when I said I prefer the heat. Like I REALLY prefer the hot weather when I run.
So, if you’re like me and are more like a camel than a penguin then don’t be afraid to layer up. Here’s the thing, I didn’t just layer up to stay warm, as I mentioned earlier, I worked at acclimating my body to the cold.
What I did on race day was try to mimic the temperatures when running in the heat. Not only did I acclimate my body to the cold, but I added extra layers to generate more heat.
Even when my anti-chaffing lubrication froze in my pocket, my body still remained warmer than usual. Fortunately, you don’t sweat much in the winter, so chafing wasn’t an issue.
The point: pack extra warm clothes even if you don’t anticipate using them. Chances are…you will.
8. Adopt A Cold Mindset
~Be warm, not fast.
If you want to stay warm during a winter ultramarathon, then you must change your mindset.
I wasn’t running for 100 miles, I was trying to stay warm for 100 miles. Running simply became of a vehicle to produce heat.
When running an ultramarathon in the cold, you should make friends with discomfort. You suffer the entire time, there’s no escaping it.
Here’s what I wrote to a friend directly after the race…
“The cold was a constant suffer. Yes, there were some highs. But the background suffering never let up. From start to finish and every second in between, the cold created a consistent resistance. I had to push through it the entire time.”
Remember this: Running an ultramarathon wouldn’t be a great achievement if there weren’t adversity to overcome. But guess what? There’s plenty of adversity, and during some races, you must battle the elements.
You are an extraordinary athlete if you run ultramarathons. Most can’t even comprehend running such a distance. It doesn’t make sense to them.
In a winter ultramarathon, not only are you running an extreme distance, but you are doing so in extreme temperatures. The cold will break a fragile mind, so change your mindset. Choose discomfort, choose to suffer, and choose the cold.
As you must do with hunger when fasting, make friends with the cold. Don’t give yourself a way out. Show up and just start moving your feet forward. Put one foot in front of the other and one way or another you will cross the finish line.
Final Thoughts On Winter Ultramarathon Running
My last 100-mile race was undoubtedly the COLDEST 100 miles I ever ran. It wasn’t even about clocking miles, it was about moving to stay warm.
One plus, I got to see snow for the first time of the year…okay maybe not a plus…okay, definitely not a plus.
I could tell my body was not fully recovered from my 200-mile run. But I wanted to sneak in one longer race before the end of the year. The plan was to keep it slow, steady, and warm…not fast.
For me, it’s never about racing against another person, it’s not even about racing against myself. For me, It’s about LETTING GO, eliminating the resistance from within, and tapping into that higher self.
When I run, I look up at the infinite sky, then close my eyes…I then look at the same infinite depth from within…I look at the POTENTIAL…and in that sense…our potential is limitless.
By following these 8 winter ultramarathon tips, you will handle the cold much better. It’s what worked for me, and if you are sensitive to the cold, they will work for you.
REMEMBER…to surpass the ordinary, you must follow an extreme approach with an extraordinary effort because on the other side of average awaits every running goal you could ever possibly achieve.
A Secret Tip
Lastly, if you do not like training in the winter but love racing, there’s another tip you should consider. There is a way you can run ONE day per week for twelve weeks and run ANY distance imaginable. That’s right, you can run a 50k, 50-mile, 100k, and 100-mile ultramarathon by running only one day per week.
If you are interested, check out my book called “A Runner’s Secret: One Run Will Get It Done.” Inside the pages, I teach my proven system to run any distance by running only one day per week. I’ve run up to 100-mile ultramarathons by following this same approach.
Thank you and enjoy every moment of your winter ultramarathon adventure!
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