In Praise of Rocks, Roots, Mud, Deep Snow, Soft Sand, Rough Trail and People Who Don’t Clear Their Sidewalk — Why Winter Running Rocks

Associate Coach Mike Mahoney wades through a drift, winter running 2014

by Mike Mahoney

As I write this, most of North America is experiencing the coldest winter in 35 years. Certainly in southern Ontario, it’s been tough on winter running. As I’ve been running—bundled up, wading through drifts, jumping over banks left by the snowplow—it’s occurred that this isn’t such a bad thing.

Sure, I’ve been trying to run trail where the snow was too deep, working hard and spiking my heart rate only to have my Garmin helpfully inform me that I’m barely making ten-minute kilometers. I’ve cursed at the slush that steals my energy with every squishing step, and cursed at it again the next morning when my tracks have frozen into the roughest, nastiest running surface imaginable. And who hasn’t experienced the winter runner’s favourite: the full-immersion, foot-soaking puddle with ice chunks floating in it? Probably right at the beginning of your run, too.

Associate Coach Mike Mahoney gets in some trail time, winter running 2014Yes, we’re all aware of the drawbacks of winter running. And even in the summer there’s trail. Why not flash back to winter with some nice rough single track? Or a good steep sand hill? At least in the winter, the ground usually stays put, instead of sliding out from under you, making you work twice as hard. It’s enough just to mention roots, rocks, mud, darkness, branches just at face height, and my personal favourite, saplings cut by trail crews just high enough to trip you up.

Why do we seek out this stuff?

Why not hit the treadmill or the gym? I was out walking the dog yesterday, telling myself it was too cold to run. Naturally, who chose that moment to make an appearance, dressed in layers, hood pulled up tight, leaned over into the wind? You guessed it, a runner. So I had to get out too.

You know what? It was a good run.

photo-gallery-triathlon-camp-photos/#triathlon-camp-asheville-2013″>Head Coach Mike Coughlin runs the steep trail to summit Mt. Pisgah, DZ Asheville Spring Triathlon Camp, Asheville, North Carolina, 2013The good parts about winter running and generally running in adverse conditions go mostly ignored. People think you’re crazy if you say that you gain a sense of accomplishment from doing 20k at minus 20. They look at you funny when you tell them about how much elevation gain your trail run had. I think it takes a runner to appreciate how it feels to make your 20-member running group on the worst day of the year, and be one of three people there. But crazy or not, there’s a sense of accomplishment from not only getting your daily run, but getting it done when it’s an extra challenge. Look at the popularity of obstacle course races.

So there’s a sense of accomplishment. There’s also something more concrete, something every runner can appreciate: fewer injuries. Now you’re thinking I’m crazy—running on rough icy tracks, slipping on mud, jumping over obstacles—fewer injuries? Don’t you mean more injuries?

photo-gallery-triathlon-camp-photos/#triathlon-camp-boulder-2013″>Greg runs the Mt. Sanitas trail at Discomfort Zone's The Boulder Experience Triathlon Camp in Boulder, Colorado, 2013Nope. This isn’t scientific. But the fact is that I used to get hurt all the time, just running on solid surface. Since I’ve been punishing myself with icy nastiness in the winter and diabolical trail in the summer, I don’t get hurt anymore. I’m not the only one, either. I think it’s a combination of things, from learning to read trail to taking shorter strides to building up all the little stabilizer muscles. Sure, there’s a learning curve, but my experience is that winter running and trail running have helped prevent injury.

So now I’m running outside in the winter and I feel great about it. Great. What else?

Only the best thing possible. It makes you faster.

Associate Coach Mike Mahoney hits the trail, winter running 2014Chugging along through the snowdrifts with a spiking heart rate is great for fitness. If snowy hills weren’t free, winter running would be the next big commercial fitness craze. Jumping over those snowbanks? Great for agility. Ditto navigating the frozen tracks, rocks, mud, roots, and even the annoying cut-off saplings. The puddle with the ice chunks? Mental toughness. Having to repeatedly spike your effort level on a run because someone hasn’t cleared their sidewalk? Thank them for the extra fitness, because come spring and clear pavement you are going to be faster.

Clear pavement just doesn’t seem as challenging as it once did.

Now that I’ve seen real benefits of getting outdoors for the rough stuff, some things start to make sense. Like back in the army, when Captain Norton used to run the whole platoon up and down the sand hills in Petawawa. At the time, I just thought he was a sadistic hardass. Now, I wish I had sand hills just outside my door again.

Elizabeth and David run some steep, rough trail at Discomfort Zone's The Boulder Experience Triathlon Camp in Boulder, Colorado, 2013So next time it’s a choice of treadmill or icy nastiness, clear pavement or rough trail, go for the rough stuff. You’ll be glad you did.

Enough talk. It’s minus 16. I’m going for a run!


Some Pointers for Winter Running and The Rough Stuff

    Associate Coach Mike Mahoney hits the trail, winter running 2014
  • Shorten your stride and speed up your cadence: Besides being faster over long distances, this lessens the force of each step, making it more likely you can recover from a misstep without injury.

  • Practice looking at the trail and placing your steps quickly: It’s a skill like any other. Your brain can learn to process this kind of information faster and more accurately, and it’s fun. After a while, it’ll become second nature. Speedy professional trail runners like Scott Jurek can do it with just a glance, at high speed and in the dark. If they can, we can too.

  • Use hill technique to climb: The best piece of running advice I’ve ever gotten was from coach-mike-coughlin/#top1″>Head Coach Mike Coughlin at dz-asheville-spring-triathlon-camp-2014/”>Asheville Spring Training Camp one year. There are a lot of trails and a lot of hills in Asheville, and he told us to climb by taking short, fast steps with high knees. It works.

  • photo-gallery-triathlon-camp-photos/#triathlon-camp-asheville-2013″>Athletes James and Michelle run trail Head Coach Mike Coughlin in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, DZ Asheville Spring Triathlon Camp, Asheville, North Carolina, 2013

  • Work on a forefoot or midfoot strike: While there are fast heel strikers, I’m convinced that a forefoot strike is better for trail. Having converted after many years, I find that I’m more agile, lighter on my feet, and can take quicker strides for less chance of injury.

Before his first Marine Corps Marathon, Mike Mahoney’s idea of running was something a sergeant forced you to do in a rucksack and boots. Triathlon just kind of happened from there. His proudest moment is being talked into a 50k at 9pm the night before. Mike is an Associate Coach with Discomfort Zone and is currently training towards a belt buckle.

One Comment

  1. I should add that running along with a tripod and camera setup is also pretty good training!

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