Want to build up a winter running routine? Start your new year with a positive feedback loop

Ah, it’s new year season. The time of year where people first vow to take back up and then remember how much they hate running. Particularly in Alaska. In the winter.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Truly. We’ll start with the running part and then tackle the unique-to-Alaska layer of January.

My top advice to new runners is to quit while it feels good. Especially in the beginning.

It’s a trick that teaches your mind — which is a lot more puppy-esque than we humans like to admit — to associate running with a positive feeling. That will lure you back and help actually create a habit, much more than dragging yourself on run after punishing run does.

The nice thing about this trick is it compounds on itself. Running feels good at 5 minutes; stop. Running feels good until ten minutes, quick — stop. Before long, running feels good through 30, 45 minutes, and then, incredibly, an hour. That full hour of running is a big milestone.

Your brain starts getting the message that going running will mean feeling good. It’ll be less of a chore to get out the door. After a while, you’ll notice you’re sleeping better; your mood is overall better. The habit starts to take hold and running becomes more like eating, getting rest, or socializing — something both necessary and enjoyable.

This advice holds for winter running. Especially for any new runners out there who have resolved to get started or back on track with the new year, it’s essential to create a positive feedback loop. Going on grueling, bitterly cold runs that hurt won’t help get a habit off the ground. Setting reasonable goals and quitting while you’re ahead will feel much better.


[Developing new habits to reach greater heights]

Another key ingredient to running in the winter? Paying attention to breathing. This is all aspects of it.

How does your breath come in? If your lungs get cold easily, like mine, consider a balaclava to cover your mouth. Uncomfortable? Yea, a little. But not as uncomfortable as aching lungs for the rest of the day. Again, this goes back to creating positive feedback loops. If I associate running with enduring pain afterwards, it’s yet another mental hurdle to clear prior to actually getting myself out the door.

Also, what is your cadence of inhaling? This sounds like a ridiculous question. But how you breathe is really important. I remember when I first started running I breathed in practically with every footfall. That’s basically hyperventilation. I developed more rhythmic breathing through practice. I played around with taking intentionally slow breaths in and out over several footfalls, seeing what a comfortable pacing was for me. It felt awkward and unnatural at first, but over time I realized it was making it possible for me to run more than ten feet at a time.

Now, I don’t think about it.

That’s another trick, is thinking ahead to what the hurdles are going to be. Plan around those. Make everything as easy and automated as possible around the run itself. I make it ridiculously easy for myself to get out the door, even and especially when I know I’ll have a good excuse not to go.

A 10 degrees below zero forecast for the morning? I’ll stage my clothing the night before. This serves the purpose both of having my many (many) layers already identified as clean and laid out, but it also sends the message to my future self that I already put time in. In the morning, it’s a lot harder emotionally to put the clothing away knowing I didn’t do the thing I committed to for myself. Running, by comparison, is easier. Even in that kind of cold.

I lay my headlamp out by my shoes at the door. My fleece pants are right where I need them. Socks, check. Buff and balaclava? Yup.

I come downstairs, drink my coffee, and climb into the plan I laid out the night before. The only thing to do from there is run.

I don’t think I need to say it but I will — layer. Layer, layer, layer. Avoid down, because if you sweat — when you sweat — it will compress and not offer any warmth when wet. Avoid cotton. In general, a mix of skin-tight and looser layers are better, because they both help wick moisture away from your skin while also retaining some heat. When everything’s too tight, everything’s also apt to get colder faster.

Tell someone you’re going, both for safety and accountability.

[Running in Alaska’s subzero cold is hard. But the reward might just be worth the frigid fatigue.]

Finally, don’t run every day. I don’t run every day; I go about 3-4 times a week, typically giving myself a rest day (from running) in between runs. Particularly if I were just embarking on setting up the habit for a new year, giving myself break days would be crucial for 1) physical health, because increasing running volume too fast vastly increases the chance of injury, and 2) I’m a broken record, but setting up the positive association early. Part of the positive feedback loop is knowing that it’s not a daily thing; but that a reward for a solid run is taking a day off.

Running has enormous intrinsic benefits, both physical and psychological, but it takes a little while to build up the habit to the point of payoff. While building the habit, the most important thing you can do is to make it enjoyable, so that it’s something you will want to return to again and again.

Alli Harvey

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.