Safe winter training for a successful spring marathon

Written by Healthy Living News. Posted in January

Toledo-area runners who are planning to participate in a marathon this coming spring have a lot of training ahead, much of which will overlap the cold, inclement winter months. According to Aaron Al-Sorghali, a physical therapist/athletic trainer at UTMC’s Regency Outpatient Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine office, marathon training in winter presents runners with a unique set of challenges. However, they can be overcome with modest planning and preparation.


Al-Sorghali speaks from considerable experience. Not only is he the head cross country coach at St. Francis de Sales High School, but he has also completed the Glass City Marathon four times with finishes in eighth and fifth place. He shares the following advice for safe, effective winter training in advance of a spring marathon:

Tailor your expectations on that first try

If you’re currently preparing for your first marathon, don’t think in terms of finishing with a certain time or in a certain place. Instead, approach it with a mindset of simply finishing the race. “My first marathon was my favorite—and the most enjoyable—because I had no particular expectations going in,” states Al-Sorghali.

Monitor the weather forecast

Northwest Ohio winters can dish out a wide variety of weather conditions that impact a runner’s safety while training outdoors. Al-Sorghali urges runners to keep a close eye on the weather forecast so they know what to expect in terms of air temperature, precipitation, and conditions that affect footing. Keep in mind that wind speed influences how cold the air feels—i.e., the wind-chill factor. A tolerable air temperature can become decidedly intolerable if the wind is really whipping.

Wind direction is another factor that runners should consider in planning their training routes. For instance, if the wind is out of the west, it might be best to head west first so the wind is at your back on the return leg. Or, you could choose a route that follows a weaving pattern to minimize your exposure to headwinds.

“Also, it’s important to stay flexible with your training schedule. If you’re scheduled to run on Saturday but the forecast calls for six inches of snow that day, you might want to flex your training to Friday,” Al-Sorghali says.

Dress for winter-training success

When running outdoors in winter, make sure your base layer of clothing is made of a synthetic fabric that wicks moisture away from your skin, such as polyester, while your outermost layer is made of a water-resistant fabric such as Gore-Tex. If it’s necessary to train in the evening after sunset, be sure to wear reflective gear so drivers can easily spot you.

Al-Sorghali also recommends wearing a double layer of gloves—for example, those dollar gloves you can find at store checkouts—so you can remove a layer if your hands get too warm. In addition, he advises runners to keep footing in mind when choosing shoes. “You can get a lighter, more responsive shoe, but it will probably slip in snowy conditions, so look for shoes that are specifically designed for winter running,” he says.

Practice nutrition and hydration

To complete a 26.2-mile run, you’ll need to replenish both your fuel and your fluids en route, and it takes some practice for every marathon runner to figure out how and when it’s best to achieve this. “The further you get into the race, the more likely you are to run out of your natural energy stores and hit that wall, so you have to determine how you’re going to intake nutrients. Gels are an option, but I tend to do better with just orange slices. Also, I don’t do well eating on the run, so I found it best to wait until mile 20 to eat. Every runner is different, so you have to determine what works best for you and practice that in training this winter,” notes Al-Sorghali.

The same applies to drinking water. Aspiring marathon runners need to determine how and when they’re going to drink along the route and practice using those hydration points. Winter can present a challenge in this regard because runners may not experience thirst to the same degree in colder weather. However, even in cold weather, once they put their gear on and run for several minutes, they’ll begin to sweat and lose fluids. “I can almost guarantee that if you don’t practice hydration before the marathon, it will not go well for you on race day,” Al-Sorghali cautions.

Stretch properly

Al-Sorghali explains that the viewpoint on proper stretching for runners has evolved in recent years. In the past, the emphasis was on static stretching, which involves isolating a particular muscle or muscle group and holding the stretch for several seconds. However, it’s now understood that static stretching—as well as cold exposure in winter—reduces tension in the muscles that is necessary for efficient running. So today there’s a growing emphasis on dynamic stretching, which involves movement through a complete range of motion that mimics what the muscles will need to accomplish during the sport or exercise. “Ideally, you should do dynamic stretches before a run and then static stretches to close,” he says.

Build endurance in a non-linear fashion

Even highly experienced runners need to build endurance before attempting a marathon, and this is best achieved in a gradual manner—for example increasing your running distance by around 10 percent each week. However, Al-Sorghali points out that endurance building should not be a linear process, but more like a ladder that you can move up and down. “For example, over a four-week period, you could increase your weekly volume by 10 percent for the first three weeks, then scale back the fourth week by about 15 to 20 percent of the previous week’s peak volume,” he suggests. “Backing off a little bit in that fourth week gives your body a chance to recover and reduces your risk of an overuse injury.”

Al-Sorghali also advises runners who are training to watch for certain physical symptoms that could signal pending injury. One example is tenderness in the shin bone, which is a red flag for a stress reaction—the state just prior to a stress fracture. Backing off training in this circumstance doesn’t mean you’re abandoning your goal of running a marathon. Rather, it’s giving your body time to recover so you can come back stronger and continue to enjoy the journey. ❦