Jan 4, 2009 2:58 PM
Since this is the time of year many people make fitness resolutions, I thought I would post some tips and advice on what I've learned in the past year of my own fitness resolution. I resolved last January to run 4 times a week at 5am during the upper Midwest's winter. (If you live in SoCal or Phoenix, then this post probably isn't going to be very helpful to you! )
I remember googling last year for advice and not finding a systematic, straightforward treatment. I hope that this post will help beginners and provide an encouragement to organizing their own fitness program. I hope my work and experimentation will help others, and spur thinking and tips from others. I don't pretend to make this an exhaustive treatment of the topic, this is just what has worked for me over the course of a year.
Last January, I finally grew sick of being overweight. I have had periods of fitness in other periods of life, but I would always drop the ball when the cold dark of winter hit. I live in the upper Midwest, so dark and cold characterize my environment during most of the winter. Its dark before and after work. I can't stand running inside on a treadmill or at a gym, and if I don't do my exercise first thing in the morning, it usually won't get done that day. Moving to warmer climes was not a valid option for a host of good reasons.
I'd always been successful when I was younger at running during the spring and summer, but year after year I would drop the ball as soon as winter hit. Several years ago, I despaired of this predictable cycle and gave up running completely. Finally, with my gut and blood pressure number only getting bigger as the years rolled on, I knew I had to meet winter head on and take back my health.
I sat down and listed what I liked about being a "runner." That was was easy: more energy, feeling good, seeing interesting trails, being admired by others as a "runner", etc. Then I listed what I hated about winter mornings: Number one, of course, is the dark; next the extreme cold, and the deep grogginess that lack of sunlight seems to bring to my sleep. Snow and ice are never fun, and I also get asthmatic in cold air. Now I had my hitlist of problems to solve. I resolved that I would persevere until I had found a solution to every excuse, obstacle, and problem.
I.) I decided first to tackle the early morning problems of the darkness, grogginess, and cold making me hit the snooze alarm. How could I make it so that I would actually get up? I'm not a masochist, so I had to make the mornings fun and enjoyable, rather than a daily test of willpower. Here was what I came up with:
1) One of the hardest parts of getting up early in the winter is that fact that you are essentially getting up in the dark of night. I discovered two solutions:
a) First I got a cheap dawn simulator. This is a little gadget that you plug into your bedside lamp that slowly turns the light onto full intensity over a course of 20-30 minutes. It mimics the dawn sunlight coming through your window, gradually waking you up from the light on your eyelids. I use a cheap one called LightenUp ($25), though there are fancier, more programmable ones (they are used by Seasonal Affective Disorder patients).
b) I have a bright lamp on the far end of the room on a digital timer ($15 Home Depo) set to go off two minutes before my alarm. This way, you will wake up to a lighted room. Experiment with placement, till you find a position that makes the room feel warm and inviting.
The idea with both of these tips is to mimic the feeling of the sun waking you up gradually as it comes into your bedroom on a warm summer morning.
2) I would also find that I would always groggily hit the snooze button when my alarm went off loudly each morning. Of course, my first instinct was to make the alarm even louder, which would just result in my even more quickly hitting the snooze in agitation and going back to sleep. I decided to try a gentler approach based on tips from a few different websites:
a) During the last ten minutes of time that my dawn simulator is slowly increasing the light, I have a classical radio station or NPR come on at very low volume. The quiet voices/music and the dawn simulator's light seems to gradually and gently lift me from my deep sleep. To be honest, this sequence will wake me up pretty easily when I am on a normal sleep schedule. It is like my body just learns it's "Morning" through the combination of light and low sounds and effortlessly rouses me.
b) Just in case I am tired, or got to sleep late, I have a second alarm that is louder and set to my favorite upbeat music. This is my "waking" alarm. It goes off only after the lights are all on full strength and the quiet radio has been playing for about 10-15 minutes. (Again, I usually just turn this off before it even goes off once I am in my sleep routine.)
I also found it helpful to try to go to bed and get up at the same time EVERY weekday. Once I do this for a week, my body got into a smooth rhythm. If I have to stay up later, I still get up at the same time anyway. I'm actually LESS tired than if I slept in and threw off my sleep cycle. On the weekends, I've found I can sleep about 1-2hrs extra on Sat and Sun without causing my cycle to be thrown off on Monday.
3) Cold was my last main enemy. I solved this problem with the following:
a) I bought a cheap ($25) brew-into-cup coffee maker that I have set on a timer in the bedroom. You can use it to either brew coffee, or make hot water for tea or water to drink. There is nothing quite like a hot beverage first thing on a cold morning. I have the coffee maker positioned so that I can sit up in my warm bed, reach over, and grab my coffee. Then I sit in bed under the covers for about 5-10 min, sipping coffee, reading the Bible, listening to the radio, or just thinking.
b) Then, warmed up from the coffee, I get out of bed, hit the bathroom, and then immediately put on my running clothes. I will usually overdress by three layers inside the house, so that before I even begin exercise my core is well warmed from coffee and extra clothing. I will strip off two layers right before leaving the house, and after my warmup I will strip off the other layer.
c) I decided from the first to allocate money to "investing" in appropriate running gear. I reasoned that an investment in equipment that helps you achieve fitness is an investment in health. (How much do I plop down a month on health insurance? Hmmmm.) I bought appropriate technical clothing that would allow me to stay warm even when sweating. (Previously, I had tried to get by in winter with cotton T-shirts, hoodies, and socks.) I didn't run out and just buy the most expensive thing; I went to skiing, cycling, running, and camping shops, read reviews, and tried to find good, quality gear at a price I could afford. I bought these over the course of the past year, often on sale or clearance, as I had the money allocated. These were investments, I reasoned, and it was worth the time to find gear that would serve me well for the long haul and look good. (I now have a solid stable of tights, shirts, jackets, shorts, underwear, socks, and hats that allow me to be comfortable in all sorts of weather from -10F to 100F, and which should last me for years to come.)
II.) Snow and ice, and the cold air of winter were my next targets.
1) To solve the problem of snow and ice, I invested in a pair of slip-on traction cleats. There are different ones out there, like Yaktrax and DryGuy Monster Grip. These provide great grip and anti-slip protection on snow and ice, and slide on and off your shoes easily.
2) I have always been extremely sensitive to breathing in cold air. After some research, I found that some people are very sensitive to breathing in cold, extremely dry air. The solution is to warm and humidify the air. After trying a whole slew of different types of scarves, neck gaiters, and other options, I landed on the following system. I use the Serius neoprene facemask with a built-in neck gaiter as my bottom layer. This provides face protection from wind and the shape of the mask and its breathing holes keep you from breathing in fabric. Over this, I wear a Serius Polar Scarf. I can pull the scarf up over the facemask's holes to provide warm, humid air without breathing in fabric. On warmer days, I sometimes use the scarf alone, but inevitably the fabric gets wet and you end up sucking it onto your lips with each breath. My two layer system eliminates this. Since I wear glasses, I have a small strip of weather-stripping foam cut to fit my cheeks and nose attached to my facemask just below my eyes. The foam will trap the heat and steam and keep your glasses from fogging up.
There is also an interesting mask called the Psolar EX that seems to do the same thing my system does, but with one layer.
I am proud to announce that it has now been a year since I first got off the couch, stepped outside, and took my first halting steps in a cold, dark January morning. I have lost 40lbs of fat, renewed an acquaintance with my long-lost abs, and ran a slew of 10k races and sprint triathlons. I will be completing a half-marathon this winter, and an olympic triathlon and a full marathon this summer. I have grown to love my winter mornings--the snow falling quietly on a darkened neighborhood, the crunch of hardpack under your feet, the deer staring at you from the treeline as if you are crazy. I feel so much better than I did a year ago. My physical and mental health are immeasurably better than last January. My morning run is one of the highlights of my day.
I hope that this post proves useful to at least one person, so that they too can meet winter head-on, achieve fitness, and experience some of the joy I feel when I step out into the frozen twilight each morning. If anyone else has additional tips for running in the dark or cold, please feel free to add to this thread.