This winter we’ve had record cold days where I live in Denver. Of course, cold is relative—there are much more arctic places to live. But that thought doesn’t seem to carry much weight when I’m debating whether or not to be brave and head out for a run in the dark midwinter. It has always taken a bit of boldness to step from comfort out into the cold. But lately my view of that discomfort has been changing—and I think there’s even more power in that boldness than I’d realized.
Plenty of stories list the benefits of exercising outdoors in the cold—they’re numerous: strengthening the heart, burning more calories, absorbing vitamin D, converting “white” fat to more healthy “brown” fat. And there are plenty of ways to make it less uncomfortable—but I’ve realized part of what I value about being out in winter is exactly that discomfort. (Safety is one thing, of course—I wouldn’t advocate anybody risk frostbite or hypothermia.) But I’m finding it’s the very discomfort of winter cold that brings a couple of awesome, if less tangible, benefits.
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For me it comes down to something less easily measured: grit. Ascribing to the “be bold, start cold” mentality as a runner means I dress lightly enough to feel cold at first, so I don’t overheat once my body warms up to its running pace. The first couple of cold days each year, it seems torturous to leave my warm house, and I often overdress early in the season, feeling wimpy about those first few minutes of cold before I warm up. Inevitably I return to the house with a sopping midlayer and soaked running tights, and layer more appropriately the next time, learning to sit with the discomfort, knowing it’s temporary and that I’ll be happy I did it.
I realize you can look at those moments of annoying cold through a number of lenses. You could clench your teeth, growling inwardly and sulking with a negative attitude about the discomfort. Or you can feel the cold, breathe through it and focus on letting it teach you something about mental toughness and resilience. By fully experiencing the voluntary “good stress” of things like being out in the cold, you’re preparing yourself for those stressors you didn’t sign up for. Some people use the word “hardening.” I like the word resilience better myself. But the way I see it, purposefully braving the cold—the way some people take cold showers—is psychological training. A reminder that emotions aren’t always necessarily reality.
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Wim Hof, the Dutch athlete famous for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures, talks about a similar, probably more acute effect from cold showers. He says the cold imposes “a small amount of stress on your body, which leads to a process called hardening. This means that your nervous system gradually gets used to handling moderate levels of stress. The hardening process helps you to keep a cool head, the next time you find yourself in a stressful situation.”
Finnish writer and cold-water swimmer Katja Pantzar goes beyond the idea of simply enduring typically uncomfortable things, like swimming in icy water, to actually finding pleasure in them—finding joy in not taking the easy or comfortable route. In her book Sisu, she explores the joys of building perseverance and grit, whether it’s by playing outside no matter the weather or working through the difficult parts of life with work or family. The way she sees it, the two are connected.
By embracing and truly feeling the cold instead of hiding from it or rejecting it, maybe we’re doing more than building resilience—we’re putting other discomforts into context. Which brings me to the second intangible benefit of going out in the cold: gratitude.
A few miles into a recent snowy, below-freezing run, I had a feeling you might recognize if you’ve been on a similar run. It was a kind of gentle euphoria, a bodily awareness of simply being alive and and an electric thankfulness for the simple ability to run.
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I had just finished a lap around Denver’s City Park, where often people who are experiencing homelessness gather and sometimes camp among the trees. I hadn’t seen anyone that day, but still I was struck by the absurdity of my running out in the cold on purpose while others had no choice in the matter. Alongside the cold-weather runner’s high was a sense of smallness, of humility. An understanding that any time we’re able to choose discomfort, to lean into the cold or the fear by choice, we are living a privileged experience. And that’s something to be deeply grateful for.
Photos by Ember Photo.