Winter is the Worst – Surviving SAD

It’s under debate (mostly because there is no hard science in this area), but people say that anywhere from January 17th to January 27th is the most depressing day of the year. This is largely based on Northern Hemisphere’s suicide rates and other data associated with depression. You probably agree if you’ve ever felt that sinking slipping away of November, the rock bottom of January… and don’t get me started about the frustration of March – when it’s supposed to be SPRING already, goddammit!


Me hating winter.


Having grown up in Richmond, VA, and after spending extended periods (and winters) in northern Germany, Cleveland, and Vienna, I eventually drew a correlation. My longest, hardest periods of depression always coincided with darkness. It wasn’t as much the cold as it was the darkness, but the cold (and wind) certainly did not help either.

I’ve always been intrigued by what it is about winter that makes me so tired and sad and lethargic. How it works, why it’s so bad, and when to expect the sadness to arrive and then leave me alone. Of course, this is because I want to believe that if I know the how, why, and when, then I’ll magically be equipped with the tools and know-how to put it in a box and lock it away somewhere where it can’t hurt me anymore. Unfortunately, that’s not how these things work.

My first road Half Marathon where I ran 1:25:31 on January 18, 2009.

My first road Half Marathon where I ran 1:25:31 on January 18, 2009.

However, once I took that very important step of recognizing the pattern and acknowledging the problem, by age 23 I had developed an arsenal of tools for how to stave off some of my symptoms.

  • SLEEP! Our bodies are demanding it, so put down the coffee and go to bed early. I chose this topic for my guest post on Tina Muir’s blog last summer, but I find it even more difficult to restrict my caffeine intake in the winter. If you’re like I was and can’t imagine parting with that hot morning beverage, maybe you can try replacing it with Cocoa Elite (for 10% off, use code Esther-0001).

  • Dawn simulators do amazing things. It turns out I’m just plain bad at transitions. I don’t do well going from cold to hot, asleep to awake, summer to winter, etc. I got this baby for the first time 7 years ago in Vienna (home of the darkest, most overcast winter I’ve ever survived) and it was a lifesaver, but I’m sure newer models are just as good if not better!

  • Vitamin D is really important. Stay on top of supplementation. It can’t hurt, and you won’t regret it.

  • Electric blankets! They are cheap and amazing. I didn’t have a bathtub in the last few places I’ve lived, so I used this as a replacement, but it turned out to be an even better solution and it saves water. Especially after a long run in the cold, I would turn it on full blast and wrap myself up in it until I’d sweat.

  • Deep breaths. Yoga and meditation do amazing things to break down elevated stress levels, regardless of the cause. Plus, especially ashtanga and vinyasa classes will get you nice and hot from the inside out, too.

  • And while we’re talking about classes – I recommend starting something new! I started taking ballet classes for the first time in over 15 years this fall. Part of the problem with winter is the monotony of it, so put yourself out there. Sign up for dance or art or dog agility. You’ll be glad you did. Plus, it’s a great way to get yourself out of the house on cold evenings and be around other people.

  • Natural light is your best friend. Open the blinds and stay near a window whenever you can. Even having lunch out in your car on a sunny day is better than sitting inside a room surrounded by walls.

  • Invest in a big fat winter coat. There are almost always some fun and affordable options at any second-hand store. Forget about fashion. The most important thing is that it is super warm. My lifesaver during college in Cleveland was a bright yellow boy’s youth large ski jacket from Old Navy. I remember lying in bed, dreading leaving the house, and then I’d remember “Big Yellow,” and I’d pop right out of bed.

  • Temptation bundling – if you have a hard time getting yourself to go out in the cold for a run or you HATE running on the treadmill but it’s your only option, I highly recommend this technique. The way I use it is I have podcasts that I love, but won’t let myself listen to unless I’m running or working out. My personal favorites are TED Radio Hour, RadioLab, This American Life, Freakonomics, Planet Money, Invisibilia, and Serial (all of which can also be found for free in your iTunes store). If you’re looking for one to get you hooked (and haven’t heard it yet), try the first season of Serial. That’ll get you out running in the dark, wind and snow or on the hot treadmill at the gym. Or… if you have other crazy busy runner friends who you never get to see, just set up regular running dates with them and most importantly, never cancel.

  • Get out! My sister has started planning a fun trip for herself every year during the month of February. She always makes her plans in the fall, before winter even has a chance to start settling in. Even if going somewhere warmer or sunnier isn’t an option, just having something exciting to look forward to will break up the monotony and keep you going. And then, when you get back, it’s just a few more weeks until spring, and it’ll be getting lighter and warmer from there on out.

  • I hate to admit it, but as a last resort, I have also used a tanning bed up to 3 times per winter, and it works. This is something I’ll only do if I can feel that the darkness and cold have already caught up with me, and it’s one way to feel warm and alive and awake again. It has nothing to do with looking tan and everything to do with the intensity of light and warmth all around me in that tanning bed.

  • And one more thing… that liquor jacket doesn’t do anything to keep us warm or protect us from the darkness of winter. It ruins sleep quality and the dehydration and hangovers just leave us more isolated and depressed when it’s over. Not to mention the fact that it will be a sure-fire contributor to that layer of fat that most of us put on in the winter.

While I was with ZAP, my Seasonal Affective Disorder was almost a non-issue due to our long winter training camps in Tallahassee and Greenville, SC. And this year, with the Trials in February, I decided not to take any chances and flew south to Tallahassee again. I am super lucky to be able to afford this option both financially (thanks to RRCA, the New York Athletic Club, and Skechers) and scheduling-wise (thanks to Appalachian State University Track and Field for letting me just disappear from the mountains this winter).

But for those of you who don’t have that kind of flexibility, hopefully at least some of the tips above will help you make it through the darkness!


Couldn’t have made it through last winter without my ever-faithful running buddy, Jen Found!


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