13 Rules for Running in Cold Weather

Hey runners! We’re in November, and for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, the weather’s turning cooler, and we are entering the coldest time of the year. As the Starks in the HBO series Game of Thrones say, “WINTER is coming.”

Being an “all-season” runner myself, I figure that this is a great opportunity to talk about cold weather running, and what it takes to pull it off unscathed.

Benefits of Winter Running

I know. I know. Winter can suck —especially for us runners. Still, that’s no excuse to retire your sneakers.  Based on my own experience and research, continuing to run through the cold months has a lot to offer.

Some benefits include:

Running in the cold boosts energy. According to research published in Environmental Science & Technology, braving winter’s cold temperatures helps you increase energy and relieve depression.

Winter running helps to prevent SAD. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a common condition brought on by winter’s darker and shorter days. Studies have shown that regular exposure to natural light is key to fighting off this condition.

Running in the cold burns more calories. According to a study published in Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise, running during winter burns off more calories than training in warmer conditions does. This is because heating your body to counter the cold increases energy expenditure.

Running in the cold counters winter weather weight gain. Studies show that the average person gains between one and five pounds during the winter season. This gain is mostly blamed on lack of physical exercise. Guess what burns mad calories? Running.

Running helps you stay in shape. Keeping your runs consistent can help you stay in better shape so when bathing suit season rolls around you’ll have nothing to hide.

How to Run in Cold Weather

Instead of packing your running kit away for the next few months, here’s what you need to do to keep your training going strong throughout the winter.

Important Note. I believe that almost everyone can run safely during the winter, but if you have a medical condition like heart problems, asthma or other ailments, I urge you to consult your physician before you brave the cold.

1. Check the Weather

Keep tabs on wind speed, temperature, and moisture, as well as the planned duration of your run. Doing so will save you a lot of discomforts and make sure that you’re properly equipped and outfitted.

As a result, make sure to check the forecast for the time you will be outside.

If the temperature and/or the wind chill are just too extreme, hop on a nearby treadmill, or go for another type of indoor training.

2. Know the Warning Signs, and Pay Attention to Them

Running in the cold can expose you to two major health threats: frostbite and hypothermia.

Frostbite

Frostbite is a cold-induced injury that can occur when the skin temperature dips below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Frostbite-prone areas include the nose, ears, and cheeks, as well as the feet and hands.

The good news is that frostbite doesn’t strike from out of the blue. It comes with a slew of warning signs, including a tingling sensation, aching, burning, redness, and numbness.

That means that if any of these symptoms arise and you suspect frostbite, you need to get out of the cold quickly, warm the affected area and possibly seek medical attention. Don’t rub the area, as doing so can damage your skin. Also, if you’re just experiencing cold, don’t run your cold body part under hot water – it will itch like crazy!

To reduce the risk of frostbite,  cover all exposed areas before you go out, including your face, with Vaseline or other moisturizing products.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia is abnormally low body temperature. The condition happens when the body loses more heat than it produces, especially when core body temperature dips below 94 degrees F.

Just like frostbite, hypothermia has its red flags. These include slurred speech, numbness, shivering, confusion, fatigue and loss of coordination.

At the earliest hint of trouble, get indoors ASAP. Get out of your cold, wet clothes and get into a warm bath – again, not hot.

Still not feeling better? Seek medical attention.

3. Dress in Layers (no Bulking Allowed)

My first winter running experience was a complete disaster. It wasn’t because it was too cold, but because I simply didn’t know to dress for it properly.

Here’s what I learned: Leave the thick, bulky garments at home. Even if it’s really cold outside, sooner or later running generates a considerable amount of heat, and you’re going to work up a sweat.

Instead of wearing multiple T-shirts and heavy layers, go for running-specific clothing made of lightweight, moisture-wicking, synthetic fabrics. These will keep your body warm and dry. Good options include polyester, nylon, and polypropylene.

As a general rule, steer clear of cotton. It soaks up rain and sweat and holds in fluid, which is baaaad!

I usually stick with the same tried and true brands that I wear during the summer.  My favorites include Asics, Nike’s Dri Fit, and Brooks.

4. Dress Right

A rule I learned from a friend—and one that works like a charm—is to dress for 20 degrees F warmer than whatever the temperature outside is at the time of my workout. You’re doing it right when you feel slightly cool when heading out the door.

By following this simple rule, you’d stay warm without sweating too much—especially as you start picking up the pace.

Here are the three basic steps of safe winter running clothing:

First, put on a thin layer of synthetic material to soak up excess sweat. I love the Nike Men’s Long Sleeve Legend DriFi, which has a classic design and is made of polyester fabric. ($28 – Get it Here)

Depending on the temperature and your personal preference, you can add another layer of wool or fleece for insulation and extra warmth. Try the Salomon Men’s Trail (($45- Get it Here)

If it’s really cold, windy or raining, put on a breathable waterproof outer layer to protect you from rain, snow, and wind. One example is the ASICS Lite-Show Winter Running Jacket ($90 – Get it Here).

Here’s the full guide to Winter Dressing Code.

5. Don’t Forget your Extremities

To keep warm in the cold, pay special attention to your extremities. When it’s freezing, blood flow is rushed to the core, leaving extremities such as your feet, hands, and head defenseless against the elements.

Cover your face with a light breathable mask, especially if you’re prone to frostbite and coughing. I usually use a balaclava, which is a knit mask that covers the whole head and has holes for the eyes and nose ($15- Get it Here).

Wear gloves to protect your hands. I usually put on a thin pair made from a wicking material such as polypropylene, and then wear an additional outer pair that are heavier.

For more protection, rub protective moisturizing cream on your ears, cheeks, and other vulnerable areas.

For your feet, wear socks that wick away wetness while keeping your feet warm. My favorites are the SmartWool socks ($20- Get a pair Here).

6. Warm Up Indoors First

When you kick things off with an indoor warm-up, you ensure that your body is warmed up before you hit the frigid air outside.

Doing so also ensures good performance since warming up is the backbone of efficient and injury-free training.

To try this, perform a dynamic warm-up routine to get your blood flowing and to gradually increase your heart rate and body temperature before you set off.

Good options include walking lunges, inchworms and leg swings.

Luckily for you, I’ve already shared my favorite indoor dynamic warm-up routine. You can find it here.

To err on the side of caution, complete the warm-up without breaking a sweat, as if you built up a sweat inside, it can freeze when you go outdoors. Don’t sweat it yet!

7. Adjust your Run (and Workout)

As a runner, it’s key that a cold, snowy day remain a nuisance and don’t result in a month-long layoff for an injury from slipping and falling.

The solution?

Sometimes fighting the cold head-on is a losing battle. Don’t be stubborn. Instead, change your workout approach. Either move your run to a different day or work out indoors.

Here are few options to consider:

If you’re an early morning runner, try switching your run time to the afternoon when the sun is out, and the temperature outside is at its warmest. By then, a running path is more likely to have been plowed.

You can also try something different. Hop on a treadmill or join a spinning class. Use the elliptical machine, or join a kickboxing, CrossFit, or indoor swimming class.

You can also invest in some home workout equipment and workout DVDs. I love the P90X program and other workout systems by Beachbody. Their workout DVDs have definitely helped me stay fit and strong during many a winter.

Here are few of my favorite in-home workout products:

The P90X 3 Workout System: This is an advanced workout system by Tony Horton. Take on this challenging workout program if you’re already in good shape (Get it here).

The Insanity DVD workout program: I also love Shaun T workout DVDs, and I think that Insanity Volume 1 is ideal. I completed my first challenge four years ago, and this program is still one of my favorites (Get it here).

The Insanity MAX:30: This is an ideal plan when you’re running low on time, as most of the sessions are short. But be careful! MAX:30 is quite intense and will push you to the max (Get it here).

8. Stay Hydrated

Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean that proper hydration is trivial. Au contraire, my friend. Drinking plenty of water throughout the cold months is just as important as during the summer (and the rest of the year).

The cold season tends to be drier, so as a runner you might not pay much attention to your sweat rate, but even if you feel less thirsty during the cold months, your body is still losing fluid in droves.

The solution? Drink plenty of water before and after your runs, even if you’re not thirsty. As a general rule, drink half your weight in ounces each day. For example, if you weigh 180 pounds,  shoot for at least 90 ounces of water a day.

Also, when training for more than 60 minutes, make sure you’re drinking on the run. Take a water bottle with you, or plan your route around places where you can find water such as a convenience store.

It’s also important to limit your intake of alcohol and caffeinated drinks three to four hours before a run. Both act as diuretics, and can cause your body to lose water and salt at a faster rate.

9. Stay Safe

I like to think of winter running as an adventure, but that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse to skimp on safety. I’ve learned the hard way that few things are worse than getting lost or injured in the middle of a snowy cold run.

Follow these safety precautions measures:

  • Pick a familiar, well-lit loop that’s fairly short, especially when you’re running solo.
  • Keep your runs close to home in case things take a turn for the worse, so home base isn’t too far away for you to return to quickly and easily.
  • Wear light-colored, reflective clothing. This can help you be seen more easily by oncoming drivers, bikers, and other people.
  • For better visibility, don some flashing lights or wear a lightweight headlamp.  I know it looks dorky, but it can be a real lifesaver — especially when training in the early morning, later in the evening, or in other poor visibility conditions.
  • Carry a cell phone and some cash so that in case of an emergency you can make an important call or have enough cash to catch a cab.
  • Carry your identification and emergency contact list.
  • Run against traffic, as doing so helps you see and avoid oncoming cars more easily.

10. Avoid Falling

Not only is slipping embarrassing, but it can also lead to serious injury that can derail your running for days, weeks, and even months.

To prevent slipping and falling, steer clear of areas where ice and puddles are present. Do the bulk of your running on paved, well-lit, dry surfaces.

If you must run on snow and icy roads, get yourself a pair of YakTrax. These are amazing and inexpensive rubber soles that attach to the bottom of your shoes.  They will slow you down a bit, but they’ll give you the traction and grip you need on ice or snow, helping you run safely.

11. Buddy Up

I usually prefer to run alone, but during the winter I try to schedule at least a couple of runs a week with a buddy or a local running group.

This works for many reasons. First, it increases accountability. You can’t wimp out of a run when your running buddy is counting on you to show up.

There’s also safety in numbers, and that’s vital when running in harsh weather conditions or the early morning. It’s always better to err on the side of caution.

12. Stay Warm in the Wind

Whenever possible, run the first part of your run into the wind, then turn around and return with the wind at your back. Your body temperature will increase when the wind is at your back, and your run will feel easier too.

Running with the wind at your back will also help to reduce the effect of wind chill during the second half of your run.

To understand how wind chill works, here’s an example: running at eight mph into a 20 mph headwind generates a wind chill force of 28 mph. Alternatively, running eight mph with a 20 mph wind at your back cuts the wind chill to 12 mph, which is always a good thing.

Conclusion

As we Game of Thrones fans know all too well, “The Starks are always right in the end.”

Now it’s your turn. Do you have any favorite cold weathing running tips you’d like to share with us?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

In the meantime thank you for reading my post.

Keep Running Strong

David D.

Featured Image Credit – Rolfe Markham via Flickr

Note:This post contains affiliate links. For more check my privacy policy.

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