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.

Note: Running should be safe for everyone, even in extreme weather. However, if you have a heart condition, Raynaud’s diseases, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, be careful. Consult with your doctor and review any special precautions you should take based on your condition or medication before braving the extreme cold or heat.

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.

The Deadly Danger of hypothermia

Hypothermia is an abnormal decrease in body temperature, dropping to dangerous levels. The risks of hypothermia are greater when it’s too cold, windy and/or wet outside.

As a general guideline, expect to encounter hypothermia once your core body temperature dips below 95 degrees F (roughly 35 degrees Celsius).

When this happen, your cardiovascular system, nervous system, and other organs will cease to function properly.

In extreme cases of hypothermia, expert heart trouble, respiratory failure, even death, God forbid. That’s why this condition can be a serious medical emergency.

Prevent It

Cover your Head

To prevent this condition, be sure to cover your head during cold weather running.

Why the head?

Well, it’s because as much as 50 percent of our body heat is lost via the head.

My favorite hat for cold weather running is the Nike Pro Combat Skull Cap. You can get it here for $18.

Know the Warning Signs

In the end, the best course of action when it comes to warding off hypothermia while running outside is to keep a keen eye on your body throughout your workout.

For that, here are a few of the early warning signs of the condition:

  • Slurred speech
  • Intense shivering
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Abnormal fast breathing
  • Loss of focus and coordination
  • An abnormal increase in heart rate
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Confusion and/or poor decision making.

In case you are experiencing a couple or more of these symptoms, you have to seek immediate energy help.

And on the first onset of cold-related health problems, stop running on the spot, head indoor and treat your condition accordingly.

The Frostbite       

One of the serious health problems from running in the extreme cold is the notorious frostbite.

So what is it?

Frostbite occurs when unprotected body surfaces are in direct contact with the cold air, so it freezes as a response.

The fact is, the risk of a frostbite become a real threat within a half an hour when the air temperature reaches -10 degrees, under mild conditions, according to the National Weather service.

Prevent it

Protect the Weak Spots

Some of the most vulnerable areas to frostbites include the toes, fingers, nose, ears, chin, and cheeks. You have to watch out for these.

Protect your Face

Wear extra protection especially if your ears and nose get so cold that they start to ache.

If wearing a hat or ski mask is a bit too much, then wear, at least, then opt for a piece of gear that shields the ears, like a headband or earmuffs.

Some of the best brands include Thermax or Coolmax.

Sunscreen

Be sure lather it up with sunscreen when you’re planning to run outside, regardless of how cold the temperature is.

Although it’s winter, this doesn’t mean that you don’t need any protection from the sun.

Hands and fingers

To protect your hands and fingers from the freezing cold, wear a thin pair of gloves made from moisture wicking materials, such as polypropylene. Check these awesome lightweight gloves on Amazon.

If it’s really, really, cold, then put on a pair of heavier gloves or mittens lined with fleece or wool for extra protection, and then remove the outer pair if needed without exposing your bare skin to the icy air.

I personally preferer mittens because they keep my fingers warm during the winter.

I love the Mizuno Mittens. You can get them for $30 by clicking here.

Get the Right Shoes and Socks

To protect your feet and tootsies against frostbite, opt for running shoes that are either waterproof or lined with a material to ward off the feet your feet from the extra moisture.

Wear dry, moisture wicking socks. The best kind is those with made with acrylic or polypropylene. These do the best job of wicking moisture and keep your footsies dry and happy.

My favorite brands include the Drymax Cold Weather Running Socks (Get it here for $15), and the SmartWool PhD Running Socks (Get it here for $16).

The Early Warning Signs

Also, be wary of frostbite warning signs

Some of the early symptoms of frostbite include numbness, loss of feeling and a stinging sensation in the affected area.

If you suspect you may be developing frostbite, then the first thing to do is to head back inside and get out of the cold immediately.

Next, slowly warm the affected area by wrapping in a warm blanket or running under warm water.

Just whatever you do, DO Not rub the affected area—this will only cause skin damage, and you don’t want that.

If the condition persists, seek medical help.

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:

The First Layer

Make sure the base layer is made of synthetic materials,so you don’t stay wet during your workout as that can make you feel even colder.  Suitable fabrics include lightweight polypropylene or polyester.

I recommend opting for a lightweight base layer shirt with a high neckline. This will not only keep you warm, but also keep out the wind while you’re running.

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)

The Second Layer

A second layer is a must for subfreezing temperatures. It should fit loosely and be of a material that helps insulate and traps heat. This helps transfer moisture from the base layer away from the skin. Think wool or polyester fleece.

Try the Salomon Men’s Trail (($45- Get it Here)

The Third Layer

The final outer layer should be waterproof and wind-resistant, like a shell jacket, to protect you from rain, wind, and snow.

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).

Protect Your Skin

Apply a sweat-resistant sports moisture, preferably Vaseline, on any exposed body parts prone to chapping or chaffing—mainly the hands, lips, cheeks, and nose.

Just keep in mind that Vaseline may not allow your body to sweat efficiently so don’t lather it on your neck or head.

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.

Running In the Rain

Run regularly and you’ll inevitably, no matter where you live, en up running in the rain.

I love running in the rain. I wish there was a way to stay completely dry and comfortable. But there ain’t. Sometimes, you just have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

As for the prep part, here are a few guidelines to help you stay comfortable as long as possible.

Get A Good Outer Layer

As I’ve already explained, it all comes to down to layering. Start with a base layer that’s well fitted, technical, and moisture wicking.

The most important layer, though, is the outer shell—usually the third layer. To stay comfortabe in the rain, you’d need a wind- and water-resistant running jacket that’s also breathable. This can help keep out the rain while also moving the sweat and moisture away from your body.

If the outer layer isn’t breathable, especially if the seams are sealed, sweating and the build-up of moisture will make it wet inside, and that’s the last thing you’d want while braving the rain.

You should also consider getting rain-pants— make sure to get ones with room to layer underneath.

A Hat and Glasses

I hate running with the rain splashing in my eyes, and I bet you’re the same.

A hat with a brim is your other best ally on a rainy day. It’ll help keep the rain out of your face and eyes, allowing you to focus on the road ahead, even in a downpour. You can also add on a light beanie or headband for more warmth on cold, rainy runs in the 30’s or 40’s.

Prevent Chafing

Chafing can occur during any run, but it can be more serious when you’re dripping from the rain.

That’s why I highly recommend that you spread Vaseline or Body Glide on body parts where you’d normally chafe or get blisters. These may include the underarms, sports bra lines (women), nipples (if you’re a man), inner thighs, and feet.

Another measure to cut the risk of chafing is to wear compression shorts underneath your shorts and pants.

Protect Your Electronics 

To prevent the unfortunate malfunction, store your electronics, such as your smartphone and iPod, in a closeable plastic bag or waterproof carrier. You can also wear running clothing that has inside pockets for your devices.

Better yet, leave them at home and enjoy the sounds of rain.

Running in Snow and Ice

Out of all weather conditions, snow and ice are likely the most common reason trainees shy away from training in the winter. To stay safe, apply the following measures.

Protect Your Extremities

When you’re running in the subfreezing temperatures, blood flow tends to stay concentrated on the core, rendering the extremities more prone to the cold. A fleecy headband or a hat will help keep you warm and protect your ears from the ice. That’s why our feet and hands (especially toes and fingers) may get sorely cold or may even become numb in the cold season.

Moreover, wear Gore-Tex socks to protect your feet from the snow and slush and keep them comfortably dry.

Avoid Slipping and Falling

Another danger that comes with running in the cold is slipping and falling on some ice.

In fact, most of running surfaces can be problematic during the winter time.

The fact is, if you have ever slipped and fallen outdoor on water or ice, then you (painfully) know it can lead to serious pain, even severe injury—if you don’t know how to fall with grace.

I’d almost broken my left knee from slipping on ice a couple of years ago. And I’m sure you’ve heard horror stories of broken bones and other serious injuries from “the ice victims.”

This, of course, depends on where you live. Your winter runs might range from slightly bumpy workouts to a war against the slippery surface, rainy roads and paths full of slush and/or snow.

Therefore, if you let outdoor conditions interfere with your runs, you’ll fall short on achieving consistency with your outdoor running training.

That’s why you have to do something about it—if you are serious about standing a chance of keeping your training going strong in in the winter—without any visits to the emergency room of course.

Prevent It

Pay Attention to where you run

The best advice I can give you here to be aware and attentive to the kind of terrain you are running on.

Do the bulk of your running where snow cover is minimal, and steer clear of slippery surfaces.

And please, be super careful on downhill sections.

Run on Good Routes

Make sure to run on well populated, well-lit streets that get significant foot traffic. In most cities, these will be usually often scraped, cleared and salted.

For the most part, if possible, stick to jogging path, and avoid sidewalk or street road that have not been cleared.

Also, for more safety stick to running routes that are close to home in case things turn south.

Get a Pair of Winter Running Shoes

Consider getting a pair of winter waterproof running shoes with plenty of traction and ankle support. These will provide you with better traction (reducing the risks of slipping) on the snow and keep your footsies warm and happy (no more numb toes) during the chaotic winter season.

Some of the best winter running shoes in the market right now include the Brooks Adrenaline ASR 12 GTX (Get it here for $120), and the Nike Air Zoom Structure 19 Flash (Get it here for $120)

Use Anti-slip Grips

To prevent falling and slipping, you might consider wearing running shoes with grips on the bottom for better traction and control while running on slippery surfaces.

You might also consider adding anti-slip (even chains) to the soles of your shoes.

According to my own experience, Yaktrax is a great option. You can find these in most good running stores. Or just purchase them from this link for $30 on Amazon.

Your choice.

They are cheap and can be real neck saver—no pun intended.

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.

When To Avoid Cold Weather Running?

I might sound like a true cold weather running evangelist, but that does not mean that running in the cold is for everyone.

There are instances when it’s better to err on the side of caution. As you already know, prevention is better than cure.

Safety, after all, is what is it all about. You shouldn’t be running if the activity is putting your health, or life, in danger.

If you got any serious health conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases, asthma, exercise-induced bronchitis, Raynaud’s diseases (a condition that hinders blood flow to certain areas of the body).

So what gives?

Well, the solution is quite simple: Take your runs indoors.

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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

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