Top 10 Time-Tested Tips for Running in Cold Weather
Recently my friend abruptly asked me, “Why do you run?” I didn’t have a good answer. Frankly, I hate running, yet I do it almost every morning. When I considered the question, though, I realized that there’s something rewarding in pushing yourself through something really difficult just because of the end result: you feel great. Your happy chemicals are pulsing. And you’ve worked off that Domino’s or General Tso’s chicken from late night weekend delivery. You’ve accomplished something. And if you use Fitbit or apps like iSmoothRun, you can proudly look back on how many steps or miles you’ve covered and just how fast. Look what I did! You exclaim in your head or out loud if you’re alone in the woods.
If you’re really looking to prove that you’re a real and very bad-ass runner, one of the best ways to do so is to continue running, outside, deep into the winter months. Unfortunately, this can be massively dangerous and uncomfortable. There are risks to keep in mind, and there are dumb and smart ways to plan your workout.
No one likes black, frostbitten fingers hanging on by a thread. No one likes sitting in cold, wet clothes or running hard into the bitter-cold wind. But everyone, after the most punishing type of run ever, could go for a trip to the sauna, a good massage, or a steaming bubble bath with a cup of green tea. More Domino’s pizza. Netflix. It’s important to be running-savvy, but it’s also important to treat yo self.
Here are ten tips on how to run in the cold with minimal pain and discomfort.
Make sure to put on the right gear.
It is really cold and you’d much rather be sipping on hot cocoa with a good book or binge-watching a TV show than running of all things. You may feel tempted to run in full wool or your thickest winter coat. It’s just really hard to take that cold air rushing through whatever thin fabrics you’re used to. But we’ve got some good advice out there. Here’s the word on fabrics:
- Avoid cotton. It retains moisture, keeping you wet and increasing your chances of developing something nasty like hypothermia.
- First layer: Start with a synthetic fabric like polypropylene or capilene. These fabrics are great because they “wick,” or absorb sweat.
- Second layer: If it’s really chilly, consider a middle layer like fleece for insulation.
- Outer layer: On the outside, armor up with something breathable like nylon or Gore-Tex. These fabrics will protect you against the wind and rain, but they’ll simultaneously release heat and moisture so you neither overheat nor catch a chill.
When running, the rule of thumb is to dress as if it’s 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature outside. You’re going to be a little cold when you start, but as long as you warm up well, you’ll adjust.
Be savvy. Wear layers that you can remove if you become too hot. Wear zippered jackets so you can adjust your cold exposure as you go.
This is just scratching the surface, though. There’s a lot to consider when suiting up, and each part of your body needs protecting.
Don’t forget to protect your face and head.
There’s nothing like an early morning or late night run to get you going or exhausted and ready for bed. In the winter months, though, there are more risks than you’d probably imagine with this routine. Luckily, time and mistakes have taught runners and doctors a lot. In short, make sure your entire head and face are covered well. Then you’ll be good to go.
Once again, sweat-wicking fabrics are your friend. Wear a hat, and, if it’s really cold, a face mask or scarf to cover your entire face and neck. Have you ever seen someone who thinks they’re bad ass coming in from a long run in the cold without much clothing or coverage at all? You might notice frostnip, essentially pre-frostbite, on their cheeks, nose, and ears. Their skin looks shiny and red before it begins to lose its color and become numb. Frostnip doesn’t cause permanent damage on its own, but it’s a bad sign that you’re on the way. Avoid frostnip easily—cover yourself up. Be good to your body! It’s working hard for you.
Beyond fabrics, you can use a sweat-proof moisturizer on your face and extremities as well as lip balm or petroleum jelly for as much protection from the cold as possible.
Besides frostbite, you want to avoid excess wear on your respiratory system. Ski masks are great for covering the mouth and reducing that icy throat you can get from breathing in freezing cold air.
Protect your hands and feet.
Maybe you’ve heard that you lose 45% of your body heat, or a large amount, from your head. This has been debunked—
The head is not an ideal radiator, even though it has many blood vessels close to its surface, since its skin blood flow does not vary significantly when one is either resting comfortably or dramatically cooled. Even when someone has a dangerously high temperature, head skin blood flow increases much less than that of the hands and feet for the same heating stimulus.
In other words, temperature control is going to change a lot more with the hands and feet than the head. Gloves and socks are even more important than hats and scarves, to some extent.
There are some easy fixes for keeping your hands and feet warm. On somewhat cold days, opt for running gloves (they can be really fashionable). If it’s getting really cold, trap in more heat with mittens. Ever heard of HotHands? They’re pretty much a miracle for those of us that struggle with temperature regulation in cold rooms or outside in the bitter cold. HotHands and other disposable hand warmers keep your fingers toasty for up to ten hours! HotHands have iron and activated carbon and water inside them. Once this mixture has contact with oxygen, the ingredients oxidize and heat up. Pretty cool, right?
When it comes to your feet, go for polar fleece or wool socks with wicking sock liners as well to soak up that sweat. SmartWool’s really popular, and equally fashionable.
Be aware of risks and dangers.
We’ve mentioned hypothermia a bit, but do you really know how much of a risk it is? Hypothermia is basically when you get way too cold and your body temperature drops below 95 degrees. Once you’ve got hypothermia, it’s hard to get out of, because two of the symptoms are confusion and fatigue. Another is, unsurprisingly, dramatic and uncontrollable shivering. You can begin to lose your coordination—start tripping over yourself or feeling wobbly—and if you attempt to speak, chances are you’ll be slurring like a drunk.
And then there’s hypothermia’s evil sister, frostbite. Frostbite typically strikes the extremities—fingers, toes, nose, ears—which become numb and can turn white or even blue (ugh).
Hypothermia can come from getting too hot, too—if you’re sweating excessively, eventually that sweat’s going to cool and you’re at risk of developing hypothermia. Make sure you’re waterproof when rain and snow are factors.
What do you do when you get hypothermia or frostbite? Get thee to the emergency room ASAP.
Let’s hope you don’t take that route, though. Mayo Clinic, as always, has the best and most concise health advice. There are four key words: cover, overexertion, layers, and dry. Cover: cover up. Overexertion: don’t push yourself too hard. Sweat is not your friend in the wintertime. Layers: think the three L’s: loose-fit, layered, and lightweight. Ditch cotton and go for wool, silk, polypropylene, or capilene. Lastly, dry: stay dry. Don’t get all show-offy and run in the pouring rain or through a blizzard. It’s not worth losing your fingers and toes, is it?!
Plan your route according to the weather.
There’s nothing like logging on to MapMyRun and in-depth planning an awesome route. In the winter, though, why not just keep it simple? Take a loop rather than a figure eight. Worry less about making the run difficult and more about keeping it efficient. There are a few really easy ways to adjust your running routine for your safety and ease. For one, suck it up and quit running at night. If something bad happens, say you slip on ice and get a concussion (all too common an occurrence), how long will it take for someone to stumble upon you? And how easy will it be to slip on that patch of unforeseen ice in the first place? It’s just not worth it.
Keep it short. Let the wintertime be one of the few times when you let yourself take it a little easier. Give yourself a break. Your body will thank you for it.
If you’re really smart, you’ll run against the wind at the beginning of your route and run with it at the end. This is because once you’re sweaty at the end of your run, wind is going to increase the stress and cold exposure on your body. And you remember what #7 has to say about the risks involved with too much exposure to the cold.
If you’ve played any sports or spent any time at the gym, you know how fanatical people can get for warm-ups and dynamic stretching. This is for good reason. You need for your muscles and joints to be ready to go when you get started, especially when the cold is an issue. One way to adjust your warm-up to the weather is to warm up inside. Do some jumping jacks. Run up and down the stairs. Turn on a Youtube workout video. Do whatever you need to do to get your heart pumping and your blood circulating. Warming up also wakes up the central nervous system and gets you much more flexible than sitting in that office desk all day.
Here’s what happens if you don’t warm up: Cold temps restrict blood flow. Your muscles contract and, if you haven’t had enough water beforehand, they can cramp pretty badly. You’re stiff and tight and miserable, and no matter how good your workout playlist is, you can’t keep going at your normal pace. You fall behind. You walk and get even colder. You could straight-up damage your muscles and joints. And then you’re out for the whole season. But luckily, you’re much smarter than that. You don’t make rookie mistakes.
A warm-up is always important, but it’s especially important when you’re about to go into the cold, unforgiving, winter air.
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why am I so cold all the time?” If you’re like me and keep the thermostat at 74 degrees in the winter, you have. Maybe you’ve got a thyroid disorder, need to bulk up, or need to fatten up a little bit. But another common reason for feeling cold when you shouldn’t is dehydration. And dehydration is going to really hurt you when you’re running in the winter.
Because winter tends to be so cold and dry, sometimes we forget to liven ourselves up and rehydrate. The cold often just makes you feel less thirsty. “And I’m not sweating,” you think, “so I don’t have to worry about dehydration.” But you do. Here’s why:
If you’re adequately hydrated, water will trap heat and release it slowly, keeping your body temperature in a comfortable zone. With less water, your body is more sensitive to extreme temperatures.
It goes beyond this, though. Water helps out your metabolism and increases your overall body heat. One of the simplest ways to run well in the winter is to drink well. Grab that Gatorade or water and guzzle down around 8 glasses a day. Even more after your workout. Happy running!
Take care of yourself.
This is a piece of advice we should follow daily, but it’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Lucky for us, it’s pretty straightforward when it comes to running.
When you’re finished, get yourself inside as soon as possible. Don’t sit around in your wet clothes like some doofus. Take them off. Leave the bleachers for the bathroom. If you’re at a race, pack a bag or have your family or friends hold onto some dry clothes for you. Change into them as soon as you’ve crossed the finish line. Have your significant other waiting in the car all warm and toasty.
Think of all the delicious clothes you could change into: dry socks, fleece-lined leggings or sweatpants, long sleeves, a sweater, a sweatshirt, a jacket, a coat, a wool coat, gloves, scarves, hats galore. You are going to feel so good when you finish up and this is what follows. And you’re not going to get pesky frostnip or frostbite or hypothermia.
There are other ways to warm yourself up after a tough run. Pack a thermos of soup or hot tea. Pile the blankets on. Cuddle with the dog or your significant other. Cuddling releases oxytocin, the happy, connect-with-others hormone. It relieves those pains in your calves and thighs faster. Do whatever you can to get your body temperature back up and to avoid the chills.
Have a running buddy.
Sometimes it’s really nice to just run by yourself. You launch into that flowing meditative state or you get to rap out loud to your favorite song with no embarrassment whatsoever. But when it comes to cold weather running, find a friend and link up your workout times. Why?
There are so many reasons. For one, you two can keep each other in check. If you’re cramping really badly, who’s going to help you limp home? If you somehow fall into a terrible case of hypothermia, who’s going to call the emergency room and get an ambulance on the way? If you slip on a patch of ice and break your tailbone, who’s going to ease you back home and onto a cushion? There are just too many accidents and risks at stake when it comes to running alone in the winter.
Regardless of the weather, there are a lot of benefits that come from running with a friend or in a group. You keep each other accountable. Feel too lazy to warm up? Your friend is going to remind you of how important it is to. Feel like running in the rain? Your friend is going to have the common sense, hopefully, to tell you to stay in for the day. And you’re going to get faster together.
So maybe this isn’t the most scientific or well-researched tip. But it is, truly, the most important one you can walk or run away with today (besides, perhaps, how to avoid hypothermia).
Spoil yourself, for heaven sakes. With running and working out, we’re so often focused on the carrot hovering in front of us that we forget that what we’re doing is for our health and wellbeing, not just for achieving the next step among infinite steps towards forever-elusive perfection. If you’re an excessively hardworking person who runs in the winter (“Why do I do this?” I keep asking myself), chances are you’re not so good at spoiling yourself, or you tend to forget to.
It’s called self-love. Self-compassion. And you need some of it, especially after a really demanding workout in the horrible cold. You survived. Here are some ways to spoil yourself post winter workout:
- Go to the sauna. The health benefits are pretty much endless.
- Collapse in front of Netflix well past the “Are you still watching?” pop-up
- Splurge on a spa day.
- Change back into your pajamas. Sleep. Is there anything better than cuddling under a huge pile of blankets and bathing in your own warmth after running against the wind for thirty minutes?
- Find someone to give you a massage. This is also really good for you after a workout.
- Go shopping. You’re going to need a lot of special clothes if you’re running in the cold.
- Warm bubble bath. Enough said.
- Think of what makes you happiest. And do it.
- Replenish your body. You’ve just burned a lot of calories.
There are a lot of ways to run the right way, and this is especially true when it comes to cold weather racing. Running in the cold is already hardcore, so don’t punish yourself any further. Be smart.
Cover up. Cover your face, cover your ears, cover your nose, oh my! Heck, get some goggles. Cold is harsh on the eyes, too. Vaseline it up to protect your sensitive skin against drying out. Cover your feet and hands. This is where you’re going to be losing a lot of heat.
Although hopefully you’ll never have to deal with it, who knows—be aware of what frostnip, frostbite, and hypothermia look and feel like. You might think you’re really cool for running until your body burns and goes numb, but you’re not. You’re really hurting yourself. If you take the easy advice of dressing well, though, this shouldn’t be a problem for you at all.
Warm up well. Make sure you’re ready when you get going, because it’s going to be a tough run. Don’t push yourself too hard. Know your limits—we all have them, and for good reason: to avoid injury. Prep. Make sure you’re hydrated. This is important regardless of the weather, but if you’ve got a body full of water, you’ve also got a hot metabolism pumping away.
Bring a friend. It’s a lot more fun, and it’s also a lot safer.
Also, lastly, please find a way to spoil yourself. You’ve earned it. You deserve it. Soak up that bath and pass out in that bed. Cheers!