The Ultimate Guide to Cold-Weather Running

The Ultimate Guide to Cold-Weather Running

Running in the cold is the ultimate challenge. Sure, it’s not for everyone; some runners prefer to log workouts on the treadmill when the temperature drops, a perfectly understandable choice (says the writer from Southern California). But if you don’t have access to indoor cardio, don’t have access to a treadmill, or are just craving an outdoor run after weeks of winter hibernation, running in the cold is definitely an option. With the right preparation, experts say, cold-weather running may even have some bonus benefits.

“With any training, you don’t always want to do the same thing over and over again,” Alexis Colvin, MD, an orthopedic surgeon from Mount Sinai specializing in sports medicine, tells POPSUGAR. In the winter, it’s easy to get into the habit of running on the treadmill, going to the gym, or opting for indoor workouts – all good options, depending on your goals. “But if you actually want to improve, you need to challenge yourself,” Dr. Colvin says. “One way to do that is to vary the terrain as well as the temperature and the environmental conditions.” And if you’re prepping for a race scheduled for winter or early spring, acclimatizing yourself to running in cold conditions is key.

So what should you know before hitting the frozen streets? POPSUGAR asked experts how to prepare your body, layer up, and assess the conditions so you can stay safe (and maybe even warm) while running in the cold.

How Cold Is Too Cold For Winter Running?

First things first: when is it too cold to run outside? Negative 18ºF with windchill is a good cutoff, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, which warns against exercising below this temperature due to the risk of frostbite. (Negative 18 with windchill comes out to about 0ºF air temperature with a 15 mph wind, according to the National Weather Service.) Every runner is different, though; some people feel uncomfortable and overly chilled in any temperature below freezing. What it comes down to is your training, your gear, and your body’s specific needs.

If you have exercise-induced asthma, for example, cold weather can trigger symptoms due to drier air, Dr. Colvin says. (Think: lungs burning, chest tightness, feeling short of breath.) If you have heart problems, “you may want to try to ease into working out outside, too,” she continued. “Your body has to try to keep your core temperature up, and that’s asking your heart also to work a little harder.” Cold weather is also known to cause body and joint aches, but experts say exercise can actually help ease the pain. Dressing in layers and applying heating pads may also help.

You should also take into account road conditions and precipitation, such as snow and sleet, which could make streets and sidewalks more slippery. Slick surfaces can lead to falls or injuries, so avoid running outdoors if conditions are clearly hazardous. And even if the temperature and conditions look OK, consult the forecast closely up until you leave, since weather can change quickly.

Layering Up For Winter Running

Gearing up properly is essential for any run, but cold-weather running gear is especially important because it helps you stay warm. This can decrease your chances of getting injured by aiding with blood flow and helping you keep up your form (instead of getting stiff and numb due to the cold), USATF-certified running coach Dave Ringwood told POPSUGAR in a previous interview. “Maintaining warmth helps your stride remain smooth and in control, keeping muscle pulls and strains at bay,” he explains.

Roberto Mandje, head of training at New York Road Runners and former Olympic runner, tells POPSUGAR that the following should be considered essential for cold-weather runs: synthetic materials (i.e. no cotton), moisture-wicking and wind-breaking materials (like a running jacket), running tights (reach for a thick or fleece-lined pair), and good running socks. You’ll want to cover up exposed skin on your head and neck with a beanie and a gaiter, and opt for mittens over gloves to help you retain more body heat. It may feel like a lot, but layers are key. You can strip off layers as necessary as you heat up, and if you get chilled again later, it’s easy to slip the extra clothes back on.

As for running shoes, make sure you go with a pair with good grip in case of ice on the pavement. You can also use a tool like Yaktrax cleats, which contain spikes and steel coils you can attach to running shoes to provide traction in snow and ice.

Warm Up Before You Get Cold

A dynamic prerun warmup is always a good idea, but when you’re running in cold weather, it can also help you stay warm when you first hit the road. Ringwood recommends warming up indoors and working up a bit of heat to ease the transition into the cold. You should also start your run at an easy pace to help prevent muscle strains and pulls; if you’re looking to hit a certain speed, ramp up gradually.

Listen to Your Body

Frostbite, hypothermia, and slipping on ice are serious concerns when you’re working out in the cold. If you have doubts about the weather, conditions, or quality of your gear, table your run for a warmer day. If you decide to head out, check in with your body frequently for signs of hypothermia or frostbite. According to the CDC, symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion or drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Lack of hand coordination
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech

Per the CDC, symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Redness or pain on skin
  • Numbness
  • White or grayish-yellow skin
  • Skin that feels unusually firm or waxy

If you’re experiencing any symptoms of hypothermia or frostbite, it’s time to cut your run short and head home. (Note: frostbite often occurs on the face, ears, toes, and fingers, so pay extra attention to these areas and make sure they’re covered in warm, dry clothing.)

Plenty of runners love chilly, wintry runs, and testing your body against the elements can be an invigorating challenge. Just make sure you’re paying attention to your body, keeping an eye on the weather, and wearing the proper gear before you hit the road.

– Additional reporting by Sam Brodsky