Cool Weather Running: Thrive in Winter Training
By Roy Stevenson
The long, hot summer days are behind us and fall leaves and cooler temperatures are signs of the short, cold winter days to come. But just because the weather is changing doesn’t mean you need to stop training outdoors. Just read this refresher on how to run in the cold, and get outside!
Weathering the Cold
Reduce your speed. Don’t be tempted to run at your summer pace in the winter. Unique conditions like snow, ice, wind, low visibility and wearing several layers of clothing will slow you down. Running too fast in cold weather often results in disaster—falling on slippery roads causes abrasions, bruises, broken bones and muscle strains—which can put you out of running for weeks! So settle into your steady winter pace and enjoy it.
Watch the terrain closely. Walk around icy patches and be careful while running downhill and around corners. If you find yourself on slippery terrain, slow down to a shuffle, shorten your stride and run flat-footed for more shoe contact with the ground. Stay relaxed and keep your balance.
Cold Weather Running Myths Debunked
Be wary of myths about cold weather running, especially that running will provide the heat necessary to keep you warm in cold temperatures. Given the combination of low body fat on distance runners, the extreme cold and accumulated sweat in clothing, heat loss often exceeds heat produced during distance running; you can easily get hypothermia if you aren’t dressed accordingly.
Another myth is that lung tissue will freeze in sub-zero temperatures with the rapid breathing of cold air. Research by McFadden (1984) found that cold air poses no danger of damaging our respiratory passages. Even in extreme cold, incoming air warms to 26–32 degrees by the time it reaches the bronchi.
But the downside to exercising in cold air is that during the warming process the humidification of cold air causes water and heat loss from the respiratory tract (mouth, trachea, larynx, bronchi). This moisture and heat loss causes a dry mouth, burning throat, irritation of the respiratory passages and dehydration, which can lead to throat infections. Drink frequently to keep your throat moist and to rehydrate after running.
The Chilling Wind
Always consult the Wind Chill Temperatures Chart (nws.noaa.gov/os/windchill) before going out for your trot. It’s not the actual temperature that causes hypothermia—it’s the combination of temperature and wind speed. Cold wind displaces the insulating warm air that surrounds your body while you run, causing an overall convective heat loss.
Running in a calm 30 degrees can seem quite warm, but running in that same temperature with wind gusting at 20 miles per hour will bring the effective wind chill temperature down to -15 degrees, making it dangerous to run. On cold, windy days run out and back courses: head into the wind on your way out, and return with the wind at your back.
Tips for picking Winter running Clothing
Layer up! Wearing layers traps air between the clothing items, which warms up from your body heat. If you start overheating, increase the airflow to your chest by unzipping your jacket. On the bottom, wear microfiber or polypropylene tights. Polypropylene tights are best when temperatures dip below 40 degrees.
Stay dry. Choose moisture wicking, breathable fabrics, like microfiber or wool, which will keep you drier and warmer than cotton.
Cover your head. You can lose up to 40 percent of your total body heat from your noggin, so on wet, cold or windy days, wear a hat or ski mask made from microfiber or wool.
Protect your digits. Keep your fingers toasty with microfiber or wool gloves or mittens. Mittens are better than gloves because they keep your fingers together, so their combined heat keeps your hands warmer. Choose wool or polypropylene socks for your feet.
Stand out from your surroundings. Wear dark clothing to contrast against snow in the daytime and light-colored, reflective clothing at night. Use a large runner’s reflective vest when running at night, dawn or dusk. Improve your safety by wearing a headlamp or reflective leg bands, armbands, safety lights and an illuminated hat. Caution: Even with reflective gear, drivers may not see you in foggy or rainy conditions. Stay aware.
Cold conditions shouldn’t stop you from training outside; you just need to plan accordingly. But if there’s a blizzard, or the temperature dips below zero, keep yourself safe. Take the day off from outdoor exercise and continue training indoors on a treadmill or track.
References: McFadden E. 1984. Respiratory heat and water exchange: physiological and clinical implications. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 54:331
Get Your Run On!
Stay warm and visible with our winter running gear picks.
Brooks Utopia Thermal Pant
If you shy away from the tightness of tights, you’ll love these fitted, but not too fitted, pants. The thermal fabric is light with reflective details and ankle zippers for comfort. For men and women. $85 brooksrunning.com
Icebreaker Pace Legging
Made from pure Merino wool with a bit of Lycra for stretch, these leggings are ideal for cold weather running on their own, or underneath your favorite pants. Wool is naturally breathable, lightweight and stink-free so you’ll feel fresh and not weighed down. They double as a great baselayer under ski gear. $90 icebreaker.com
Moving Comfort No Chill Hoodie
Warm up on cold runs in this flattering zip-up hoodie. Features zip hand warmer pockets, thumb loops and cute gathers at the back waist. For women only! $95 movingcomfort.com
Brooks NightLife Infiniti 1/2 Zip
Be safe on dark runs with Brooks’ signature NightLife collection. The bright colors and reflective details promote safety while the Vapor-Dry Plus fabric transfers moisture to keep you dry. Wear it as a mid layer or alone, dependent on how low the temperature gets. For men and women. $75 brooksrunning.com
Brooks Infiniti Beanie
Stay warm and be seen on cold, dark days with this quick-wicking beanie. Also available in not-so-bright colors for daytime use. Bonus: The women’s version has a ponytail exit to keep hair out of your face. For men and women. $24 brooksrunning.com
Brooks Vapor-Dry2 Gloves
Yes, these gloves keep your fingers from going numb, but their coolest features are the MP3 thumb pad and flip-back thumb for easy iPod navigation as you run. Little magnets hold the gloves together for storage to prevent missing glove searches. $28 brooksrunning.com
CEP Running O2 Sportsocks
Though not specifically designed for cold weather running, CEP compression socks are an ideal training companion year round. They help you run with less effort, increased speed and decreased recovery time. They’re scientifically proven to increase blood circulation and help you metabolize lactic acid more rapidly so you can train again sooner. Plus, the socks are padded to prevent blisters and are anatomically shaped for a perfect fit. $59.90 cepsocks.com