Running Guide: Winter

15 min read

Running outdoors in the winter season can be intimidating and downright painful. But with proper preparation and gear, embracing the cold could be your key to emerging even stronger in the spring…or as they say, summer bodies are made in the winter.

This guide compiles best practices that I have picked up in over 5 years of training in frigid New England conditions broken down into three sections:

  1. pre-run preparation
  2. run considerations
  3. post-run tips

🚨Note: always use your best judgment when deciding to run in cold temperatures, slick roads, or winter elements. You should always feel in in control when tackling the conditions, not the other way around!

Cold Weather Run

1. Pre-run Preparation

Before you head out, you want to be wearing the right gear to stay warm without sweating so much you get a chill. The rule of thumb is to dress as if it is 10ºF warmer than the real feel temperature. Here is a breakdown of gear that you can add to your wardrobe before you head out (note: it’s all about the right layers!):

Foundation Body Layers

  • Wicking Base Layer: The layer closest to your body should be a wicking material, such as DryFit, Thinsulate, Thermax, CoolMax, polypropylene, or silk. This will keep the sweat away from your body, keeping you dry and warm inside. It is best to avoid cotton for this layer because once it gets wet, you’ll stay wet.

    I usually do a Under Armor performance shirt like this: Base Layer

  • Insulating Layer: The middle layer (on top of the base) should be an insulating material, such as a long-sleeve fleece. This helps wick moisture away from the skin while keeping in the right amount of body heat contained inside. My go-to are long-sleeve race shirts of the same polypropylene material as the base layer: Insulating Layer
  • Wind- and Water-proof Outer Layer: This outer layer not only protects you against wind and precipitation (rain, sleet, snow), but also allows heat and moisture to release preventing overheating and chilling. It’s a good idea to wear a jacket with a zipper for this layer, so that you can control you temperature by zipping it up and down. I’m a big fan of the Patagonia Storm Racer: Outer Layer
  • Note: Layers of these fabrics can be rolled from the outside-in or easily vented as you heat up.

Lower Body

  • Tights/Running Pants: Your legs generate a lot of heat, so you won’t need as many layers on your lower body. Usually just a pair of tights or running pants made of wicking and warm material should do (not sweatpants or fleece pants). I recommend cold weather running tights lined with fleece!
  • Shoes: Your feet also stay warmer, as long as you keep them moving and dry. Try to avoid puddles, slush, and snow. Consider running shoes with as little mesh as possible, since that’s where the water will seep through to your feet.
  • Socks: Never wear cotton socks (in cold or warm weather) when running. Cotton does not wick away moisture, leaving your feet wet and prone to blisters. For very cold conditions, smart wool makes the best running socks!

Accessories (for below freezing conditions)

  • Thermal hat: A fleece or wool hat is perfect for keeping your head and ears warm. For more TLC for your ears, a ski band does wonders when temps dip below freezing.
  • Neck Warmer or Bandana: A neck warmer can be extremely valuable on a frigid, windy day to protect your neck and face. Pull it up over your mouth to warm the air you breathe in. A simple bandana over their mouth can even do the job.
  • Balaclava: A balaclava (ski mask) is headgear that covers your whole head, exposing only your face or eyes. They’re usually made of fleece or wool and are typically used when the temperature or wind chill is below 10º F.
  • Chapstick/Vaseline: Chapped lips and cracked skin are no fun. Protect your lips with ski balm, Chapstick or Vaseline. You can also apply Vaseline on your nose and cheeks (or anywhere else on your face) to prevent windburn and chapping.
  • Gloves/Mittens: It is important to cover your hands, especially with how painful hypothermic fingers can feel. Inexpensive gloves ($1 or $2 from Walmart) are great when not too cold–they are easy to carry and easy to replace if dropped. On colder days, wear performance gloves that wick away moisture. When it’s extremely cold, mittens are a good choice to layer on top. If cold fingers really get cold try hand warmers- you can buy them at sport or out door stores.
  • Shoe Spikes or Winter Shoes: If you can’t avoid running in the snow, (in New England we can’t!) think about buying trail running shoes. Trail shoes are somewhat water-proof and will give you a little more traction in the snow. Or you can slip spikes right over your running shoes for added traction–here are some recommendations:

    YakTrax: “The Yaktrax RUN is the only traction device anatomically designed to meet the needs of runners braving the winter elements. Run naturally on packed snow and ice with the Yaktrax Run’s combination of removable spikes and steel coils, providing 360° of unbeatable traction. Continue your training during the winter with the same stability you are accustomed to on dry surfaces.”

    Stabilicers Sport: “The Stabilicers are ideal when conditions are at their worst. The cleats’ hard rubber lugs and nine 1/8-inch steel cleats allow for a reliable grip on icy sheets and hard-packed trails.” These change my gait slightly so be conscious of form or any discomfort that may pop up. I put them on a second pair of shoes for the entire winter season and leave them on until Spring!

2. Run Considerations

When you’re all geared up and you’re ready to hit the road, personal safety is most important. After all, turning back and calling a cab is especially difficult when even cars are slipping and sliding on the roads around you!

Don’t forget to warm-up!

  • Before you hit outside, move around indoors to get the blood flowing. Run up and down your stairs, use a jump rope, or do a few jumping jacks. The cold doesn’t feel so cold when you’re warm.
  • Meeting with a group to run-stay in your car until everyone is there and warm up slowly - walk or jog before getting up to “speed” to prevent injury.
  • Cold temperatures restrict blood flow, which can cause muscles to contract and even cramp. In the beginning of a run you may feel stiff and tight. If you try to force the pace, you may damage a muscle. Adjust your pace to allow your body extra time to warm up. Use the first mile or two to warm up below goal pace.

Hydration is always important

  • In the summer you will need more water when you are sweating up a storm. Winter is cold but you still need to hydrate. In cold weather, it’s easy and unsafe to overlook your fluid needs. Even with cold temps, you are still sweating and you need to replenish your fluids.
  • Rule of thumb: drink when thirsty and no more then 8 oz of fluid every 20 minutes or so (note this will be fine tuned as you train further distances but you should carry water for ALL runs over 40 minutes.
  • Ice cold water might be the last thing you want when the temps are low, but just be sure not to skip the water completely.

Respect your limits

  • Shorten your stride and increase stride count when running in snow, ice, sleet, or heavy rain. This ensures secure footing and lowers your chances for fall or injury (especially on black ice). YakTrax or running spikes (listed above) are great ways to add traction to a slick run. Always use your best judgment before you commit to a potentially treacherous road.
  • Know the signs of hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature falls below 95ºF and symptoms can include confusion and uncontrollable shivering. Frostbite sets in when circulation is restricted in the extremities (fingers, toes, ears, and nose) and can cause feelings of numbness and the body turning white or blue. Pay attention to these symptoms while you run and have a Plan B for getting to safety if you decide to cut your run short.
  • Use your best judgement. Examine the temperature, wind chill factor and road conditions. Do not put yourself into a dangerous position for the completion of a long run and always seek alternatives.

    If conditions are really bad, notifying a buddy before you go out on a cold run alone can be critical. The Strava mobile app allows you to ping and live-update a trusted contact through their Beacon feature. Or a simple text message before you head out can do.

3. Post-run Tips

Change out your clothes quickly post-run

  • Core body temperature drops as soon as you stop running. To avoid lingering cases of the chills, change your clothes head-to-toe as soon as possible.

Warm up your body

  • Drink something hot as a reward to yourself! Leaving a thermos of green tea or chicken-broth in your car can do you wonders.

Mix it up…indoor running is always an option!

  • Treadmill running can be bearable with the right music, movie, or what have you. A tip to make it less mentally draining, cover the screen with a towel or shirt. Not seeing each 10th of mile pass will help with the boredom.
  • Look for an indoor track. Many health clubs or colleges have indoor tracks and you can pay for a day pass and run circles all day long. Note: when running on an indoor track the air can be humid, so adjust accordingly for breathing and fluid needs.

Stay safe out there and always use your best judgment. Winter warriors make for strong Spring runners! 💪

Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee

AR developer and designer passionate about advancing education through emerging technologies.

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