Even if you aren’t a runner, winter is notorious for presenting a unique set of challenges: freezing temperatures, snow, ice and sleet.
So why on earth would you leave your warm bed to run in those conditions?!
The simplest answer is that running in winter will make you a better runner. If you stay disciplined and continue to run regularly despite the conditions, you’ll likely become stronger and faster by spring.
And, the good news is, if you’re prepared to handle those conditions, winter running can be pretty enjoyable!
The mental challenge of winter running is obvious. Even if you enjoy running in colder temperatures, the shortened daylight hours and winter storms can take their toll on your motivation and psyche. But there are also several reasons why running in winter is more physically challenging, too:
1. Your muscles work less efficiently in colder temperatures.
2. Your body produces more lactate in the cold, which can slow your tempo pace as well as all other race paces.
3. Cold, dry air can make breathing more difficult, especially for those who suffer from asthma.
While you’re never going to race as efficiently in 10° weather as you would in 50° weather, dressing appropriately for the conditions will help you prepare for these difficulties. And the physical and mental strength you’ll gain from running outside in frigid conditions will benefit you year-round.
The first rule of dressing for winter weather is to layer appropriately. Individuals can vary tremendously in their sensitivity to cold, so you may have to experiment a bit to see what works best for you. But it’s just as important not to overdress as it is not to underdress.
Wearing too many heavy layers or clothing that doesn’t breathe well can make you sweat excessively, which can leave you chilled. Dress as if the weather were about 15–20° warmer than the actual temperature, as this takes into consideration the body heat you’ll generate once you start running. Here are your layering essentials:
1. Base layer: This is where your technical fabrics are most essential. For women, a quality, moisture-wicking sports bra is an absolute necessity. A fitted, wicking shirt (like Under Armour ColdGear) is ideal as a base layer since you can easily add layers on top.
2. Second/middle layer: This layer may or may not be necessary, depending on how cold it is outside. You can use a heavier, less fitted running shirt or even a fleece if the weather is in the single digits or below.
3. Jacket/outer layer: This layer may also vary depending on the conditions. A windproof jacket is essential, and special features like zippers in the armpits or removable sleeves make it easier to adjust as you warm up on your run. Single digit wind chills or subzero conditions may require a heavier outer layer, as opposed to a thinner shell.
4. Bottom layers: Tights will be your legs’ first line of defense in colder weather. Heavier, lined or windproof tights can be beneficial as the temperatures drop. When it’s especially cold or windy, a second layer like thin, windproof pants can help keep your legs nice and toasty.
5. Extremities: Your hands, feet and head are particularly susceptible to cold, and they are an easy place to lose heat if not covered appropriately. While a headband that covers your ears may provide enough protection in above-freezing temps, choose a warm hat as it gets colder.
Gloves will work well for most runners in the cold weather, but if your hands are sensitive to the cold or conditions are extreme, mittens are an ideal option, as they help your hands conserve body heat. To keep your feet and ankles warm, choose mid-calf or even knee-high socks made out of moisture-wicking materials like merino wool. Such socks will keep you comfortable even when wet.
6. Shoes: Your regular running shoes usually will work just fine in colder weather. If your feet get cold easily, you might want to buy a slightly larger pair of running shoes to accommodate thicker socks (or two pairs of socks). If you frequently run through snow or on wet roads or trails, you may want to consider a shoe with a waterproof liner or outer layer.
Aside from your clothing basics, there are all sorts of gear options to make you more comfortable in the cold. Here are several that may be helpful:
- Sunglasses: These may seem like a less obvious choice in the colder months, but sunglasses are a necessity to protect against the glare of the winter sun—particularly when there is snow on the ground. They can also protect your eyes from dry air, wind and blowing snow.
- Balaclavas: Otherwise known as a face mask, balaclavas are definitely a case where function trumps fashion! They are often made of fleece or neoprene fabric that provides wind protection as well as breathability. When the temperatures drop precipitously and the wind is howling, a balaclava will be your best friend.
- Neck gaiters: These neck coverings come in all types of fabrics and weights. They cover the space between your hat and scarf, keeping the cold air off your neck.
- Traction devices: When packed snow and ice make roads and sidewalks a slippery mess, you can still get out safely with a variety of traction options for your shoes. Three possibilities are Stabilicers, Kahtoola Nanospikes and Yaktrax. All three slip over your running shoes and have cleats and/or metal coils to give you better grip on slippery surfaces.
Since winter running often involves going out in slippery or dark conditions, it’s essential to be extra vigilant to keep yourself safe. Running in daylight is ideal, but that isn’t always possible. If you’re out in the dark, be sure to make yourself visible by wearing reflective gear.
Never assume a car can see you, especially when snow is piled high on the side of the road. A bright headlamp will also light your way and make you more visible to oncoming traffic.
While toughing it out in cold, blustery weather is admirable, sometimes conditions are just too treacherous to head out the door. Although pushing yourself to get outside regularly in the winter will benefit your running, know that it’s OK to stay indoors (run on the treadmill or cross-train) when conditions make injury or frostbite a real possibility.
While running in temperatures that hover around freezing may not affect you dramatically, more extreme temperatures will likely slow you down—and that’s OK! Just as we can acclimate to running in the heat, running in the cold is also a learned skill. The more you get out there, the easier it will be.
Warming up thoroughly before you head out the door will help ease the transition from a warm house to the cold air. Before heading outside, spend 5–10 minutes doing dynamic stretching exercises specifically for runners.
Similar to trail running, keep your stride short to help navigate any slippery patches. And when in doubt, slow down! Keep your pace easy, and try to schedule more rigorous workouts like intervals or tempo runs when the conditions are dry and clear.
Short runs in cold conditions are usually manageable (and even enjoyable!) with the proper warm-up and adequate layers of clothing. But long runs provide their own unique set of challenges in the winter. Layering options become particularly essential when you’re running long distances, since overheating can lead to sweating, which in turn can leave you chilled as the run progresses.
Running loops that pass by your home or car can be a great option to help you tackle long miles in the cold weather. Dry layers of clothing and a thermos of hot tea or coffee can be lifesavers when you’re out there for two or more hours.
Hydration is also essential to stay on top of during winter runs. Because the cold air makes you less likely to feel thirsty, it’s easy to forget to drink as much as you should. Start your runs well-hydrated, and drink regularly if you’re out for more than 60–90 minutes.
Motivation can be tricky. While there are definitely ways to help you get out the door on cold, dark mornings, discipline will always trump motivation. If you get in the habit of pushing yourself to run outside regularly with no excuses, it eventually gets easier. It’s no longer a question of “if” it will happen, just a question of how best to get it done.
If you’re struggling to get started with winter running, here are a few options to help you make it a habit:
1. Plan a late winter or early spring goal race.
Having a race on the schedule is a great source of motivation. If you’re new to winter running, you may want to plan for a 5K or 10K rather than a half or full marathon, which will require logging far more outdoor miles.
2. Head out with a running partner.
Knowing you’re meeting a friend will make it much harder to roll over and hit the snooze button. Canine companions also make great running buddies—they’re almost always eager to head out the door with you, no matter the weather.
3. Lay out your gear the night before.
If you’re an early morning runner, make it as easy as possible to get ready. Lay out your clothes the night before, and program your coffee maker. The fewer excuses you have, and the more you streamline the process, the more likely you are to stay consistent with your winter running.
As mentioned above, sometimes safety trumps getting outside to run. A treadmill is obviously the best substitute, but cross-training is also an option throughout the winter months. The elliptical, pool running and cycling are the best alternatives to help keep you fit to run. Adding these to your schedule one day a week can provide some variety to your routine.
If you’re running fewer miles over the winter, it’s also a great time to fit in the “extras,” like strength and core work, that often get neglected during months of heavier mileage. Make it a regular habit to add core and strength routines, and you’ll continue to grow stronger and more injury resistant.
With the right attitude and the proper gear, winter running can be an enjoyable endeavor. A little extra discipline and commitment will keep you running strong and primed for new personal bests when spring arrives.