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Running in Cold Weather: How to Do It the Right Way

At the time of this writing, winter is right around the corner.

Now, down here in Austin, that doesn’t mean a whole lot as far as running goes. I should be fine just switching to long sleeves.

But if you live a little farther north, running in cold weather is going to require a lot more than just wearing an extra layer or two.

So, before winter sets in, let’s cover everything you need to know about going for a run when the temperature drops.

Is It Bad to Run in the Cold?

First, I want to offer a small word of caution about running outside in cold weather.

Generally speaking, running in the cold is just fine if you’re dressed appropriately. And I’ll cover what that entails in detail at the end of this article.

However, according to exercise physiologist Michael Kennedy at the University of Alberta, repeated exposure to cold weather during intense exercise could harm your lungs over time.

The problem is that the lungs may struggle to warm and humidify cold air, especially if you’re breathing it in over and over again during demanding exercise. Cold air dries out the lungs, which could lead to an inflammatory response – something the lungs may not recover from.

Fortunately, running when it’s cold out probably can’t cause this problem. In an interview on the topic, Dr. Kennedy referenced Nordic ski races as the type of exercise that could trigger this problem when temperatures reach -15 to -20 °C (5 to -4 °F).

But it’s still worth noting. Keep your eye on the temperature and maybe reconsider when it starts getting close to single digits Fahrenheit. If you absolutely can’t fight the temptation to run on these extremely cold days, at least try to take it easy so you don’t rapidly dry out your lungs.


5 Benefits of Running in the Cold

And now for some more good news: running in the cold can actually provide you with a number of benefits. So, if you’re currently on the fence and thinking about settling for the treadmill, here are five reasons jogging in cold weather is actually great for your health.

1. Cold Weather Is Actually Perfect for Running

There’s a reason the Boston Marathon – and the majority of other popular marathons – are held in the fall. Hot, humid weather taxes the body and makes it harder to run. Cooler weather makes it a lot easier.

So, while other obstacles like snow and ice will definitely slow you down, colder temperatures by themselves don’t have to. They actually place less stress on your body, so you should find longer runs a lot more comfortable.

2. Calories Hate Cold Weather

At the same time, cold weather can actually help burn calories.

In short, your body needs to work harder to keep warm, which costs more and more calories to do the colder it gets.

In fact, your basal metabolic rate needs to ramp up by nearly 7% just to increase your body temperature by about 0.5 °C!

Of course, there can also be too much of a good thing. Again, I’ll cover the clothing you need to wear when running in the cold, but sufficed to say that you don’t want to chase fat loss at the risk of courting any cold-related illnesses. You can always burn calories with more miles or changing your diet, but you won’t be able to do much if you’re sidelined with an illness.

So, leverage cold exposure to burn calories, but listen to your body and add layers if you find yourself shivering too much during your runs.

3. Running in Cold Weather Is Amazing for Your Immune System

Of all the reasons running in cold weather is good for you, this is the one I found most surprising because most people grow up learning that cold weather can make you sick, hence why you need to be so careful about bundling up.

Interestingly enough, this isn’t 100% true.

As it turns out, going outside in the cold and working out can actually give your immune system some exercise, too – exercise that makes it stronger and better able to battle illness.

Keep that in mind as cold-and-flu season approaches. It turns out that one of the best things you can do to stay healthy is go running in the cold.

4. Winter Running Can Fight SAD

When the days get shorter and get darker sooner, you may find that your mood begins darkening a bit, too.

For many people, the problem gets bad enough that it becomes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

While there are a number of ways to treat SAD, breaking a sweat during the winter months (when many of us tend to be less active) is a great way to enjoy some extra endorphins.

And sure, you could do this on a treadmill or exercise bike, but here’s the thing: going outside means you’ll increase your exposure to sunlight, too, which is another effective way to keep SAD at bay.

According to a study that was published in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology, outdoor exercise may carry other important benefits, as well.

Aside from helping with depression, it may increase energy levels and improve the likelihood of exercising more in the future, which will continue to bolster your mood.

5. Running the Cold May Heat Up Your Metabolism

The theory goes that our bodies evolved to protect our stores of fat more in the winter when harsher conditions may make it harder to replace calories. Burning fewer calories may lead to love handles, but it may have also kept your ancestors alive.

But what can you do about that nowadays? You know, now that you can order Uber Eats whenever you want, and love handles are out of fashion?

Well, running in cold weather may help to keep your metabolism going strong during months when it would otherwise ramp down. This added exercise may actually convince your body to be a little less stingy about burning excess calories.

How to Run in the Cold: 8 Easy Steps

While athletes taking ice baths has become all the rage in recent years, there’s a big difference between that kind of activity (which should only last about 10-15 minutes) and running outside in the cold for an hour or more.

Fortunately, running in the cold is perfectly fine if you take some reasonable precautions and practice a bit of common sense.

That said, there are eight simple precautions you should take before going out for a run on a cold day:

1. Check the Forecast

This first step (see what I did there?) is about as simple as it gets, but it’s still extremely important.

It might be cold when you start your run, but it could be absolutely freezing later. You could even run into something far worse like sleet. So, before you head out for a cold-weather run, be sure to check the forecast first. This probably isn’t a big deal if we’re talking early fall, but if it’s winter and you live somewhere that gets sleet or snow, taking a couple seconds to look at your phone is definitely worth it.

2. Dress for Exercise in Cold Weather

I’ll cover this in much greater detail, but it should go without saying that you need to adjust your running dress code accordingly when the temperature starts to drop.

The obvious approach is to simply err on the side of overdressing until you get a better sense for how your body will react to the cold. I would say this is the right advice if it’s currently 20 °F or colder – especially if there’s snow on the ground.

On the other hand, many runners who are veterans of surviving the cold will tell you that it’s better to dress as if the temperature is actually 10 to 20 degrees warmer. That’s because your body will warm up as you run, which could lead to excess perspiration. Sweat and cold weather are never a good mix.

3. Consider Wearing a Headlamp if It Will Be Dark Out

Obviously, it’s always a good idea to wear reflective gear when going for a run at night.

However, if cold weather means the ground will be covered in snow and ice, I’d highly suggest you consider wearing a runner’s headlamp when you go out for a run.

You’ll be much more confident about each step when you can clearly see where potentially slippery spots are ahead.

This is a good idea no matter where you’re running, even if there are plenty of streetlamps around.

But if you prefer running trails or anywhere else where light isn’t abundant, please wear a headlamp so you don’t get hurt.

4. Don’t Push Yourself Too Hard Right Away

Work your way up to your typical running cadence when you first start running in the cold. Give yourself some time to adapt to how the temperature affects your body. And if you are going to be running after snow has fallen, it’s that much more important that you slow down and get used to jogging over snow and ice. 

Usually, it’s best to shorten your gait and quicken your steps a bit. This will keep your feet under your body instead of sending them farther forward and will give you greater stability when running over slippery surfaces.

Even after you get used to running on the snow, don’t push yourself to hit your typical times. The surface is going to slow you down. There’s nothing you can do about that. Adjust your expectations, stay safe, and enjoy the new experience.

5. Get a Nice Warmup in Before Going Outside

Warmups are always a good idea, of course.

At the very least, runners should stretch to avoid unnecessarily pulling a muscle.

But if you’re going to be heading into the cold, it would be wise to do a more thorough warmup that will get the blood flowing. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll literally feel warmer as you get your heart pounding.

Something as simple as jogging in place for a few minutes or doing some jump rope is enough for a simple warmup before heading outdoors. You could even just walk up and down your stairs a few times.

6. Don’t Forget About Hydration

When you’re running and it’s hot out, usually all you can think about is how good it will feel to drink some water.

(Which, by the way, is why you should probably wear one of these running belts)

When it’s cold out – much less, very cold out – it’s easy to forget that your body still needs plenty of water.

The conventional hydration recommendation for runners is that you need 16-20 ounces of water (or your fluid of choice) for every hour. Your personal requirements may be different. If you’ve been running long enough, you probably already know what they are. I’d say stick to those during your first cold-weather outing and then adjust going forward as necessary.

7. Tell Someone Where You’re Going

If “cold weather” where you’re from does entail snow, then you should also let someone know where you’re going before your run. As you probably already know, just trying to walk on the snow – which often hides ice – can be perilous enough. Running in these elements doesn’t have to be dangerous, but as this viral video shows, slipping could make it very difficult to carry on:

 

8. Cool Down Inside

Finally, you should always finish your runs with a cooldown, but if the weather is a bit chilly, that cooldown may be a whole lot colder than usual.

Even with enough layers on, you could be covered in sweat, so if you try slowing down to a walk in order to cool down after your run, you’ll quickly be shivering – which is not good at all.

So, consider altering your cooldown a bit. Keep the post-run walk to a short one. You can do some light aerobics inside your house to help the process and then immediately jump into a nice warm shower.

Okay, as long as you keep those precautions in mind, there’s a lot to love about running during the colder months.

But let’s dive a little deeper into the clothing you’ll need to safely run once things get chilly.

Wear the Right Winter Running Gear

When it’s cold out, your running gear will depend on a number of different factors, not the least of which is just how cold it is wherever you live. But your height and weight will matter, too, as will other genetic factors.

Nonetheless, here’s a list of “best practices” for winter running gear to get you started. You can then modify them as necessary to fit your unique needs.

But as I mentioned earlier, it’s probably best to wear more than necessary the first couple of times, especially as the days get colder.

1. Long-Sleeved Shirts You Can Easily Layer

Layering is going to be a theme we come back to again and again on this list of clothing for outdoor runs.

That’s because, as I touched on earlier, your body temperature will likely change while you run, especially if you start in the morning before the sun comes up.

Long-sleeved shirts are usually a good idea but try wearing two thin versions instead of one that is thicker, so you can easily remove layers as you run if necessary. Wrap it around your waist and keep running in comfort.

2. A Pullover or Jacket

Same idea here. A simple pullover may be easier to take off quickly and wrap around your waist, but if you think a jacket would be warmer for the beginning of your runs, I’d suggest choosing a thinner option.

Fortunately, there are plenty of jackets made specifically for outdoor runners that you can buy for around $100. These jackets are water- and wind-resistant and great at locking in body heat without being bulky.

3. Running Leggings

When the temperature starts to cool, shorts may eventually be an unrealistic option for your outdoor exercise.

Instead, you should probably try a pair of running leggings. Just like with the jackets, running leggings come in a range of different options, so you can choose the best one for your climate.

You can even double-up if you want to take a layered approach, though you may get some strange looks if you begin taking your pants off.

Otherwise, many outdoor runners choose to wear a tight pair of running shorts over a pair of leggings as this seems to offer the perfect combination of warmth and mobility.

4. Winter Running Shoes

If you won’t be battling snow and ice, your current pair of running shoes may work just fine.

On the other hand, if you could use a little extra stability, then consider the benefits of wearing winter running shoes. Typically, these shoes come with greater traction, added water resistance, and even more room if you wish to wear an extra pair of socks.

At the very least, now might be a good time to check the treads on them. If they’re worn down, you may want to replace them.

Or you could opt for slip-on cleats like the Yaktrax Run Traction Cleats, which are only about $20. These are a super cheap way to get that added traction without splurging on a brand-new pair of shoes.

5. A Winter Hat

You may have heard that we lose about half our body heat through our heads.

That’s actually not true. It’s probably closer to 7-10%.

And yet, I’d still recommend you wear a winter hat when running. It’ll keep you warm and it’s also an easy way to protect your ears from the low temperatures.

If nothing else, there are minimalist earmuffs that are perfect for runners. It might seem like a small thing but consider how far away your ears are from your heart. More effort is required for your heart to move blood there and warm them up, especially when you have large muscles competing for it.

You can also pair earmuffs with a running hat for help keeping hair and sweat out of your face without having to wear the more traditional winter option.

6. Gloves and Socks

Similar to your ears, your fingers and toes can easily go cold if you don’t give them a little extra help because of their location. So, remember to wear gloves and don’t skimp on the socks. Double them up if necessary.

As far as gloves go, there are options made specifically for runners but don’t feel too much pressure if your budget is a concern. The main thing is that you have gloves that retain body heat.

The same goes for socks. Just wear whatever you normally do or add an extra pair if necessary.

7. Polarized Sunglasses with UV Protection

Yes, this is a bit of a shameless plug, but I really do recommend polarized running sunglasses that offer UV protection.

Hear me out, though.

If you’re going to be running when the sun is up and you’re surrounded by snow, your eyes are going to get absolutely pummeled by UV rays. They’ll bounce right off the reflective surface of the snow and hit your eyes from every angle.

Sunglasses with UV400 protection will keep your peepers safe so outdoor runs don’t become a problem for them. Polarized lenses will also make it easier to see where you’re going.

Running Outside in Cold Weather Is Easy  

While some minor adjustments to your gait and preparation are necessary and you may need to update your wardrobe a bit, you can absolutely run outside when the weather gets colder.

In fact, there are some very good reasons you absolutely should.

So, as winter sets in, don’t assume you’re doomed to running on a treadmill until the thermostat is back in your favor. Start preparing now and you’ll be ready to keep going until spring makes things easy again.

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