Your Guide to Cold-Weather Running
From warm-up exercises to running essentials, follow these 10 tips to make the most out of your winter run.
The days are shorter, the temperatures are lower, and your resolve to get up and out for your morning run is dwindling. And trust us, we know it's a lot more tempting to stay in a warm bed rather than brave a freezing wind chill for five miles. However, when done correctly, your running routine-and fitness level-won't have to suffer in the cold, dark days of winter. Here, experts share their best advice for warming up, gearing up, and rocking your cold-weather run.
Warm Up Inside
Warm up inside with simple dynamic stretches like walking lunges, body weight squats, and leg swings before hitting the great outdoors. "It's much easier to head out the door if you start your run feeling warm," says Jess Underhill, running coach and founder of Race Pace Wellness. Don't worry about breaking a sweat as long as you start running right away. "You'll stay warm enough not to get cold," Underhill says.
Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track & Field certified coach and founder of Strength Running, recommends an 8-minute dynamic warm-up with 10 to 20 repetitions of each of the following moves: walking deadlifts, knee hugs, groiners, donkey kicks, mountain climbers, iron cross, lunge matrix, leg swings, and lateral leg swings. This should increase heart rate, core body temperature, and range of motion, and also open capillaries and lubricate joints.
Adjust Your Expectations
Don't expect every winter run to be your fastest. "Winter conditions like snow, ice, or wind make running slower and more difficult, so paces that were easy during the fall won't be so easy during the winter months," says Fitzgerald, who lives in Boulder, CO.
"Try to take this time to focus on effort level versus staring at the pace on your GPS watch," Underhill suggests. And keep in mind that your body may take a while to warm up too. "It will take longer to settle into your normal pace as your muscles warm up. But once you're warm, temperature shouldn't have a big impact on pace, unlike heat and humidity," Fitzgerald says. "It's easier to run fast when it's cool than when it's hot."
Alter Your Stride
Run with care on slick surfaces by adjusting your gait. "It's easier to run on a slippery surface if you take shorter, faster steps," Fitzgerald says. "By landing underneath your body, rather than ‘reaching out' with your foot, you'll remain more stable and be less likely to fall." Be on the lookout for icy patches, too. "Slow down your pace and try to stay in areas where it's clear you're running on snow and not ice," says Underhill, who lives and trains in New York City.
For running on ice and snow, consider a slip-on traction device for your running shoes, like Yaktrax RUN ($40, amazon.com) or Kahtoola NANOspikes ($50, amazon.com), which make each step more sure-footed.
Protect Your Extremities
If you've ever built a snowman, skied, or skated outdoors, you know that fingers and toes get especially cold. Keep your feet dry by investing in a pair of Gore-Tex running shoes made with a waterproof, windproof, and breathable liner. Asics, Brooks, New Balance, Saucony and other brands make a range of these heavy-duty shoes, including the Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 35 ($85, amazon.com) for the trail and Saucony Ride ISO ($120, amazon.com) for the road. And don't forget your socks: Forgo no-show styles in favor of a wool tech pair that will cover your ankles and wick away sweat.
Cover Your Skin
Winter wind and sun can wreak havoc on your skin. Fitzgerald recommends covering your face with Vaseline or BodyGlide to protect your body's largest organ. Wearing a scarf or mask over your mouth and nose will work too, as well as make it easier to breathe. Underhill also recommends a product like Aquaphor to protect your lips.
And don't forget about the sun, which can be especially strong at altitude on your winter ski vacation. The sun's harmful ultraviolet rays that cause skin cancer are still a threat in winter. "No matter the time of year, no matter where they live, runners should wear sunscreen when they run outdoors!" says Jessica Hunter-Orange, a doctor and runner who practices dermatology at the London Skin Disorders Clinic in London, Ontario. "Fully reapply sunscreen every hour when running." Dr. Hunter suggests a broad-spectrum block with SPF 30 or greater that protects against UVA and UVB rays, along with an SPF lip balm. The Kiehl's Super Fluid UV Mineral Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50+ ($38, sephora.com) is a mineral-based sunscreen, which means that it won't cause breakouts, and it's not sticky, so you can run for miles without it bothering you.
Dress for Warmer Weather
As a general rule, dress for a temperature of 10 to 25 degrees warmer than it is outside, accounting for your personal preference. "Running produces a lot of body heat, so you'll feel warmer than the outside temperature, especially with the right gear," Fitzgerald says.
Play with what works best for you. "After your run, make note of how you would dress differently on your next run if at all," Underhill suggests. "Use your running log to write down what you wore for various weather conditions so that the next time you head out the door you'll know exactly how to dress."
Layers that you can peel or zip away as you warm-up, and put back on as you cool, are key. "It's important to be able to unzip something or take off a layer to regulate your temperature throughout the run as the conditions change," Underhill says. During the course of one out-and-back run you might encounter a headwind, tailwind, sun, and shade, which will each affect your warmth differently. Choose technical fabrics like polyester, nylon, and wool that wick moisture away from your body.
Wear two to three layers on your upper body. A long-sleeve base layer like Brooks' Array Longsleeve ($60, amazon.com) or Under Armour ColGear Authentic Mock ($50, underarmour.com) pairs well with a down vest like the Nike AeroLoft ($180, nike.com), which packs into its own easy-to-carry pocket-turned-pouch. A windproof jacket is a must too. "Most runners under-estimate the wind," Fitzgerald says.
Plan Your Finish
When you stop running, your body temperature plummets. That's fine on a hot, summer day, but can lead to chills in cold temps. "Sweat can cause you to freeze when you stop running," Underhill says. Plan to finish your run with a hot shower, change of clothes, and warm beverage right away. "You can stretch and foam roll later on," Underhill says. "It's more important to get warm."
Embrace the Cold
Armed with the right gear and frame of mind, running through a fresh snowfall can be magical. "There's nothing more serene and beautiful than running through a winter wonderland," Underhill says. "It's often a quiet, peaceful meditation." With fewer people hitting the pavement, your favorite path or trail will be less crowded, and you'll feel good knowing you're a step closer to your New Year's goals. "Winter is long and getting outdoors is good for the mind," Underhill says. "It will make you feel like a warrior."
When is it too cold to go outside? "I've coached runners in Canada, Alaska, and Sweden. With the right winter running gear, you can run through most conditions," Fitzgerald says. "But if it's less than -20 degrees Fahrenheit, you may want to stay inside."