Embracing Winter: The Benefits Of Running In The Cold

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We know when it’s cold in the middle of winter, your instinct is just to sleep in and stay warm. But if you can learn to embrace the weather and stick to your running schedule, you’ll come out stronger, faster, and more resilient than ever.

In this article, we’ll cover the benefits of running in the cold. If you are a reluctant winter runner, you might be encouraged enough to get out of bed on those cold, dark mornings.

Read on to see the many benefits of running in the cold. For those new to running or running in the cold, we’ve added some tips for running safely in winter.

How Does Running In the Cold Impact Your Performance?

It’s generally accepted that running in the cold worsens your performance. By this, we mean you’ll run slower and tire more quickly.

This is due to the temperature that forces your body to work harder to stay warm. Energy that might otherwise be channeled to help you run, instead has to be used to keep you warm.

However, running in cold weather can help your running. For one, your body takes much longer to overheat. You’re less likely to experience heat-related issues in cold weather, which means you could run for longer, at a higher intensity, before your body becomes fatigued.

But you do need to be careful. If you don’t warm up properly in the cold, you’ll be more susceptible to injury. This is true for any type of weather, but it’s harder in the winter because it takes much more time before you are warmed up.

The Benefits of Exercising In the Cold

Here are some benefits you can expect when running in the cold.

You’ll Burn More Calories

The first thing you need to know about this benefit is that you won’t burn many more calories in cold weather vs warm. The difference will be small, but it can be significant over time, especially if you’re exercising for weight loss.

This benefit happens because your body has to work a little harder to stay warm in the cold. For some context, one calorie is the energy it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.

That means that burning calories creates heat. And when your body is cold, it works harder to generate more heat to stay warm. Which ultimately means more calories burned, even if it is just a few per workout.

It Boosts Your Immune System

Running in the cold can have similar effects to taking an ice bath, including boosting your immune system. One of the reasons for this is that studies show that people who exercise in the cold tend to have lower cortisol levels in their bodies.

Your cortisol levels will be elevated while you’re exposed to the cold. However, this can help to build a tolerance to cortisol, so over time, your body produces less of it.

Because cortisol suppresses the immune system, lower cortisol levels can effectively improve your immune system.

Can Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder—SAD—can benefit from running in the cold. One of the best benefits of it is that you’ll be getting regular vitamin D, even on days that are not so sunny.

Not only can this contribute to bone health, but it also helps to regulate your circadian rhythm during the winter months. Running in the cold also releases endorphins, which can help to combat the negative feelings of SAD.

This can make a huge difference in improving your mood and keeping you happy during these months!

Could Improve Your Mood

Even if you don’t suffer from SAD, running in the cold releases endorphins that can help to improve your mood. This is one of the reasons we recommend exercising early in the morning—so your day starts with a positive mood.

Fewer People Outdoors

If you don’t like running when around a lot of people or cars, there are often fewer people outdoors in the cold! You’ll probably be one of the few exercising in the winter, so you can enjoy less crowded sidewalks and parks.

Improves Aerobic Fitness

When you run in the cold, your body has to work harder to keep itself warm and to power you through your workout. This means your heart and lungs work more than they usually would in warm weather.

By consistently training in colder temperatures, you can train your body to use oxygen more efficiently. Over time, this improves your aerobic fitness, boosting your speed and endurance.

What Are the Dangers of Running In Cold Weather?

Although running in the cold can be a great experience, it can also be risky if you aren’t well-prepared. Watch out for these when running in the winter.

Higher Chance of Injury If You Don’t Warm Up Properly

Exercising when your muscles aren’t correctly warm puts you at higher risk of developing an injury. As the muscle fibers move quickly or through a wide range of motion suddenly, they can tear if they’re still cold.

Unfortunately, many runners fail to warm up properly in cold weather and leave themselves much more open to injury. Take extra time to warm up to prevent this.

We’ve also found that you’ll have a much more comfortable run if you begin when you are warm. If possible, warm-up indoors before heading out. This could be five minutes walking on a treadmill or dynamic stretching.

Respiratory Tract Irritation

Whether you have sensitive lungs or not, respiratory issues are common in cold weather. Inhaling cold air can not only cause a sore throat, but can aggravate the respiratory tract to the lungs.

Without proper protection, repeated exposure to cold air can develop into respiratory illnesses like bronchitis, a persistent cough, and even asthma.

Risk of Slipping

Your winter may come with snow and ice depending on where you are. In many cases, ice can be hard to spot on the road, increasing your risk of slipping while running and injuring yourself.

If ice is a problem in your area, be extra careful when you go out. Slow down if there are icy patches. Or wear microspikes for additional traction.

Frostbite

Yes, frostbite is a very real possibility in cold weather! Your fingers and toes are most likely to be affected, as they’re furthest from the heart and have the smallest blood vessels, so circulation can become a problem.

Once your extremities have been affected by frostbite, the damage is permanent. So it’s in your best interest to take precautions against this from the start.

It’s Easy to Dehydrate

Most runners forget to hydrate in cold weather! When you run in the heat, you lose much more fluid faster, so it’s a natural thing to drink. In the cold, it’s easy to forget to drink or to drink too little because you aren’t losing as much fluid.

However, your body still loses fluid, especially through your breathing, when it’s cold. By failing to hydrate properly, you may be accidentally hampering your performance!

Tips for Staying Safe In Cold Weather

Follow these tips to perform well in cold weather while staying as safe as possible!

Warm Up Properly

We’ve mentioned it several times already but we can’t stress this enough: you need to warm up for a few minutes longer in cold weather. It can be harder to get the muscles warm and loose and to get the blood flowing adequately when it’s cold.

Aim for 10 to 15 minutes of dynamic stretches and light running drills. While it’s important in warm weather, it’s even more essential in cold.

Don’t Forget to Stay Hydrated

You should be drinking just slightly less than your regular warm-weather run, if not the same amount. Don’t think you’re not losing water just because you aren’t soaked with sweat!

You should remind yourself to sip on your water while running constantly. If you can, and if it wouldn’t be difficult to turn off with gloved hands and layers, set a reminder every few minutes to take a drink so you stay hydrated.

Exercise With a Friend

Going for a run with a friend is a good idea when the weather is cold or unpleasant. Not only will you be able to motivate each other through the cold, but it’ll help you get out of bed as you’re accountable to someone other than yourself!

Also, you’ll have someone nearby to help you if you start to have cold-related problems, like struggling to breathe or frostbite symptoms.

Get Warm As Soon As Possible After Your Run

When your run is over, take steps to get warm as soon as possible afterward. But be careful—don’t jump straight into a hot shower. Rather, opt for a lukewarm shower, as it’s a safer raise in body temperature.

Once the lukewarm water begins to feel cool, you can slowly increase the temperature as you need to. Once you’re out of the shower, dress warmly and make sure your hair is dry before you carry on with your day.

How to Dress for Exercising In the Cold

Running in the cold can be great exercise… As long as you’re dressed for it! Dressing the right way will ensure that your run is safe and comfortable. Here’s how to dress for running in the cold.

Layer

Layering your clothing is one of the best tricks for running comfortably. Layers allow you to adjust your level of warmth as you run. Start with a base layer—skin-tight, long-sleeved, shirt and tights—and layer lighter clothing on top of it—a t-shirt, light shorts.

Use a light, wind-proof jacket on top, preferably one that can pack into itself and be placed into a pocket if you get hot and need to remove it.

Wear a Mask or Buff

We highly recommend using something to cover your mouth while running to prevent the cold air from hitting your throat and causing respiratory troubles.

You can use a running mask or a buff to cover your mouth and nose. This will make a noticeable difference and can stop you from becoming sick with respiratory illness from the icy air.

Wear Sunglasses

Sunglasses are a great idea in cold weather to protect your eyes. They provide some shield against the winter sun’s glare and can also be extremely helpful in windy conditions.

Biting wind can not only hurt the skin but can damage the eyes, not to mention the possibility of debris being blown into your eyes. Wearing sunglasses protects your eyes from the effects of the wind, dust, debris, and glare.

Wear Running Gloves

Keeping your hands warm in icy weather is essential. Your extremities are vulnerable to frostbite in the cold as they’re far away from the heart and are more prone to circulation problems, so wearing running gloves is a good idea.

You should shop around to find the right pair for you. Some are thicker and can’t be used with mobile phones, while others are thin and screen-friendly. You can even layer your gloves if necessary!

Protect Your Feet

Just like your fingers, your toes are extremely susceptible to frostbite in the cold. The key to keeping your feet safe in cold weather is to ensure they don’t get wet and keep them warm enough to keep circulation going.

The first thing we recommend is to wear a pair of moisture-wicking socks. Merino wool is an excellent choice, as it’s temperature-regulating, wicks moisture very well, and has antibacterial qualities.

You can also opt for waterproof shoes if rain or slush is a part of your cold weather. It’s also a great idea to make sure that your winter running shoes are NOT as breathable as your summer ones to prevent wind from going through them and chilling your feet.

Tuck your tights or pants into your socks so there’s no gap for the cold to reach. Or, you can invest in a trail running gaiter, which is technically designed for protection against debris but can help against the cold as well.

When to Avoid Cold Weather Exercise

We recommend avoiding exercising in the cold if you’re sick, especially if it affects your respiratory system. Those with asthma, COPD, COVID, and similar conditions should avoid working out in cold air so their respiratory tract doesn’t get aggravated.

You should also avoid exercising in winter when the weather is severe. If there’s a lot of snow, dangerous ice, or severe wind, it’s best to stay out of the weather. You should also avoid running if visibility is affected, as your safety may be compromised.

Signs You Should Stop Exercising and Get Warm

Listen to your body and pay attention when you’re feeling something negative. It’s best to stop running if you’re:

  • Shivering and feeling cold: This is a sign that your body can no longer warm itself up and you should take action to get warm as soon as possible.
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded: If you feel this way, you probably don’t get enough oxygen. Take a break and get your breathing right before you continue running.
  • Having numb or tingling feelings: These are signs of hypothermia, so it’s best to stop and get into the warmth as soon as possible.
  • Having trouble breathing: The cold can irritate your airway and make breathing even harder, especially when you’re doing exercise that already affects your breathing.
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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.