Running is a year-round pursuit. For many of us, that means getting outdoors in the dead of winter. And that, or course, means facing the cold. You’ve likely dealt with cold before when running. But maybe you’ve never considered what to do when it’s really, really cold. In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about running in particularly cold weather.
We’ll go over some of the dangers when running in the cold, how cold weather affects aspects of running, and some tips for running in the cold. By the end, you’ll know when the cold is merely uncomfortable, and when it’s dangerous.
Check Wind Chill or “Real Feel” Temperature
Just as anyone who lives in the South knows that an 80 degree August afternoon feels much warmer with humidity, the technical temperature and how it feels outside in cold weather might be totally different.
Running in high 30-degree weather doesn’t sound so bad if you’re suited up to run in the cold. But if the wind chill drops it below freezing, that’s completely different. You’ll have to keep more considerations in mind.
Watch Out For Hypothermia
Hypothermia, loosely defined as low body temperature, can happen in temperatures even as high as the 50s if the conditions are right. It’s not something to mess with.
Remember that precipitation, evaporation, wind speed, exhaustion, running at sunrise/sunset, and slower running can all make it easier to get hypothermia.
While you can’t control precipitation or wind speed, you can control whether you decide to go outside. Thinking about a run when it’s really windy and/or really wet? You should be especially careful with the latter, as it’s much easier to get hypothermia when your clothes are wet.
Evaporation and slower running speed, however, are things you can control. Make sure that sweat isn’t hanging on your body by wearing hi-tech, wicking fabric. Also, your body won’t generate as much internal heat if you’re running slower. This could put you at a higher risk for hypothermia.
You can also control how physically depleted you are, and when you run. As every hunter knows, it’s coolest just before the sun comes up. It tends to be warmest around 3 p.m., with daytime temps lingering around a bit into dusk.
You should make sure that you’re physically able to complete your run when it’s cold outside. If it is very cold, you might want to stick to daylight hours, avoiding dusk and especially dawn.
Watch Out For Frostbite
Anytime the temperature is below 32 degrees, there’s a chance you could experience frostbite. The risk at the freezing point is pretty low if you’re covered up, dry, and are active. Make sure that your face, nose, and ears are covered. Don’t blow into your hands, as your breath will make your hands colder from the moisture.
It’s especially important to keep your feet dry. Don’t run through puddles, and consider getting gaiters to make sure that you don’t get snow in your shoes. That snow will melt quickly and put you at risk for hypothermia and frostbite.
How Cold Weather Affects Running
Cold weather makes running harder, just like hot weather does. Wind and windchill amplify the effect.
You typically will run slower in cold weather. Sure, your clothes weigh more with the extra layers, but your body also has more trouble taking up oxygen. In fact, temps below about 45 degrees will slow you down just as much as temps above 70. You might also need to slow down for traction, especially if it’s around freezing temperatures due to snow and ice.
Everybody talks about the importance of hydrating when it’s hot outside. This is certainly true, but the fact of the matter is that hydration important year-round. While it might be harder to see the effects of dehydration in the winter, it’s still important to stay hydrated.
Make the commitment to stay hydrated even in cold weather, and hydrate like you would for the summer. Just because it’s colder doesn’t mean you need water any less. As temperatures really drop, you might need to keep water bottles inside your jacket. I have personally had my water bottle on a very cold long run freeze shut. Running the last 6 miles with a block of ice in your hand makes for good stories but is a lousy hydration strategy.
Your lungs will be especially hit by cold weather because it will dry them out, making it harder to breathe. That means that if you’re trying to get in a really hard workout, you could do serious harm to your body if you’re breathing too hard.
When it’s cold, your best bet is to do slow, long runs and maintain a consistent and controlled breathing pattern. While you never want to be “breathy” when you run, you definitely don’t want to be in cold weather.
Tips for Cold Weather Running
If you keep these tips in mind, you’ll stay safe when you’re out running in the cold. Make sure that you’re always aware and alert and make any adjustments as needed.
Dress in Layers
This goes without saying. You need to be prepared for a variety of different temperatures. When you start off, you’ll be colder and will need additional layers. One of those layers might need to come off mid-way through your run after you’ve warmed up.
Conversely, it might all of the sudden get really windy or drop in temperature, and it might get cold enough to warrant adding a layer. You want to be able to adjust to different temperatures as needed.
I started training for my first half marathon when it was winter in Ohio, and I got really good at layering. That was the way I could best adjust for anything an Ohio winter day could throw at me and still stay comfortable once I got warmer a couple miles in.
Prepare for Changing Conditions
Remember that things can change quickly when it’s cold outside. A day that wasn’t particularly windy can become extremely windy in the course of an hour. Or you might experience sudden snow or ice.
You need to be ready to finish your run sooner if the conditions unexpectedly get worse. Pick routes that are close to home or your vehicle and that people know in case you need to be picked up.
Use Traction Devices in Ice and Snow
When it’s snowy and icy, adding traction devices to your shoes is a safe bet. Whether that’s using your own shoes with microspikes, or buying another pair of shoes that are specifically designed for running in winter weather, make sure that your shoes can handle the snow and ice.
If it’s windy when you’re running and you decided that it was still safe, run into the wind so that when you turn around at the halfway point, your back will be to the wind and the tailwind will warm you on your way back.
Also, try to find routes that will offer some protection from the wind. The best option is a wooded trail or a sidewalk that is overshadowed by lots of trees, which will protect you from the wind.
In the end, different people are going to have different ideas of how cold is too cold for running. The important thing is that you do what’s best for you and stay safe when you’re outside running in the cold weather.