What You Should Know About Running in Cold Weather

With winter right around the corner, it’s time to start planning for your cold weather runs. Preparation is imperative for your safety, your run maintenance, and your overall well-being. But where do you start?

Key takeaways:
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    Balance your body’s heat loss and heat production.
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    Check the weather and windchill. Dress 15 - 20 degrees warmer.
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    Know the signs of hypothermia and frostbite.
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    Like any other run, regardless of the weather, warm up, stay hydrated, and cool down.

Per Mark J. Carlson M.D., “The key to comfort and safety during cold weather activity is balancing the body’s heat production and loss to prevent both overheating and overcooling.”

Let’s cover the basics, such as how to dress appropriately, signs of hypothermia and frostbite, and overall general tips.

Check the weather and dress appropriately

First off, always check the weather before a cold weather run. It’s always best to know what you’re getting into beforehand.

Run during moderate temperatures and without impending storms. If you’re unsure, reschedule. Safety first, always!

But it’s not just about the temperature; you need to pay attention to the wind chill. Maurice Bluestein and Jack Zecher define wind chill as “The air temperature without wind that would affect the same heat loss rate from bare human skin as that due to the actual combined dry-bulb temperature and wind”. Basically, how cold does the wind feel on your skin?

Dress appropriately for the weather

The general rule of thumb is to dress 15 - 20 degrees warmer than the current temperature. This is because your body temperature will rise as you run. You don't want to find yourself in a situation where you're overheating in cold weather.

Start with a warm base layer

You want something lightweight and moisture-wicking. You’re going to sweat. This layer will pull it off your skin. Many high-quality brands offer dry-fit technology, so search for a layer that is labeled as such.

Your next layer should be insulting

Stay away from cotton, this will retain the moisture. Shoot for wool, fleece, or an equivalent. These materials stay dry while keeping you warm and preventing hypothermia or frostbite.

Your shell layer

Consider a jacket that covers all exposed skin, specifically sleeves with a thumb hole to protect your wrists. Make sure it zips or buttons to the chin to also protect your neck.

For your lower body

Invest in full-length pants. Wear thicker and higher socks than you would normally wear. Again, the goal is to cover all possible exposed skin.

Additional accessories

A hat and gloves can also be a game-changer. You lose heat from the top of your head, keep it and your ears covered.

All of this is to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. More on that shortly.

Protecting your body after a run

After your run, remove all moist articles of clothing. This is because your metabolic rate will drop. This means your ability to produce heat will also drop and you want to get ahead of it.

Know the signs of hypothermia

Per J.W. Castellani et. al, “Hypothermia develops when heat losses exceed heat production causing the body heat content to decrease.” This decrease can impact performance.

Signs of hypothermia

There are 3 levels of hypothermia: mild, moderate, and severe.

Mild hypothermia symptoms are feeling cold, shivering, and general apathy.

Moderate symptoms are sleepiness, confusion, and slurred speech.

Severe hypothermia symptoms include a change in heart rhythm as well as the symptoms listed above.

If you or your exercise partner are experiencing any of these signs, consult medical assistance immediately.

Know the signs of frostbite

Frostbite happens when your body’s skin and tissue fall below 0 degrees Celsius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This usually happens on exposed skin such as your nose, cheeks, and even your exposed wrists!

The symptoms of frostbite are numbness, pain when warming up, and white, waxy-colored skin. To avoid it, dress warmly and cover all exposed skin.

Warming up

Your warm-up is imperative. Try to warm up inside and ease outside into the cold weather. Do not step outside and immediately start running. The cold air will make your muscles tense up and will ultimately decrease your blood flow. It’s important to ease into it. Take your time.

Loosen up your joints and get the blood flowing to your targeted muscle groups by using a dynamic warm-up. Think high knees, glute kicks, and side lunges.

Once you are ready, start slowly. Begin with a walk, move to a jog, and eventually to your running pace.

General tips

While you know you need to stay hydrated, pay even more attention when running in cold weather. You’re still going to sweat so drink enough water to replenish what you’ve lost. You may not want to drink chilled water after exercising in cold weather. Try room-temperature water instead. Regardless, stay hydrated.

Be on the lookout for ice! Depending on the surface you’re running on, ice may accumulate. If there is a chance of ice, slow your pace and control your steps. If necessary, use a traction device such as a shoe slip-on for support.

Have a plan and consider the time of day you’re running. Typically, the temperature is warmer in the afternoon. Know exactly how long you will be running and the decrease in sunlight as you go. There may be low light in the early or late hours. To accommodate, wear reflective clothing. This will make you stand out from other runners and motorists.

Make sure you set simple goals for yourself. Usually, winter runs are for maintenance. Ensure to plan accordingly before heading out too. Unless you are training for a cold-weather race, consider taking your workout indoors if the weather conditions are too harsh.

Regardless, still take time to cool down your body. Be mindful of your body’s temperature and move your cool down inside as soon as possible, especially when you start to feel the cold again.

Running in cold weather is typically used for athletic maintenance. Be mindful of the weather, dress appropriately, and listen to your body.

If it feels like something is wrong, adjust accordingly. Seek medical attention when necessary, especially when there is a chance of hypothermia or frostbite.

A few final tips: stay hydrated, watch out for ice, and plan accordingly.

Lastly, you know your body best. Be kind to yourself and remember, your safety will always be the most important.

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