The how and why of running in cold weather.
Warning: This is a COMPREHENSIVE guide to running in cold weather. It’s long. But that’s why we called it comprehensive!
We dare you to read the whole thing.
If you aren’t into dares or just don’t sit on the toilet that long, skip ahead!
Here is everything we are going to cover:
- Running in the cold can be fun
- Dangers of running in the winter
- Benefits of running in the cold
- Tips for running in cold weather
- What to wear on winter runs
Running in the winter? That’s bananas, right?
Especially if you live somewhere with snow.
As the days get shorter, the idea of running in the cold might become less appealing.
Many runners opt for the treadmill during these dreary months.
But running in the cold weather doesn’t have to be a big deal.
In fact, if you’re prepared, running in the winter can be fun and is scientifically proven to improve your running.
With the right regime, outside winter runners are likely to see increased endurance come springtime.
It’s All Sunshine and Rainbows
Have you ever looked out the window of the gym from your stationary up and down up and down of the treadmill and seen someone running down the sidewalk on the coldest day of the year?
Probably, your first thought was, “What a cook!”
Well, I’ve got news for you: by the end of this article, you are going to be one of those cooks!
If you prepare your body, your mind, and your winter running wardrobe appropriately, running in the winter will be a warm breeze.
And by following the advice below you will ensure that you stay safe, enter spring stronger than last year, and love every freezing minute of it.
Want to skip ahead?:
- Running in the cold can be fun
- Dangers of running in the winter
- Benefits of running in the cold
- Tips for running in cold weather
- What to wear on winter runs
Trust Me, I’ve Done This Before
I used to run ultra-marathons a lot.
At the height of my ultra-addiction, I moved to Calgary, Alberta in Canada.
It gets cold in Calgary.
Temperatures regularly dip to -40 C (which also happens to be -40 F when converted) during the day and has been known to hit -50-60 with windchill.
Long stretches of winter days hover in the -20 range.
So whatever your threshold for cold, I think we can agree Calgary is on the chilly side.
Being a California native, the temperature was daunting.
I tried an indoor track but it was so boring.
Treadmills made me dislike running altogether and that made me sad.
My only option, get outside.
Running In The Cold Can Be Fun
Through trial and error, a frost-bitten nose, and many falls on my ass I came to enjoy running in the cold.
At first, I wouldn’t go out if it was colder than -20 (without windchill). Once I got my layering system dialed in, however, I was feeling good up to -30.
Colder than this, even with the right face mask, I found the air was too cold for my lungs.
Over time, I dialed in my layering system and found the right technique for running on snow and ice.
What I learned from all those years of training in the Canadian winter is what I am about to share with you.
Believe it or not, I started looking forward to my winter runs.
The dry snow crunching under my feet. My breath clouding the air in front of me. Ice crystals floating in the sun.
The best part, by time spring came around I usually notice a significant increase in my overall endurance and power (this finding is also backed by science—skip to read here).
To enjoy winter running you need to prepare your mind, your body, and your wardrobe.
I am going to help you with all three.
Dangers Of Running In The Winter
Running in cold weather is a challenge, but it is and can be fun and invigorating.
However, as with just about anything that’s fun, winter training is not without its dangers.
If after reading this, you still don’t feel comfortable with winter running or want to ease into it, there is another option. Get a quality treadmill and place it in the garage or near an open window. You will still get some of the cold weather benefits without the risk of falls or the need to buy extra gear.
A good place to start is site called Consumers Advocates. They offer in-depth guides about practically anything from insurance to yoga mats to treadmills.
It goes without saying, the advice herein is my opinion based on my own experiences. See our disclaimer for more information.
Cold Food For Thought
First, if you have back problems or bone and muscle problems in general, you may want to restrict your winter running.
Decide if it’s right for you at all. If it is, make sure to avoid icy days and especially days when new snow has fallen on top of ice.
As we will see, running on slippery surfaces can be a useful training tool. But, when you are already injured, the wrong slip can send everything into bodily chaos.
When you slip mid-stride your entire body is going to flail to correct itself.
Your arms are going to fly out erratically, the non-weighted leg is going to twitch to catch your weight, you will likely let out a squeamish whimper, and your back is going to tense.
Or, despite your flailing, you will fall.
All the tiny muscles in your body are going to instantaneously spasm in an attempt to keep you upright.
For an un-injured body this is a good thing.
Similar to what you might get in HIT workouts or Bootcamp style fitness, constantly moving on uneven surfaces, switching directions helps you train and build these tiny fast-twitch muscles.
However, when you have a bad injury, you are generally trying to avoid these movements in a dynamic context.
I know this from experience.
I’m a bit of a masochist when it comes to training.
For years I have had back problems. It’s a chicken or the egg kind of thing.
Is it due to running or is it made worse by running? Who knows.
What I can tell you, when I would slip on the ice my back would send shooting pain everywhere instantly. I’d have to stop, frozen not by the cold but by the spasm, and stretch it out for a few seconds before moving on.
Luckily I never hurt myself beyond repair. But the risks were real.
Don’t be stupid like me.
Be prudent. Stay healthy.
Even in ideal temperatures, road conditions make a huge difference for runners.
Stay vigilant about road and weather conditions and prepare yourself for what you may encounter.
It might rain tonight then freeze in the morning just before you head out.
Underneath a light dusting of snow thick slippery ices may lurk.
Perhaps you’ll head out with just a soft-shell jacket on, only to be surprised half-way through your run by hail.
Weather is always changing. This is part of the fun. Weather is also part of the danger.
Keep yourself up to date on the weather and dress appropriately.
Other People Are Crazy
One significant factor I often see winter runners overlook is other people. Especially drivers.
Winter is a time of low-visibility and poor road conditions in general.
Other people on the road are focused on keeping themselves upright and in their lane.
Their windows are fogged up. The wipers are frozen. And, they are probably texting while eating a microwave-burned pizza-pocket.
Because the roads and sidewalks aren’t ideal, you will probably find yourself running closer to the road or in more exposed areas.
This is especially true in places where there is lots of snow. Often you will be running where the plows have been which unfortunately is also where cars tend to travel.
Make Yourself Visible
As promised, running in the cold can be fun.
But, as every conscientious mom and level headed person said ever, ‘safety first.’
Take It Seriously
Wear multiple pieces of reflective clothing and at least one light.
There are loads of companies making low-profile quality running lights at affordable prices.
If you don’t want to spend the cash, get a little mag light at the hardware store and put some foam pipe insulation around it to help keep the battery warm.
You can skip to our detailed article on the best cold weather running gear including lights and reflectors, here.
Tip: This may sound like overkill to some of you, but it is a simple thing to do that might save you in the long run (pun intended): Tell someone you are going running and for how long. Text them when you get back so they know you made it back safely.
Moral of the story, be cautious and be visible.
Now the cool stuff (pun intended again, last one promise).
Benefits Of Running In The Cold
When I say running in cold weather can improve your overall performance, I am not just blowing cold air up your ass (sorry, seriously last pun).
This assertion is supported by my own experience.
But don’t take my word for it. Here is what science has to say:
Running In The Cold Makes Oxygenation Easier
When you run or create any kind of motion for that matter, you create heat.
To deal with excess heat, your body sweats and vasodilates.
This cools your skin and brings blood to the surface to be cooled.
When you sweat, you can lose a lot of water fast.
All these processes put more strain on heart to circulate blood and maintain oxygenation.
In cooler weather, your body won’t have to be as drastic with the above processes.
This gives your body more reserve to focus on pure output. In this case, running.
As stated in the video, the scientists saw significant decreases in heart rate and increases in performance.
Endurance vs. Speed
Sprinting involves different muscles than simply jogging.
When you sprint, you are using powerful energy-consuming fast-twitch muscles.
When it’s cold, these oxygen hogging muscles are not going to work as well.
This makes winter an ideal time to work on your endurance.
As with any training regime, it is important to maintain your sprint work with regular Fartleks (see Wikipedia if you aren’t familiar) or interval training.
Save these for the days though, for when you have to be inside on the treadmill or track.
Use the cold weather to push your endurance during the winter and your overall performance will skyrocket once sunnier days show up.
Think of yourself as both the tortoise and the hare.
During the winter stay moderate but go longer. Be the tortoise.
In summer, get out and push yourself with more speed work. Be the hare.
Winter usually comes with slippery stuff.
Ice, snow, mud, and whatever else your dirty imagination was thinking of when I said, ‘slippery stuff.’
While this can present a fall risk, slippery surfaces on your run are also an opportunity to improve your agility.
When you hit an ice patch or wet snow mid-stride you will have to maneuver like an NFL running back.
Take it easy your first few runs until you get the hang of it.
Try changing your gait a bit to anticipate changes in traction.
Pay attention to what is ahead of you and go with the flow. Instead of tensing up, attempt to adjust.
Remember, if you are already nursing injuries, this may not be the best choice for you.
Tips For Running In Cold Weather
Ok, so you’re convinced (hopefully).
You are ready to get out and get moving.
Let’s recap what we’ve covered so far and add a few more tips.
Quick Tips For Running In The Cold:
- Avoid winter running if you are already injured
- Always dress in layers
- Monitor the weather closely
- Bring at least one extra layer with you
- Wear reflective clothing and lights
- Train for endurance over speed
- Watch your step, slow down on icy days
What To Wear On Winter Runs
Now the technique is out of the way, what the heck should you wear when running in the cold?
Novices to the cold in general, might be wondering, how many layers should you wear on a winter run?
When deciding what to wear running in cold weather it is important to consider your comfort level, clothing material, and moisture.
As a rule of thumb, you will want at least 2-3 layers. Start thin and get thicker.
For example, you might start with an ultra-thin synthetic layer closest to your skin. Then a thicker zip-up followed with a soft-shell running jacket as the final layer.
This type of set up will pull moisture away from your skin (so it doesn’t make you colder), allow you to vent when needed with zippers, and prevent chilling wind from getting in.
Your torso is obviously the most important part of your body to keep warm.
However, in running, a warm muscle is an efficient muscle. So let’s take a look at how to keep your entire body warm on your next winter run.
Let’s start from the bottom up:
Don’t feel like reading all the fluff?
Sometimes, getting your system figured out can take a bit of tinkering.
Until you get it figured out, I would suggest running with a small backpack or waist belt if you don’t already.
This will allow you to bring extra layers or take off layers as needed.
Layers are the key to staying comfortable, dry, and warm while being active.
Start with the thinnest layer and work your way out.
As your last layer you will want something wind-proof and/or water-proof.
This will allow moisture to escape while helping trap all the heat and simultaneously keeping the winter wind from pulling the heat out.
As a bonus, keeping your phone or music device in your inner layers will keep it warm, preventing cold-induced battery drain.
Below is my go-to setup.
A thin, mid-zip base layer. With a super lightweight synthetic mid-layer, and a wind-proof water-resistant shell.
I recommend items with zippers rather than pullovers. This allows you to vent as much as possible without losing warmth. Having zippers also give you more flexibility for changing conditions.
With a set-up similar to this you can switch things around so you can stay warm and dry in any situation.
Mountain Hardwear Diamond Peak
Patagonia Nano Puff Synthetic Down
Marmot ROM Softshell Hooded Jacket
You’ve probably found a lot of people telling you to get those little Yaktrax or something similar for winter running.
These are kind of like low-profile car chains for your shoes.
While they might help walkers, in my experience they are useless for runners.
First, when you are running they slip on hard ice.
Second, if you aren’t on ice your entire run they are a nuisance. On clear road or dirt, they are too bulky, altering the way your foot naturally contacts the ground.
Third, in deep snow they are near useless as well.
I got a pair of Yaktax when I first moved to Calgary. The only time they were useful was when there were only a few inches of fresh snow on the ground.
Outside of those times, they caused more falls than without.
So how do you choose the best shoes for running in the winter?
Choosing the right running shoes for winter weather can make all the difference in the world.
In general, you are going to want to look for these things:
- Deep Tread
- Higher-Top & Low Mesh
- Size Up
- No Cotton
Look for shoes with deep, well-spaced tread. This will allow you to make contact with the ground through deeper snow or mud.
Having better-spaced tread will give whatever you just stepped on ample opportunity to fall out with each step. This helps prevent balling or clumping of cold debris.
Running shoes for winter conditions should be similar to winter tires: Deep soft rubber that is well-spaced to allow the snow or mud to fall out easily.
This is more of a preference thing.
These materials generally work well for a while but lose their performance after some time.
Another consideration is sweat.
While these types of shoes are more breathable than completely waterproof ones, you still get a lot of condensation inside when you are working hard.
In the winter this can cause problems with temperature regulation.
However, if you live somewhere really cold and often muddy like Calgary, it’s probably worth the investment.
Still, wearing regular running shoes is not necessarily a deal-breaker.
It really depends on the conditions where you live.
Some locations tend to have wet slushy winters. In which case I would recommend waterproof-breathable shoes.
For drier climates where it might still get fairly cold, you will probably be fine with regular shoes and thick socks.
In Calgary, I wore higher profile shoes, one size up, with double socks.
High-Profile, Low Mesh
When you are running in poor weather, you are going to get a lot of junk in your shoes.
There are two ways to help prevent this: shoes with higher tops and gaiters.
By preventing your ankles from getting wet high top shoes can aid in keeping your feet warmer.
There are a lot of great ‘approach’ type shoes with higher profiles.
Approach shoes or trail-running shoes are what I would recommend.
They tend to be lightweight, have great soles, high-profile sides, and are often waterproof-breathable.
Remember, in winter you aren’t looking for the best performing or best-looking shoes.
These trail running shoes by La-Sportiva are currently my all-time favorites for persevering through inclement weather. They even look like they’re ready to go out and get dirty!
Another good example of mid-height trail shoes are the Hoka’s. They aren’t everyone’s style. Check out the photo to get an idea of the style I’m talking about.
The best shoes for running outside in the winter are comfortable shoes that keep you dry and upright.
Get shoes without lots of mesh.
In an effort to keep shoes light, many are made almost entirely of mesh.
This is great in ideal conditions, but running in the winter requires a little more burliness.
Again, trail running shoes and approach shoes are great for this.
Look for something without mesh from the soles, up to at least the top third.
The most important part to be mesh free, is the first third from the soles up.
The more blood flow you can get to your feet in cold conditions, the better you are going to feel and perform.
Avoid tight-fitting shoes that might constrict your blood flow.
You are going to want to wear thicker socks or maybe even layered socks anyway, which will make your feet bigger by about a size.
Make sure to try on your shoes with your thicker socks on.
My go-to combo is a thin full-length synthetic sock (ski socks are great for this) under a thicker synthetic-wool blend sock.
This brings me to the next point. Do not overlook this.
Salomon Spikecross 5 GTX
My all-time favorite winter shoes. These trail running shoes are built for serious winters. Waterproof-breathable membrane throughout, reinforced toe, deep-wide tread, high uppers–they’ve got it all! You can get them with ice spikes on the outer soles ($185) or without ($150).
Cotton gets wet, stays wet, and stays cold.
Other materials will still get wet and cold, but not like cotton.
Wool and synthetics still maintain some warmth when wet. These materials also dry faster and chafe less when wet.
Once your cotton socks get wet or damp you may as well be barefoot. Your toes will freeze.
I cannot stress this enough.
Do not wear cotton anything when winter running.
Additionally, a good pair of synthetic socks will last a lot longer than their cotton equivalent.
As mentioned above, gaiters are a great way to keep your feet dry from the inside out.
These goofy little tubes can be indispensable in poor conditions. They add another layer of defense against the cold and wet by preventing anything from getting into your shoes around your ankles.
And, they just look fun!
When it comes to running gaiters, go with simplicity. They are only there to keep the moisture and debris out. These Kahtoolas are super easy to put on and will last forever. Sidenote: When searching for gaiters you will see some by a company called Altra. These are great, but only get them if you have Altra shoes, they don’t work well with other shoes.
Moving up from the ankles, you are going to want some good leg coverage.
Again, no cotton!
I would recommend these winter running leggings or something similar:
New Balance Impact Tight
Wind-resistant outer with soft brushed interior. Wear these with a hard or soft shell outer on extra-cold days.
For very cold weather you want a compression type legging with soft lining that has a windproof outer.
On top of that wear some sort of softshell or thicker, slightly looser legging.
Here’s the reason for this:
The inner, tighter-fitting leggings are going to be doing most of the work.
You want them to stay warm and dry so they can keep you warm and dry.
Wearing a looser fitting pant over them helps create a tiny micro-climate inside your pants (ha, it’s hot in there!).
The looser outer pant blocks cold wind and moisture while the inner keeps you warm and comfortable.
Further, if your outer layer gets wet you still have another layer of defense between the elements and your skin.
The most important area to keep warm and dry is your upper body.
As always, no cotton! And, utilize layering.
For your upper body, I would suggest a thin form-fitting base layer.
On top of this, add something a little thicker, then maybe even a thicker one.
Your last layer should be something wind-proof or water-proof depending on conditions.
These high-tech pieces of clothing let moisture out while keeping heat in without allowing the cold winter wind to penetrate.
Wondering what a soft-shell is? Switch Back Travel has a great article about why these are essential pieces of gear to have in your arsenal.
This is a simple enough area.
Because your hands aren’t going to get too wet unless it is actively raining, this is an area where you can save.
Don’t go all out and get the fanciest gloves. All you need is something that is breathable and warm, and not cotton.
Black Diamond Windbloc
A great light to midweight glove. I have had an older version of this glove for almost 10 years. They block the wind and they last.
Black Diamond Terminator
On extra cold days I wear an older version of these with an ultra-thin synthetic or wool liner. Use a liner so your fingers don’t get cold every time you take them out.
Gloves are also a great way to add some visibility to your wardrobe.
Many brands now integrate reflective material or lighting options into their gloves. Check out the Lights section below.
Neck & Face
When it’s extremely cold frostbite can happen in a matter of minutes.
People often forget about the need to keep their neck and face protected.
It’s a simple thing to do and the gear is generally inexpensive.
Keeping your neck warm can make a big difference in your overall warmth.
As an added bonus, most neck warmers are made to be pulled up over your chin and mouth.
This helps protect your face and keep the air warmer as you breathe it in.
For areas where you need face protection try for a neck warmer-mask combo with some sort of ventilation.
Outdoor Research Tundra Aerogel
Made with a NASA tested insulation called Primaloft Aerogel, this balaclava will get you through any weather. Outdoor Research has been around a long time, they have a reputation for well thought out quality products.
If the material is too thick or un-vented you will be re-breathing your exhaled air which will not only make breathing harder but also could cause you to pass out.
Try a pair of low profile ski goggles to keep your eyes and upper face warm.
At first, you might feel a little funny running around with goggles on. But trust me, when that wind picks up and freezes your lashes shut you are going to wish you had them.
Once you pull the neck-warmer up over your mouth and tip of your nose and put on your goggles, your face will be completely protected from possible frostbite.
Most people do this intuitively, still, it’s worth mentioning.
Get a good beanie or toque.
Try for something wind-proof that can also be folded up and down to cover your ears as needed.
As discussed above, poor weather means poor visibility.
When you are running in bad weather you need to be aware and be visible.
Lights and reflectors are a great way to do this.
Nathan LightBender Mini
Nathan is quickly becoming a reliable name for everything running. I am featuring this little light because it’s versatile. You can easily wrap it around your arm, leg, ankle, hip-belt, etc. Remember, you don’t need anything special. Personally, I use a basic re-chargeable headlamp.
A lot of athletic clothing will already have reflective elements built-in. But I recommend getting at least one light and at least one extra piece of reflective gear.
Not everyone likes running with hip belts or backpacks.
When you are starting out winter running, however, I think it’s worth it.
You can carry extra layers in your bag or take off layers as needed.
Backpacks and hip belts provide more opportunities to add visibility gear as well.
Nathan VaporKrar 2.0
I could go on and on and on about these packs. They are amazing. Check them out if you want a do-anything running pack.
Ok, if you read this far you are probably ready for a run!
By now you should be ready to get out there and dominate running in the cold this winter!
Let’s quickly sum up what we talked about before you go.
How To Run In The Cold And Love It In 2020:
- Be prepared and know what to expect to get the most out of your winter run.
Weather can change rapidly. Ensure you are up to date and prepared for both the weather and the people driving in the weather. Be proactive. Bring extra layers and lights.
- Avoid running in cold weather if you are already injured.
Running in cold weather can tighten muscles, causing pain or worsening some injuries. Additionally, slips and falls may aggravate or re-injure old injuries.
- Be aware of road conditions.
Road conditions can change mile-to-mile. Be conscious of freezing weather causing ice slippery zones or changing weather causing visibility concerns.
- Slow your pace but run longer.
To help avoid falls run slower and be more intentional with your steps. Focus on running well over running fast.
- Focus on endurance over speed.
Science shows running in the cold can improve oxygenation. Cold fast-twich muscles won’t work as well in the cold. Take advantage of the improved oxygenation and focus on endurance over speed.
- Watch for slippery areas, wear layers, invest in the appropriate footwear.
During cold weather runs conditions can literally change right under your feet. Be aware of ice and slippery areas. Weather changes fast, bring extra layers. Prevent cold by wearing the appropriate footwear and clothing. Dress in layers for increased adaptability.
- Stay visible with reflectors and lights.
While you might feel confident in your winter running abilities, you can’t predict how other people on the road will behave. Wear as much reflective gear and lighting as possible to increase your visibility.
- Avoid cotton clothing
Cotton gets wet, stays wet, and stays cold. Avoid cotton for running in the cold.
- Have fun
Running in cold weather can be fun and exciting. Prepare and stay safe so you can enjoy it fully. Remember, cold weather offers you an opportunity to improve endurance. Take advantage and you will come out faster in the spring!
For the best gear in each of the categories we talked about in this article, see our best of article here.
My hope is that you have found something useful in this article.
And, my goal is that you are now armed with the appropriate tools to make winter running fun.
Now get out there and get moving!
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