I’m a California girl, born and raised but when I moved to Chicago and started running, I secretly feared that I would be housebound for months at a time when I started seeing the leaves change in the Midwest. Winter running can be intimidating for anyone who is either new to the sport or going for their first run in cold and icy temperatures, but it doesn’t have to be.
If you’d like to start or keep running in winter, here’s some advice that’s helped me acclimate to running outdoors in the winter. You don’t have to retreat to a treadmill from December through March, but be prepared to brace the cold. With the right gear, some weather savvy and some grit- you’ll be ready for your spring and summer races!
- Look At The Weather But Use First Hand Judgment Before Stepping Out:
The weather report can only tell you so much as to how it will be outside for a run- specifically if it’s actually safe to run outside. Some serious runners I know will run in icy conditions using YakTrax, but if you’re a novice or simply don’t want to be that “hardcore,” be advised that ice is a safety hazard in temperatures under 32 degrees.
If temperatures are hovering around or below 30 degrees, ice can be a serious concern. Checking the weather isn’t just for your comfort, but to help determine if a recent snowfall has melted and frozen again, causing black ice that would be easy to miss. Take a step outside before you commit to run outside, is it slippery going down your sidewalk? Will a lite dusting of snow potentially covered black ice underneath, will you be able to see the icy patches? You can still run, but be very careful. I have some advice for running around ice but read on.
- Invest In The Right Gear:
Cold weather gear is important but what to buy? If you’re a slower runner, or use the walk-run-walk method like I do, you will need to invest in more warming gear. You’ll see elite and experienced runners outside in ridiculously thin tops…they apparently are built to run hot, I though, do not.
For most runs, I wear a fleece headband (to protect my ears from cold, harsh winds that make your ears throb), a dry wick shell (a long sleeved top) underneath a quarter zip and a running jacket. Running tights come in a variety of lengths and thicknesses for warmth and I pair them with thick wool socks and fingerless gloves. See below:
1. Fleece Headband / 2. Easy Grasp Running Gloves / 3. Convertable Fingerless Gloves To Mittens / 4. Water/Snow Repellant Jacket / 5. Thick Wool Running Socks / 6. Drywic Knit Top / 7. Extreme Cold Weather Jacket / 8. Thermal Running Tights
(This is all gear I’ve used and love but find what works for you. You’ll learn to layer based on the weather!)
- Be Cautious Of Ice! Sprains And Broken Bones Suck:
If you’ve ever slipped on ice or water, you know how it can tweak the most random muscles in your body as you try and overcompensate to find balance. You can imagine how much it’ll hurt if you try to save yourself while running from a really bad slip or worse, if you fall on ice. I’ve had friends get serious knee injuries from slipping on ice and have heard stories of broken wrists from slipping on the ice.
Avoid ice by running on well populated streets that get a lot of foot traffic- most of the time, they’ll be well salted and scraped. Be cautious of empty storefronts, vacant houses and stretches of empty lots where nobody is charged with de-icing sidewalks.
- Take Extra Time To Warm Up, Stretch, And Rest:
While I’ve warned about icy conditions that can lead to sprains and fractures, cold weather running can still lead to injury since the nature of well, nature can complicate your running form. If you’re known for not warming up, cooling down and stretching properly, pay extra attention that you correct this in winter. Cold weather makes your muscles more stiff and can lead to soreness after your run.
Additionally, due to extreme cold, you may find that your posture changes to bristle against the temperature, impacting your stride and straining muscles you may not have noticed in the summer and fall. If it’s been snowing or icy in your area, you will also see running as more of an obstacle course than your normal straight line jog- dodging puddles, icy spots and piles of snow on your run mean you’ll be utilizing different muscles to jump over, dodge around and sideline obstacles.
To avoid injury, spend extra time warming up, cooling down and stretching it out. If you feel sore or strained, give yourself extra time to rest- even if you ran a bunch in summer and fall, winter is a different beast.
- Hydration Is Still Important:
You’re surrounded by snow, ice or rain- being surrounded by frozen water plays tricks on the mind, and the cold temperatures may make you feel like you’re not sweating at all, but you are. In summer, runners are obsessed with hydration but when you run in the winter, you’re still sweating quite a bit even if you don’t feel the sweat. Don’t make the rookie mistake of assuming you sweat less because it’s cold. Your body is working hard to warm up in frigid temperatures- hydrate!
If you’re running in winter, chances are you’re either living through or recovering from the excesses of holiday celebrations- booze, sugar, fats and unhealthy amounts of carbs. Take into account your body may have slowed down due to bad eating and less activity compared to the summer months. Without jumping on some “resolution” bandwagon, gently correct any bad eating habits and slowly get back into a running routine. You may find you have to start slowly, but your body will acclimate to winter running- just be patient and make gradual adjustments to get back on track.
A Tip For Walk-Run-Walkers:
As a WRWer myself, be very cautious about fluctuations in body temperature. When you run, your body warms up, and when you stop to walk for long periods of time, your body cools off rapidly leading to heavy feeling muscles and making you susceptible to fatigue and frostbite. When it’s cold outside, it’s better to pace yourself to maintain a more constant body temperature (rather than sprinting then trying to catch your breath) -take it slow and steady!
If you want to do speedwork but aren’t a “fast” runner, limit your time outside and be very cautious about your pace to avoid heating up then rapidly cooling down quickly. Even with drywicking material, sweating in really cold temperatures can be dangerous or just simply tiresome. Shed layers wisely to avoid getting too hot but not cool off so fast that you’ll go from cool to cold without realizing it.
I learned this lesson the hard way at the Route 66 Half Marathon in 25 degree Tulsa Oklahoma. I got really hot, then took off some layers, then as I fatigued, I allowed myself to get too cold and trying to get warm again was near impossible. There’s no shame in the WRW method, just be smart about it in cold temperatures!
If I can run in winter, anyone can! I personally throw in the towel at 20 degrees or lower, but it can be done! I love running in 30 degree weather as long as it isn’t too icy on the path!