I’m a California girl, 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 fall in the Midwest. Winter running can be intimidating for anyone, but with some preparation and the right gear- it doesn’t have to be.
If you’d like to start or keep running in winter, here’s my best tips for winter running that have helped me acclimate to running outside 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!
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 light dusting of snow potentially camouflage some black ice underneath? You can still run, but be very careful.
Winter running 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 to keep your core temperature stable. 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 thermal undershirt underneath a quarter zip and topped with fleece running jacket.
What I love about this setup is that you can zip up or down for venting if you feel too warm. Whenever possible, I make sure a top has thumb holes (I geek out about this!) and plenty of zippers to ensure I can customize my warmth.
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!)
If you’ve ever slipped on ice, you know how it can tweak the most random muscles in your body as you try and overcompensate to find balance. 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.
While I used to run in my urban neighborhood during the warm months, I often would need to move to a well maintained park during the icy months- since sidewalks aren’t always the best maintained by homeowners and can be icy in the most random spots.
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 in the habit of 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. You might feel your neck or jaw tighten when that icy wind is blowing, so be mindful that you are a bit more tense than normal!
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.
Post workout, a hot soak with some muscle aiding epsom salt (I’ve used Dr. Teal’s) can be soothing. Warming up a mug of water and adding flavored magneisum powder can warm you up and aid with muscle aches and pains. (It smells amazing!)
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 even in the winter months, you’re still sweating quite a bit even if you don’t feel it so acutely. Don’t make the rookie mistake of assuming you sweat less because it’s cold outside.
Your body is working hard to warm up in frigid temperatures- hydrate! A handheld bottle that grips to your hand without a lid can make hydrating with gloves much easier.
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.
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! If you have any tips for winter running, please share them with us in the comments.