7 Seriously Useful Tips For Running in Cold Weather

by | 26 Dec 2020 | Outdoor Running, Running gear

No matter where you live, winter means one common thing – drop in air temperatures. The moment comes when you will no longer be able to sit in the park covered in sweat after your run, except if hypothermia is your idea of fun.

Things change quite a bit come winter. The sky turns grey, most birds have had enough and flew south, days are shorter. Runners who complained about hot weather are finally rejoicing only to realise that a warm July shower felt a lot better than an icy cold December rain, stirred by the northerly winds.

But is running in cold weather hard and uncomfortable or is it similar to other months around the year where all we need to do is simply prepare for variations in temperatures? Was Alfred Wainwright right when he said ‘’there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’’?

1. The first thing to consider when running in cold weather

As Alfred said, it’s about suitable clothing.

Winter normally offers two types of weather, cold and very cold. I live in London where it normally gets cold but you still see runners, sometimes me included, running in shorts.

On the other side of the spectrum, I have an agent on the ground who lives in Saskatchewan, Canada, where it is very unlikely that you will see her parading in shorts at minus 21C, and that’s without windchill factor.

Let’s look at our options.

local park ideal for new runners

When running you need to consider that your body will warm up and it will feel around 10C warmer than it really is. That’s the reason why some runners who overdress start dripping with sweat after a few minutes. A jacket feels fine when sitting down at 10C, but when you run that will turn into 20C and will start to feel very uncomfortable, very soon.

At 10C I will still wear shorts, a short sleeved base layer and a basketball jersey on top. Base layer will be the only difference in running gear from running in the heat of summer. So much for early December in London.

As it dips down to 5C, I will don a long sleeved base layer. Plus a pair of gloves if windy or foggy in the evening. Remember, it will feel like 15C, still around 35C warmer than in Saskatchewan so no need for loads of layers.

My runs are either faster or slower. Faster means warmer and less clothes, long and slow will mean that I can start wearing tights under the shorts, just to feel more comfortable.

Once we get to 0C business you are still likely to see an adventurer in shorts and a humble t-shirt but in reality you should wear warmer gear. I will wear tights, a compression base layer and a long sleeve top. There will be gloves and a hat to cover my ears, especially if windy.

If the wind is strong or if it rains I will wear a lightweight jacket but I will take off my long sleeve top, otherwise I would overheat even in those temperatures (it will feel like 10C, remember). I find that a base layer and a jacket are enough to keep me comfy.

What about Saskatchewan cold then?

Apparently the coldest ever was -56.7C, a bit chilly for shorts. Or running. Or going out at all. But with an average of -9C, people go out and run in that weather.

If you are born in such a climate you know what to expect and will dress accordingly. You will be ready.

So, if it hits -20C or more (do you really need more?) you will wear top & bottom base layers, winter trousers that are windproof on the front to help with the cold and a fleece lined top.

You may want to wear a quilted skirt for added protection around the hips and inner thighs. It’s good to have proper wool socks as well, we don’t want blue toes, no sir, and there will be ice cleats attached onto your trail shoes.

Up above think of a half face mask that people use for skiing.

It’s all about proper planning here. Too much clothes and you get sweaty, and you can do better than go sweaty at -20C. If you stop you are on the way to becoming an ice statue.

Of course, you will also need gloves, a running hat and a winter jacket with a hood that you can pull up if it gets really cold. I would also advise you to check with the locals first. Their idea of ‘real cold’ may differ from yours.

As always in running, if unsure ask those who know!

Hyde Park in London is a great place to run

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

2. Don’t forget hydration! What? Hydration in the cold?

During hot months we lose more liquid through sweating, hence feeling thirsty more often. But, we lose liquid during cold months as well. How? You can see your breath outside in the cold, and that breath is actually your body’s lost fluids. And that happens each time you exhale.

In the cold our natural response for water is diminished, the body is conserving heat by drawing blood to our core, thus tricking us into thinking we are properly hydrated.

We also wear more clothes. More clothes would mean more weight, and more weight means the body needs to work harder.

We get sweaty even on a cold day, don’t we? And given that in the cold our sweat evaporates faster, we are fooled into thinking that we are hydrated. Quite often we are not, simply because we drink less than we should and by drinking less we are risking dehydration.

And as we all know very well, that is not good news for runners whose bodies need to be hydrated.

In other words, drink more. Drinking water is not as easy as it is in the height of summer thirst so drink more by drinking less quantity but more often. How much? See how much you can tolerate, but up to two litres daily would be great.

3. do not forget The importance of Stretching when running in cold weather

Going out in the cold with our muscles cold and stiff may not be the best tip for comfortable running in cold weather. Even in the summer it’s good to get ready for running by getting your muscles in good condition by stretching them a bit. In the winter it’s even more so.

By doing dynamic stretching before you leave your nice and cozy room, you will get your heart rate up a bit and with your blood flow increased your muscles will warm up and your run will be more comfortable.

Don’t try static stretching before the run. We don’t do it when it’s warm and it’s even more unnecessary when it’s cold. Try a gentle workout with circles (knee and hips), trunk rotations, lunges, leg swings and squats.

To encourage you to do so, let me tell you of an incident that I suffered during my early days, one cold February morning. Not only did I ignore any stretching, I also left my car by wearing just a running top. No base layer, no jacket, just a skimpy top, as one does.

As I was walking towards the park the wind was hitting me in the back but I paid no attention to that minor inconvenience at a temperature that was close to zero. I started my run which lasted approximately a minute.

I experienced a muscle spasm somewhere in my upper back. The pain so sharp it took all my breath out. The pain so bad it forced me to stop.

I had real difficulty walking back to my car, a journey of around 5 minutes that I will never forget.

Crippling pain, cold wind, nearly no clothes.

It took a few weeks for it to get back to normal. And of course, with painkillers and a professional massage. Why did it happen? Cold muscles, inadequate clothing and, most probably, dehydration as well. But why did I do it? I wanted to feel running in the cold, when cold.

Trust me, now that I know I won’t do it again.

Look at stretching as a warm up exercise. Most of us prefer to feel warm and comfortable and quality stretching will give your muscles a necessary boost of preparation for the run on a cold day.

Don’t forget that, your body will be thankful.

I love running in London thanks to fantastic parks and sights

4. if Running in the dark and alone…

Many of us will go running after work, and in the winter that means dark. Days are short and even if you prefer to run before work, that’s also likely to be in the dark.

I run in the streets, and they are well lit but even then the visibility will be lower than during the daylight. Some who live in rural areas and those who prefer trails are likely to run where visibility is quite poor.

Both groups of runners are also fighting common enemies – wet leaves, slippery grass or black ice covered by slippery leaves, by far the worst on offer.

The way I do it, I run slower and focus on my steps. You can’t be too sure. Before I break into running I will walk for a bit just to feel the grip and see if the surface is icy. If I don’t feel comfortable, if the shoes don’t have enough grip I will abandon the mission.

The run can wait but I can’t afford twisting the knee.

If you run alone, on a trail and in the dark, wear a headlamp. Even the road runners sometimes wear them, depending on how visible the route is. It’s good to run where your phone can pick up a signal, in case you trip and fall.

And don’t forget to wear bright clothes and an ID, just in case. You want to make yourself more visible, regardless of where you are. That driver wants to see you first, let alone your mates who are looking for you in case you got lost somewhere.

However, if the darkness, cold, and lone running are not your forte you can alway consider running inside until the weather gets more to your liking. I know a fellow marathoner from Helsinki who is known to spend winters running in the underground garages.

Well, it works for him.

5. Running in the winter rain – or not?

There is rain, and there’s winter rain. Light drizzle is one thing, persistent hard cold rain is not something that I would recommend for the running outing. In the summer the rain is often refreshing but in the height of winter cold it could be simply dangerous.

When I run in the rain I will run locally, I will wear a jacket and a hat and will make sure that the run finishes at my doorstep. Getting soaked on a cold day with no warm shelter and dry clothes is no fun and should not be our choice.

As you run you generate heat but the moment you stop your heat production immediately stops, and you feel it straight away. The lower the temperature, closer to freezing, the more chances we have to get injuries like chilblain and hypothermia, and that is even more of a case in wet conditions.

If you run the trails make sure you’re not far from your car where there will be spare clothes waiting for you.

I will never forget the run when I got caught in cold rain with a lovely wind whipping me generously and I had forgotten my jacket in the car.

The car was then 16km away.

What did I do? I sprinted, that’s what I did.

By the time I reached the car I was nearly frozen solid and not only had difficulties changing clothes in the back seat, I had difficulties unlocking and opening the door with stiff, painful, bloodless fingers.

Absolutely no need to emulate my experience, simply do sensible and intelligent planning to save yourself from any unnecessary inconvenience.

London is full of fantastic running routes

6. How to get motivated to run in unsavoury and cold weather

Motivation can be fairly low in poor and cold weather.

I start with two things. I follow a program where the run is scheduled rain or shine and I always remember why I do this.

I will never forget the reason why I started running and that does a very good job when it comes to motivation. Would I rather run and treat my cardio and respiratory guys with respect, or roll back the years, stay inside and smoke a cigarette? And then struggle to walk up a few steps, gasping for air?

Yep. Go out and run.

If you know the weather is not going to be nice, don’t spend the day looking through the window, waiting. Not nice is not nice so may as well deal with it first thing. Get up a few minutes earlier, eat something light, drink something warm and away you go.

You are guaranteed to feel fabulous afterwards.

Or maybe you can run with a friend? You can help each other, and spend more enjoyable time running. Joining a local running group is also an option to consider!

If you are really dreading being cold out there, get some cool running gear, treat yourself. You can layer up, be warm, stay warm – and look cool. You can also plan for a treat on your return, a nice snack or a hot bath? Think about it, you’ll come up with something.

And if the weather is truly shocking there is nothing wrong with taking an odd day off, maybe run inside, or simply relax and do some light stretching. The run will wait.

7. Why we shiver during or after a cold run, and how not to

Sometimes we tend not to wear too many layers during cold day running thinking that we will warm up soon. If cold, exposed skin will cool down quickly causing shivers and goosebumps.

Most of us can cope with it although not for a long time.

Trouble begins when after some time we are still shivering although our running tempo is pretty fast. That means the body is losing heat faster than it manages to produce it, bringing the temperature down and basically leading to hypothermia.

First three signs are cold skin, shivering and confusion.

I ran a half marathon in January once and did not wear much. I remember never really getting warm. It was cold and windy. Then towards the end, and I ran on my own, I simply forgot how long a half marathon was meant to be!? I remember thinking, ‘’is it 23 or 24km’’?

I over-ran the distance by nearly 3km, sat in my car and was shaking uncontrollably.

Don’t do that! Layer up, and drop some layers as you warm up. Don’t go out in just a light top and expect that you’ll start sweating soon. You won’t. And it’s a dangerous game.

Sometimes though, you have a comfortable run, you wear appropriate gear, you are sweating, you are in the car driving home – and you are freezing! What’s going on here?!

Think of your body as a perfect mechanism, your brain the control centre managing the temperature. When we run, it goes up, when we stop running, it will go down and the brain likes to think the temperature should be at around 37C/98F.

During the run the blood flow will increase, dilating the blood vessels which will increase sweating to keep us cool. As soon as we stop, the flow of blood and sweating will decrease in order to bring the temperature down to its resting state.

As the sweat evaporates you will continue to lose heat to the environment and if you lose it too quickly, the shivers will kick in.

How to fix that?

Don’t hang out after the run. Go inside, stay warm.

If you drive to where you run, make sure you change into dry clothes straight away, including socks and shoes. Keep them ready in your car. Try to change while you are still warm after the run, don’t let the body cool down.

Drink a warm drink! When you get home, jump in the shower. Eat some food and drink water. Even in the cold, dehydration can cause those chills.

As always, listen to your body and keep looking after it.

Stay warm!

Running in the cold can be comfortable if we observe what Alfred Wainwright said – ‘’there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’’. Just like when running in very high temperatures running in the cold can bring fun to your day if you plan and prepare. Check the weather and layer up accordingly. If you make mistakes, learn from them. But above all, stay on the safe side and enjoy yourself.
Any cold weather running tips and experiences you’d like to share? 👇

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I hope that sharing my story, and what I have learned along this journey, will inspire you to get started and to keep going. To keep striving and being the best you can be. In running and in life.

Be.Your.Best.

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