How to Run in Cold Weather: 10 Tips

If you’re like me, you hate to resort to running on the treadmill, even if it’s blistering cold outside.

Part of the joy of running is having your feet hit the pavement and breathing in the fresh air from outside. So especially when the seasons change quickly, you want to be prepared to run in cold weather. It can be a shocking change when one day you’re comfortably running outside, and the next day your breath seems to be pulled from your body as soon as you open the door.

But running in cold weather doesn’t have to be awful. If you have the right gear and you’re able to develop a positive mindset, you can continue to train throughout the winter months.

In this article, I will go over 10 tips you can use to run in cold weather. If you’re new to braving the elements of winter as a runner, this guide will help prepare you to be able to enjoy your runs, even when it’s frigid outside.

Let’s get going.

How to Run in Cold Weather: 10 Tips

1. Dress For the Occasion

You need to know just how cold it is outside when you’re planning your running attire. When you’re choosing what to put on before your run, find out what the temperature is outside and then add about 15 degrees to figure out what temperature you should dress for.

The number of degrees you add to the actual temperature may vary, as it is dependent upon how fast your body warms up and cools down, your running pace, and how long you’re planning to run. If you’re planning a quick run or you’re going to run at an easy pace, you will probably be comfortable if you add just 10 degrees to the temperature outside. However, if you’re planning a longer run to get a hard workout in, you may want to add as much as 20 degrees to the temperature.

So, for example, if it is 30 degrees outside, it’s going to end up feeling more like 40 or 50 once you get into your run, so dress as if it’s already that temperature so you don’t end up getting too hot. Which leads me to…

2. Layer Up

The key to successfully running in cold weather is wearing layers. Layering will help you in two ways. First, it creates a film of air between each layer that is warmed by your body heat and acts as a natural heating system. Secondly, layers let you control your internal temperature by allowing you to adjust the amount of clothing you’re wearing during your run.

When you’re running in the cold, you have to dress for two temperatures. First, there’s the temperature that you’ll feel as soon as you step outside, and then there is the temperature you’ll feel once you’ve made it about ten minutes into your run. After you warm up, you may want to shed some clothing. Some people choose to skip the warm up layers, but doing so can make the beginning of your run very uncomfortable.

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To successfully run in cold weather, wearing layers will help you.

Start with your base layers. It’s a good idea to wear compression gear because it offers minimal bulk, which is ideal for layering because you can easily slip something over it. However, non-compression shirts and leggings can also work for effective layering pieces. For your second layer, add a long-sleeve T-shirt or a light running jacket. You can even wear loose-fitting running pants over your leggings  in very cold conditions.

Another very effective method of layering is to wear a shirt or jacket that zips up just half way. Zipping and unzipping these tops let you quickly and easily control your temperature. Zip it up when you’re running down hill or during your warm-up or cool down, and unzip it when you’re running uphill or doing sprints.

Because you’ll be generating a lot of body heat during your run, you won’t need (or want) to be bundled up the entire time. Everybody has their own preference of how many layers are right for what temperature, so experiment a bit to find what works best for you.

3. Accessorize

Running hats and earmuffs will help keep your head warm as you run. Add a scarf or a neck gaiter to keep your exposed skin protected from the cold as well.

Wearing running gloves is an easy way to make sure you stay comfortable as well, because if you get too hot, you can slip them into your pockets. Plus, most winter gloves are touchscreen compatible, so you can still use your smartphone or GPS watch. Look for warming accessories that are made from merino wool, fleece, or moisture-wicking fibers.

If you’re going out during the daytime hours, don’t forget your protective eyewear. The sun’s glare can reflect off of the snow and its rays can be harmful to your eyes. But with winter’s limited daylight, there is a big chance you’re heading out in the dark. If this is the case, wear reflective gear to protect yourself from cars. You may even want to get a headlamp or carry a flashlight to stay safe. 

When heading out in icy conditions, make sure you have some type of traction device to put on your shoes. You don’t want to set yourself up to possibly slip and become injured, as this could potentially prevent you from running for the remainder of the season while you heal.

Finally, your socks can make or break your run. There isn’t much worse than running in the cold with wet feet or numb toes. To avoid this, wear warm, moisture-wicking socks that are ankle height or higher. While low-cut (or “no show”) socks are the most popular, they leave a small exposed gap of skin between your shoe and the bottom of your pants. Choosing socks that are ankle height or higher will keep this small gap of skin protected from the cold.

Keep in  mind that thicker socks will be best for keeping your feet warm. If possible, opt for merino wool, as this option is the warmest.

4. Take Wind Chill Into Consideration

When there is a wind outside, make sure to look at the “feels like” temperature. If it’s 30 degrees outside, but the wind chill makes it feel like 20, that’s the number that you will want to start with.

If it’s especially windy out, do your best to run facing the wind for the first half of your run and with the wind at your back on your way home. You won’t want to be running to the wind once you’ve gotten sweaty because it will make you even colder and it can be harsh on your skin.

5. Warm Up Inside First

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Warm up to the point that you feel like you’re about to start to break a sweat.

When it’s warm outside, you may be able to get by with doing a quick warm up before starting your run, but you will want to spend a good 15 minutes on this when you’re headed out into cold weather. You need to spend this extra time loosening up your joints and muscles while also raising your body temperature.

You want to warm up to the point that you feel like you’re about to start to break a sweat. Doing so will make stepping out into the cold a bit refreshing (instead of slightly dreadful) and your body won’t become so tight.

It’s best to warm up inside, but if you have to do it outside, make sure that you’re wearing an extra layer of clothing to keep you warm. This is part of planning your layers, as you will want to wear something that you can take off later while you’re running and tie around your waist.

6. Choose the Right Fabrics

One of the many advantages that we as modern runners have over those who really initiated the running boom in the 1970s and 80s is the wide variety of fabrics we have available for our running gear. Gone are the days where cotton t-shirts are your only option and fleece sweatpants are the standard. Cotton is not very helpful at keeping you warm when it’s wet because once cotton gets wet, it stays wet.

Manufacturers now use materials such as polypropylene, breathable polyester, and some wool and synthetic blends that are able to wick away sweat and moisture from your skin. These fabrics can be very effective in helping you stay warm and dry during your run, while wearing fabrics that don’t wick away moisture (such as cotton) won’t offer you any insulation and will stay soaked with your sweat, leaving you cold, wet, and miserable.

7. Keep in Mind, It’s Easier to Run in the Cold

While it might feel more dreadful to get ready for your run when it’s freezing cold outside, remind yourself that it’s actually easier than running in the middle of the summer. Having this change in your mental attitude can help you stop thinking I can’t and start thinking I can.

Professionals point to the fact that with warm weather, your body has to cool itself down, and in doing so, a massive amount of your blood goes to the surface of your skin to avoid overheating (which is why you see a lot of athletes turn red as they’re sweating).

However, when you’re running in cold weather, your body doesn’t need to produce a lot of sweat. Because of this, your blood can be saved for powering your muscles and heart. This alone can result in running with more ease without actually having to alter your normal level of effort.

8. Find the Best Shoes

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Wearing shoes with water-resistant uppers and closed mesh fabric is a must, to make sure your feet stay dry in the cold.

There are two main factors that differentiate winter running shoes from summer running shoes: waterproofing and grip. Most slips in the winter are the result of poor sole traction, and the majority of road running shoes don’t offer proper grip on snow. However, winter-specific shoes have soles that can stand up to the conditions.

Waterproofing is not so much about safety as it is about comfort. Having to always be on the lookout for winter slush can be aggravating when you’re trying to focus on your run.

Some running shoes offer weatherized protection. You will definitely want to make sure your feet stay dry in the cold, so wearing shoes with water-resistant uppers and closed mesh fabric is a must. You will also want to make sure you have shoes with specialized tread patterns that are designed to grip on slippery winter surfaces. Some cold-weather running shoes offer a fleece or thermal padded interior to add extra warmth.

9. You May Have to Change Your Route

Because of icy conditions, you may not be able to run where you normally would during the warmer months. If you usually run on the road’s shoulder, keep in mind that snow plows push piles of snow off the roads and directly into your running area. These small snow mountains solidify and turn icy, which makes for an impossible surface to run on. If this issue pushes your running zone into traffic areas, you’ll want to switch up your route.

Alternatively, if you prefer to use a track to do speedwork, you’ll probably be out of luck because if it’s been snowy or icy, the tracks are likely not plowed or treated in any way. The easiest alternative is to translate your distance intervals into time intervals, so if you would typically run intervals of 400-meters in two minutes, run intervals of two minutes at a time on a paved road.

Speaking of your route, begin your run facing into the wind and finish up with the wind at your back. Otherwise, you will heat up too quickly at the start of your run as you’re running with the wind, and the second half of your run will be extra cold because your sweat will be hit with the oncoming wind.

10. Keep it Short

Don’t run for more than an hour. After running in cold weather for 90 minutes, you put your immune system at risk, which could compromise your ability to run in the future if you end up getting sick. Also, reduce the time as much as you can from the end of your run to retreating to a warm place. Your body temperature will drop quickly once you stop moving, so it’s best to prepare for this in advance.

It would be ideal if you could finish up your run right at your front door, but if you have to drive home, make sure to have a warm jacket and hot drink waiting for you in the car

Final Thoughts

While you can reduce cold weather running hazards, you can’t completely eliminate them. It is important to have a little flexibility in your training schedule so you can stay safe without feeling the guilt of a missed workout.

As you’re keeping these tips in mind, make sure to still pay attention to your local weather warnings. When temperatures fall below freezing and the air becomes dry, it can aggravate certain health conditions, which means there may be some instances in which you should make the judgment call to hit up the treadmill instead of heading outside.

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