How to run in the winter

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I’ve often described myself as a “fair weather runner”. I didn’t do much running in the winter, and I tended to avoid doing much running in the high humidity of summer. After suffering from vertigo and being sidelined, I was so eager to get back out there that I pretty much ran all through last summer.

However, this year brought about a new challenge for me. Since I’m training for my very first marathon in May, I have no choice but to train through the winter. If I lived somewhere with mild winter weather it would be a non-issue but I live on the Atlantic coast of Canada. We get snow, we get a lot of it, and it often comes with other hazards like high winds, low temperatures, and freezing rain.

How to run in the winter

That was a pretty cold day!

I haven’t liked winter since I was a teenager when I used to cross-country ski with my dad. I’d like to adopt the habits of a bear and hibernate until spring if I could. I’ve found though, that having to get my long runs in on the weekends has made me despise winter far less than usual (admittedly it helps that this winter has not been as bad weather-wise as last year!). I actually find myself enjoying hitting the roads in the winter, knowing that most people are inside hiding.

There is an art to winter running though, and it takes a little pre-thought to do it safely and warmly. It’s worth the extra effort though, and if you try it you just might find yourself enjoying winter too!

How to run in the winter

1. Dress accordingly. This sounds obvious of course, but when I say “dress accordingly” I don’t mean bundle yourself up like the Michelin Man. Running raises your core temperature fairly quickly, even in the cold, and if you over-dress you will find yourself overheating – even if that’s hard to believe when you look at what the weather networks are saying. Generally I look at the temperature and add ten degrees Celsius to that. It will always feel warmer than it is once you get going. Don’t dress like you’re going to stand still, dress for the movement. On an average winter run I will wear running tights, a technical running t-shirt, a technical long sleeved running shirt (both of those layers wick away moisture), and a fleece pullover for warmth. To this base I will add a hat (just a cap if it’s hovering around freezing, a toque if it’s a little colder, and a balaclava if it’s really cold), a buff around my neck (which I can pull up over my face as needed), and gloves. If it were extra cold I might pull on some shorts over the tights but I haven’t needed to do that yet. If you plan on running in potentially icy conditions, try Yak Trax. I refuse to run on ice so I haven’t tried them but I hear they work extremely well.

How to run in the winter

This isn’t the time to worry about style.

2. Watch for skin. I have a few pairs of socks that I like to wear for running, but they’re ankle socks. These just don’t work in subzero temps because there’s too much risk of exposed skin. I wear socks that come up at least well over my ankle so that I don’t have to worry about my tights riding up and leaving bare ankles at risk of frostbite. I also like to wear the fleece pullovers that have thumb holes; then I can pull them down over my gloves for no wrist exposure. I wear my Garmin over my sleeve instead of under for the same reason. As for my neck and face, I usually have the buff just around my neck but if I’m running in cold headwinds I can pull it up over my nose, minimizing how much of my face is being hit.

3. Warm up inside – but not too much! Don’t go out and start trying to warm up in the cold and wind in your driveway. You’re going to find yourself discouraged right off the bat. You want to start off warm and get moving ASAP. Do your basic warm-up exercises inside before you don your top layer of clothing, then head out right away. At the same time, don’t over-do it. You want to warm up your muscles enough to move easily but you don’t want to break a sweat and then head out into frigid air.

Yes, you can run all winter! Here's how to stay safe & have fun! Click To Tweet

4. Drink water. A lot of people think you don’t need to drink much water if any when you’re running in the cold. Keep in mind, though, as I said earlier you will still break a sweat no matter how low the temperature is and you can become dehydrated just as easily as you can in warmer weather. I also find that breathing cold air makes my throat dry so it comes in handy for that reason as well. If you plan to be running for more than 45 minutes I’d say it’s definitely a necessity to have water on you (personally, I always carry water with me even if I’m only going for a 5K!).

5. Slow down and choose direction wisely. If there are strong winds or if there’s a lot of snow, understand that you won’t be able to maintain a fast pace like you would on a balmy spring day with clear paths. Slow your pace down and go for distance instead of speed. Slowing down will also keep you safer as far as slipping goes. On that same note, be careful not to over-stride. You are far more likely to slip and fall if you’re striding too far ahead than if you keep your foot landing closer to your center of gravity. Meanwhile, if it’s especially windy and you’re doing an out-and-back or a big loop, run IN to the wind when you first start out. That way the wind is at your back on the way home, which does two things: one, the wind won’t make you feel quite as cold once you’re sweaty, and two, when you’re more tired later in the run you will have the wind helping to propel you forward instead of offering up resistance.

How to run in the winter

It’s more fun than it sounds!

6. Use music with caution. I almost never run without music. Music motivates me to keep going and I enjoy it. However, if there is snow on the ground and you’re on the streets you’ll want to be able to hear cars coming up behind you as well as snowplows. If you are like me and you must run with some tunes playing, either run with only one bud in or lower your volume so you can hear what’s happening around you.

7. Be visible! Even if you’re running in the day, snow can make it hard for people to see you. This isn’t the time to wear your white running jacket, even if it’s made of reflective material. My favorite fleece that I wear on most of my runs is a bright fuchsia that offers a lot of contrast, so even on a snowy day I’m easy to see. If your best jacket is a less than appropriate color for visibility, consider wearing a bright lightweight t-shirt over it to make sure drivers can see you!

8. Keep moving. There’s a joke among winter runners that it’s only cold if you stop moving, but aside from being funny it’s true. I am training with a 9-1 interval so I run for nine minutes and walk for one minute (this comes in handy for drinking water and fueling with gels, I can do them on my walk breaks). When it’s cold I walk fairly briskly to keep from getting a chill, and I avoid full out stopping unless I have no choice (red lights at an intersection for instance). One time I was pooped after my first time successfully running up a long and steep hill without stopping for the first time. I decided to sit on a bench at the top to catch my breath and take my gel, but not only did that allow my legs to stiffen up, I also got cold very quickly (I only sat for a minute or so) and never really fully warmed up again after I started running again. Don’t stop unless you have no choice!

How to run in the winter

Running + the beach = two of my favourite things!

9. Go for the warmth as soon as you get home. Before you do anything at all (okay, take a few seconds to pause your Garmin and/or apps but that’s it!) get out of your sweaty clothes. If it’s been really cold you will likely be surprised by how much sweating your body has done. Even inside your warm house, your core temperature will drop rapidly if you’re hanging around in damp layers. I usually change into some warm jogging pants and another fleece hoodie to start. From there I usually grab a cup of hot coffee (I am not a pre-run coffee drinker) and stretch right away, sometimes I will make some instant oatmeal, and then I have a hot shower. You just had a great bad-ass run, don’t end it on a low note by letting yourself get cold now that you’re home!

10. Know when to stay indoors. Running in the winter will make you feel like a major bad-ass. It’s actually surprisingly fun to run through some snowfall and to know that most people are holed up indoors while you’re getting your training in. However, don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation just for the bragging rights. Ice is not safe, especially if it’s black ice that isn’t easy to see. Freezing rain is going to soak through you and make you cold no matter how fast and hard you run. Blizzard conditions are not safe for running due to visibility issues (you can’t see well, and neither can those around you). Extreme cold is not something to treat lightly and can cause frostbite or hypothermia. Know the signs of those two conditions by the way, and get yourself inside immediately for proper treatment. If the conditions are not safe for outdoor running, either adjust your training and postpone your run for another day or run inside on a treadmill or indoor track. It may not be as much fun to run inside but it will keep you healthy and injury-free. Today I was supposed to run 19 km (12 miles) but I woke to blizzard-like conditions with very high winds. As much as it pained me to do it, I chose not to run and I bumped my long run to tomorrow instead. It was disappointing but better safe than sorry.

How to run in the winter

A treadmill may not be as fun but it will keep you safe!

If you’ve avoided winter running like I always did, I hope these tips will inspire you to try slipping into your running shoes and getting out there. You may be surprised by how much fun you’ll have!

Are you a winter runner? Any tips I missed that you’d like to share?

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1 thought on “How to run in the winter

  1. Anna

    Thanks for this Sherry! I planned to run today but it was cold as all heck outside and I was going to skip it but this has motivated me to just go try it. I will try not to overdress but it’s only 23 out there and I kinda want to wear 8 layers. Hahaha!


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