Cool Weather Running

How to Thrive in Your Winter Training

By Roy Stevenson

The long, hot summer days are behind us and the overcast skies are harbingers of the short, cold winter days to come. So, it’s time for a refresher on how to run in the cold.

Winter running brings its own set of hazards—some of them potentially lethal—so you need to adopt a safety mindset when running outdoors on those dark nights.

Many runners regard the dark, rainy winter days as an excuse to take it easy, which means they have to regain their previous hard-earned fitness. The winter months should be seen as a time to put in as much conditioning work as you can comfortably handle.

Include one day per week of interval training in your winter conditioning. One quick interval workout each week keeps your neuromuscular system and fast-twitch muscle fibers revved up so you’ll never lose that all-important leg speed and strength. Interval training will also keep your lactate threshold up to par.

Weathering the cold

You’ll be running slower than normal due to poor traction on snow and ice. Wind, low-visibility and several layers of clothing are also factors that may slow you down. Trying to maintain a fast pace often results in disaster—
so settle back into your steady winter pace and enjoy
your run.

But watch the terrain closely. Walk around icy patches and be careful while running downhill and around corners. If you find yourself on slippery terrain, slow down to a shuffle, shorten your stride and run flat-footed for more shoe contact with the ground. Stay relaxed and keep your balance.

Several myths still prevail about running in the cold, especially the one that running will provide the necessary heat to keep you warm in cold temperatures.

Given the combination of low body fat on distance runners, extreme cold, and accumulated sweat in clothing, heat loss often exceeds heat produced during distance running and a runner can easily become hypothermic.

Another myth is that lung tissue will freeze in sub-zero temperatures with the rapid, deep breathing of cold air. Research has shown that cold air poses no danger of damaging our respiratory passages. Even in extreme cold, incoming air warms to between 26 degrees to 32 degrees by the time it has reached the bronchi.

The downside to exercising in cold air is that during the warming process, the humidification of cold air causes a lot of water and heat loss from the respiratory tract (mouth, trachea, larynx, bronchi).This moisture and heat loss can cause a dry mouth, burning throat, irritation of the respiratory passages and dehydration, which can lead to throat infections. It’s best to drink frequently to keep your throat moist and be sure to rehydrate after running.

Wind chill

Always consult a wind chill temperature chart before going out. It’s not the actual temperature that causes hypothermia—it’s the combination of temperature and wind speed. Cold wind displaces the insulating warm air that surrounds our body while we run, causing an overall convective heat loss.

Running in a calm 30 degrees can seem quite warm, but running in that same temperature with a wind gusting at 20 miles per hour will bring the effective wind chill temperature down to -15 degrees, making it dangerous to run.

On cold, windy days run out and back courses: head into the wind on your way out, and return with the wind at your back.

Winter running clothing

The key to successful cold weather running is to wear your clothing in layers. This traps air between them and the air warms up from body heat. If you start overheating, increase the airflow to your chest by unzipping your jacket.

Most winter running clothes are made from microfiber, which is a very breathable fabric. Stay as dry as possible when running, because water conducts heat away from the body 26 times faster than air.

Cover your head

You can lose up to 40 percent of your total body heat from your noggin, so on wet, cold, or windy days, a wool hat or ski mask should be worn. The ideal material for these is microfiber or wool.

Hands and fingers

Protect your hands and fingers with microfiber (or wool) gloves, mittens or socks. Mittens are warmer than gloves because they keep your fingers together and their combined heat keeps your hands warmer. Wool or polypropylene socks are also fine for your feet for winter running.

Wear tights when it is below 40 degrees. Microfiber/polypropylene tights are suitable for cooler weather 40 degrees and above, while polypropylene tights are best for much colder weather.

Running safely

Wear dark clothing to contrast against snow in the daytime and light-colored clothing at night. Wear a large runner’s reflective vest when running at night, dawn or dusk. Anything you can wear that will make you more visible when you run will improve your safety such as headlamps, leg bands, armbands, hot spots, safety lights and illuminated hats and caps.

Caution: Despite all this high-tech reflective gear, drivers won’t always be able to see you in the fog and rain so never assume that wearing reflective clothing will guarantee your visibility to an oncoming driver.

Winter running brings its own set of difficulties that must be planned for, but it doesn’t need to stop you in your tracks. Depending on the climate in your area, you will need to dress accordingly, in layers if necessary.

However, when the temperature has dipped below zero, think about taking a day off or going indoors to use a treadmill or other cross-training equipment.

As a freelance writer, Roy Stevenson has over 200 articles on running, triathlons, sports, fitness and health published in over 60 regional, national and international magazines in the U.S., Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. To view more of Roy Stevenson’s running articles go to