Running Through the Cold
by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Runners need to protect themselves when they are out on the road putting in all those miles. The first step is to make sure you are visible to others. It can be hard for drivers to see runners in the early morning hours of winter. Snowbanks and snowstorms can make it even harder. Choose clothes that contrast with your surroundings. Choose bright clothes for snowy days and reflective clothes for dusk or dawn. Headlamps and clip on lights can also make it easier for you to be seen and avoid getting injured.
Today’s fabrics make it easier than ever to run in the cold. The best approach for cold weather running is to dress in layers. They trap heat to keep the body warm, and they can be taken off as the weather changes. Runner-friendly clothes also have zippers and vents to let out excess heat. They can also be easily folded and carried. Keep in mind that it is okay to be a little chilly when you start running. You will warm up quickly when you start running.
Start with three upper body layers. The first layer should be made of a synthetic material that draws sweat away from the body. You may have heard the phrase "cotton is rotten." It is true when it comes to running because it absorbs and holds moisture in. This makes it more likely that you will get cold. The next layer is the insulating layer that will keep you warm. Fleece is a good choice for this middle layer. For the final layer, look for windproof, waterproof materials.
Next comes the lower body. You will need to protect your legs with running pants that are thick and synthetic. How thick depends on how cold it is.
You'll want to use the same laying method for your hands and feet. For hands, wear a glove liner with an outer mitten or glove over them. To keep your feet warm, try synthetic socks with wool socks over them. Keep in mind that this doubling up may make your running shoes too small. If your feet feel tight, choose a larger pair of running shoes. It is best to buy shoes at the end of the day when your feet are their largest. Bring your running socks with you when you get fitted.
Finally, you'll want to top things off with a hat to prevent your head from losing body heat. Choose one made of windproof fleece.
A few safety steps go a long way. Make sure to tell someone where you are going and for how long before you leave for your run. You should also carry identification with you. Some runners write their names, phone numbers, and blood type on the inside sole of their shoes. You may also want to bring a small amount of cash, a mobile phone, and a safety whistle.
Icy trails or roads should be avoided. You should also use shoes with a traction device to prevent slipping when you run in snow. Plan your run so the wind is at your back on your return home since built-up sweat can cause a chill.
Avoid Hypothermia and Frostbite
Hypothermia and frostbite are the two most common cold weather dangers. Some runners opt for inside workouts during very cold weather. If you decide to run outside, make sure you take extra steps to make sure no skin is exposed. You should wear a face mask. Seek medical help right away if you have symptoms of hypothermia or frostbite.
Hypothermia happens when the body’s temperature drops below normal. A person may have intense, involuntary shivering and problems doing complex tasks. It can lead to violent shivering, slurred speech, and loss of motor skills. It is severe when shivering stops. This causes the heart rate to slow and can cause a loss in consciousness.
Frostbite is when part of the body freezes. It often happens to the fingers, toes, ears, and nose. It starts with an itching or burning feeling, then the area becomes numb. The skin will look white, cold, and hard before turning red and swollen. Severe frostbite causes the skin to blister and harden.
You need to be prepared to run in cold weather. Cold air makes your body work harder, so make sure you eat enough calories to keep your muscles working. You will also want to drink plenty of fluids. Cold air increases water loss through breathing. This can lead to dehydration. And you may not realize just how much you are sweating when bundled up in extra layers.
Adjust to the conditions around you by wearing the right clothes and shoes. This can help you to enjoy the freedom and serenity that a winter run can bring.
American College of Sports Medicine
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology
Accidental hypothermia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/accidental-hypothermia. Accessed October 8, 2021.
Cold stress. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
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Accessed October 8, 2021.
Frostbite. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/frostbite. Accessed October 8, 2021.
Exercising in hot and cold environments. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/exercising-hot-cold-environments.pdf?sfvrsn=1b06c972_4. Accessed October 8, 2021.
Tips for a safe running program. American Academy of Othropaedic Surgeons Ortho Info website. Available at: https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/staying-healthy/tips-for-a-safe-running-program. Accessed October 8, 2021.
Last reviewed October 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 10/8/2021