There is nothing like winter to test a runner’s get-up-and-go. It’s fun at first, but then January hits (you tell yourself that you only have two more months … but we all know March is just more winter in sheep’s clothing): The days are still short and the forecasts are still bleak. Suddenly, the La-Z-Boy looks a lot better than the performance fleece strewn about your closet.
Winter is not only mentally tough, it’s also physically demanding. The cold, the snow, the ice, and the darkness create hazards for runners, which run the gamut from annoying to dangerous. Being educated about the risks will help keep you safe and make each run more enjoyable and productive.
Below are some of the top concerns, as well as the best tips for cold-weather running. So bundle up (but not too much) and have a good run!
What to Worry About
The two main causes for concern are hypothermia and frostbite. Here is a brief explanation of both:
Hypothermia is a condition where the body’s core temperature drops below that required for normal organ function and metabolic processes. It usually happens in very cold weather, but can also occur in more mild conditions if you become wet due to weather or perspiration. The two main causes for concern are hypothermia and frostbite. Here is a brief explanation of both:
In mild to moderate cases, head inside as soon as possible, remove all wet clothes, take a hot shower, and drink or eat warm food. If you are showing signs of severe hypothermia—loss of muscle coordination and a lack of shivering—seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Frostbite typically affects three areas of the body: Those you forget to cover up (ankles, for example), those that stick out (think nose or ears), or those farthest away from your core that receive inadequate blood flow (including arms, hands and feet).
Frostbite is best identified through the condition of the skin, since the affected area will often feel numb.
Superficial Frostbite: Minor frostbite is indicated by white skin that is waxy and numb to the touch. The affected areas are usually receptive to slow warming therapies, like warm water submersion or warm towels.
Deep Frostbite: This is the real deal. Severe frostbite is characterized by a hardening on the skins surface, along with large areas of black skin or purple-ish blisters that do not respond to warming. It is important to get emergency medical care right away.
Wind chill is the nemesis of all winter runners. It’s a consistent, unwanted training buddy for much of the winter months and increases the chance for both hypothermia and frostbite – not to mention the potential for mental breakdown sometime around mid-February.
Basically, it makes the cold colder. And wind chill can fool runners into under-dressing since it isn’t calculated on most outdoor thermometers.
The Coldest Race on Earth: At the North Pole Marathon, temperatures typically reach -33°F and average well below zero for the entire 26.2 miles. Runners from 13 different countries and six continents participated in the 2009 race—facing everything from frostbite to snow blindness to polar bears.
Cold Muscles and Tendons
When it is cold out, your muscles and tendons take longer to warm up. That means greater chance for injury or poor performance.
When soft tissue gets cold, it contracts; when things contract, their range of motion is minimized. For runners, this means that your ability to stride out will either be compromised or at the risk of muscle/tendon damage.
Snow and Ice
Snow and ice can also be dangerous for runners. The problem is twofold: You could slip or fall on the ice; or cars could slip on the ice and crash into you. That is why it is even more important to be aware of incoming traffic during the winter months.
This can be an even bigger problem if you have to run in the dark (which many do during the winter), so plan ahead and run in a safe location.
The air inside our lungs is usually somewhere around 100-degrees Fahrenheit. The body typically warms up all the air before it enters the lungs, but when the temperature drops below zero, it’s just too cold and too dry to properly process. That, plus a runner’s need for frequent, deep breathing, can create bronchial spasms, asthma attacks or coughing.
Christine Clark: 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon Champion
Christine Clark's victory in 2000 was one of the greatest upsets in U.S. Olympic Trials history. She lived and trained in Anchorage, Alaska the winter before the spring race and used snow shoeing and a treadmill in her basement to combat the brutal conditions – not the typical regime of an Olympic marathoner. But it worked. When race day arrived, Clark moved up 22 spots from her pre-race seed to not only win, but set a personal best by over six minutes.
Winter Running Tips
Now that you are properly terrified of Jack Frost, let’s move forward to how you can fight against and prepare for the concerns listed above.
Wearing the right gear will go far towwards making your winter runs safer and more enjoyable.
Dress in Layers:This will help you stay warm and dry, since you can shed layers as you warm up. And never, ever wear cotton in the winter…unless you want to be cold and miserable once the fabric gets wet.
- Base layer: Use a thin layer of synthetic material like polypropylene that wicks sweat from body.
- Middle layer: Use fleece or similar fabric for insulation in very cold weather. Fleece helps to trap air and keep you warm, while still letting out enough to prevent overheating.
- Outer layer: Use Gore-Tex, nylon, or similar product to fight the elements. It is important to use a material that is wind/water proof, but still breathable to keep you from getting to warm.
Avoid Overdressing: Overdressing = over-sweating. And while sweat means you’re warm, it is also the quickest way to lose body heat, as water robs heat from your body up to 25 times faster than trapped air. There are temperature-based recommendations for how many layers to put on, but it really is a personal thing – some need two layers at 30°F, some need only one. Learn what works for you and be ready to shed layers as you go.
Feet and Hands
These babies are usually the first to get cold and the last to warm up, because they are the farthest from the core where blood flow is poor. A good pair of gloves and wool socks will usually do the trick, but keep these tips in mind, just in case:
Mittens: These are best for keeping hands warm, since the fingers can share heat without the separation.
Heat Packets: Use disposable heat packets to combat a really cold day or really bad circulation.
Fancy Socks: Wear a good pair of wicking socks made of fabrics such as acrylic, CoolMax, or wool.
Bigger Shoes: Have a pair of winter shoes that are about a half-size larger than normal to give room for thicker socks.
Protect Your Head
People really do lose between 20 and 40-percent of their body heat through their head. To warm up your entire body, you need to start at the top.
There are four pieces of headwear that are crucial for any winter wardrobe – a head band, a hat, a neck warmer, and a facemask. Start with the headband, adding the other pieces of hear as it gets colder.
Vaseline may be a runner’s greatest secret. It has at least three specific uses during the winter months:
- Prevents chapped lips, chapped nostrils, etc.
- Protects the face from sun damage – Vaseline will refract the light rays.
- Protects any exposed body parts (including the ankles and the face) from frostbite due to wind chill.
Start Into the Wind
Run into the wind the first half of the run. This will give you a better gauge of what the conditions are really like before you are too far away to adjust your direction. It is also better to run with a headwind before you start sweating, since the extra moisture from perspiration will increase chances for chill or frostbite.
Although it seems counter intuitive, you tend to lose more water in the winter through sweat (due to layers) and respiration. And being even slightly dehydrated makes runners much more susceptible to both hypothermia and frostbite since blood flow will already be compromised. So drink up!
Get a Grip
If the roads are really bad, you will need more traction than provide by your standard running shoes. Either purchase a pair of company made grippers to put over your running shoes (think YakTrax) or do it yourself using No. 4 or No. 6 sheet-metal screws (quarter-inch if possible). Simply take the screws and twist them into the sole of your shoes—you only need a few on each shoe.
There will come a winter day(s) where it is just too cold or too snowy to run outside. In those cases, make sure you put your safety and health first and head inside. If you had a big workout planned and the weather doesn’t cooperate, just run easy until its warmer or the footing improves. Be smart and use the information above to make the best decision.