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Cold Weather Running

Updated: Mar 17, 2020

Run safe in winter conditions

I love to run year around, even when the weather doesn’t cooperate. In the spring, summer and autumn, it can be easy to pack the necessary things for my run, whether it’s a long trail run or a local 5k. Comfortable clothes, water, lip balm, a couple of band-aids, a cell phone and even a lightweight rain poncho. Most of these items are small and will easily fit into a fuel belt or hydration pack along with gels and snacks.

Winter, however, can pose very specific if not dangerous challenges. Safety is always paramount during any season but my cold-running list is much more definitive than it is for milder conditions.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve developed the following tips that work almost every time. I keep a checklist on my phone, convenient and easy to use. It includes the following:

Watch the weather forecast! As I do during the other seasons, I always use the “20-degree Rule.” This rule states that you dress for 20 degrees (F) warmer than it really is. For instance, if it’s 55 degrees outside, dress for 75. If it’s 30 degrees, dress for 50. Winter adds a few caveats to this rule, and two of those are WIND and WATER, whether it’s rain, sleet or wet snow. If you get wet during your run, your clothes will simply hold that moisture and hypothermia becomes a real possibility. Wind exacerbates those chances – the windier it is, the more dangerous it becomes.

Clothing – I run in shorts most of the year, even when it’s a local 5k and only 20 degrees outside. It may sound risky, but a sanctioned 5k is a controlled event – I can get out of my car, run the race, and get back in my car without freezing. If I were to fall, there would be course personnel or other runners who could come to my aid. But if I’m out on the trails or on an extended run of 30 minutes or more, and the temperature is below 30, you can expect to find me in racing tights.

Good quality tights are important, with a mylar or nylon exterior to repel the moisture and a lightweight fleece insulation to keep me warm. If the snow is deep, I run with good quality shoes, gaiters and socks. I even have a pair of New Balance Fresh Foam running boots, if it’s more than 10 inches deep. If it’s icy or there is chance of running on ice, I’ll pack Yak Trax in my running belt. In the warmer months, my feet are most comfortable and durable in technical socks. In the snow, however, I switch to wool for their great insulating qualities. As with everything else in life, there are exceptions – if wool gets completely soaked, it doesn’t wick well from the skin like technical and cotton blend socks do. Again, you need to be aware of the weather forecast as well as the current environment. Best bet – THIN technical socks inside wool socks if you’re going to be out there for a while. Of course, two pairs of socks may require slightly larger shoes.

On the top side, always dress in layers starting with a good technical fiber shirt. The technical fabric will wick the moisture away from your body.Next is a medium thickness long-sleeve shirt. Again, avoid cotton as it will retain the moisture. Depending on the weather, you may need a third and even a fourth waterproof layer. Finally, always invest in good quality hats and gloves. A ski mask (technical, not cotton) is recommended when it’s bitter cold. I outline very detailed clothing recommendations with associated temperature ranges in my book "Running for the Average Joe."

New Balance Fresh Foam running boots

Stay hydrated! Hydration in colder temperatures is just as important as the summer months. It can be very deceptive on your cold morning run, because you may not feel thirsty, but you may sweat more than normal, because your heart rate is elevated as your body works harder to run through adverse conditions. TIP: I always bring at least 4 ounces of water for each mile that I run. In sub-freezing conditions, I always put hot water in my water bottles or hydration pack. By the time I’m ready for that first drink, it’s cooled off but not frozen. I always make sure that my top layer of clothing is layered on top of my fuel belt or hydration pack, to keep the water warm from my body heat.

Location, location, location! Always tell someone where you’re heading and what time you expect to be back. In the right conditions, hypothermia can set in even while you’re moving. If you do stop, it can be life-threatening. On my longer runs, I always carry my SPOT, a GPS tracking device, so my loved ones know where I am. TIP: Stay within three miles of a trailhead, so if you are incapacitated, rescue efforts don’t take long. If you need more mileage, simply run a few loops, still within a reachable distance of the trailhead.

Cell phone – Most of us carry a cell phone on our runs. It’s second nature and gives us a sense of comfort, plus they have additional features for excellent photography opportunities. The convenience of technology carries it’s risks as well – never underestimate your cellphones power consumption in cold weather. When I run in the cold, I always make sure that my phone as close to my body as possible; under my first or second layer of clothing where it’s much warmer and dryer and not in my running belt where it’s exposed to the elements. TIP: I also carry a very small external battery pack and cable on my longer runs. Colder temperatures will deplete your cellphone’s battery exponentially. Keep that phone on a full charge and as warm as possible. This can be the difference in life or death situations.

Common Sense – As runners, we tend to push harder and sometimes to extreme levels. Use good sense and don’t take unnecessary risks. If you’re unsure about a run in hazardous conditions, save it for another day.

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