How to Modify Your Running For Winter Weather

How to Modify Your Running For Winter Weather

While most runners love cooler weather, winter weather is a different scenario. In many parts of the world, winter weather comes with bitter cold, harsh winds, icy roads, and large accumulations of snow. These conditions are not exactly conducive to running. To stay consistent with your running, winter weather requires some training modifications.

Just How Cold is Too Cold?

The answer will vary for everyone. A Floridian may find temperatures below 35 F intolerable (and not have running gear for it). A Midwesterner may be fine until the windchill drops below 0F. However, there are some conditions that are simply not safe to run – you do not want to do a 2-hour long run when frost-bite is a concern. However, for most runners, there is a point where it is simply too cold to run.

How to Run Outside Safely in the Worst of Winter Weather

Layer Up:

While bad weather certainly does exist, bad gear can limit the conditions you can safely run in. Winter weather running requires the right gear and preparation. Frostbite and hypothermia are real risks when the temperature drops below 32F/0C. However, by dressing appropriately, you can mitigate those risks up until a certain point. Additionally, covering your legs reduces vasoconstriction (when blood vessels restrict due to cold) and thus maintains oxygen-rich blood flow to the working muscles for better performance. You want to wear wicking layers (such as merino or synthetic fabrics) and cover as much skin as possible. For more on how to dress in the cold, reference this detailed guide.

Protect Your Skin and Eyes:

In winter, the sun can reflect off of the snow. As a result, glare can increase, making it hard to see. You will want sunglasses to both to protect your eyes. Additionally, sunglasses can help you maintain good form, as most runners will tuck their chins or slouch when encountering glare from the sun. Sunglasses can also keep precipitation such as snow or sleet out of your eyes. Many brands make yellow, amber, green, or pink lenses specifically for cloudy days.

Your skin needs extra protection as well. Winter can cause dry skin, while there is still a risk of sun damage. A moisturizing sunscreen (I love this sunscreen from FRE Skincare) will provide sun protection without drying out your skin. Use Vaseline/Aquaphor to protect your skin from windburn and chapping.

Alter Your Route

Varying routes is beneficial at any time of year. During a bitterly cold run, you want to vary your route to avoid stopping as much as possible. Pick loops around a park, rail trails/greenways, or even neighborhood loops to minimize your encounters with traffic lights. Any time spent standing still will cause your core temperature to drop – which can increase your risk of hypothermia.

If your climate is prone to ice without much snow, you may find that off-road running provides better stability. Pavement and concrete can become very slick with ice. Gravel, dirt roads, trails, or even grass can be safer options, although you will still want to practice caution.

Run By Time Instead of Distance :

While 45 degrees may be optimal marathon weather, temperatures below freezing will hinder performance. The colder it is, the slower you should expect to run – especially if you factor in winter winds. Your body does not know miles or kilometers, though. Adaptation comes from a combination of duration and intensity. Running by time instead of distance in winter weather lets you achieve the same desired stimulus of any type of run, without spending longer out in the cold. So if 7 miles typically takes you 60 minutes, plan on just running for 60 minutes – even if you cover significantly less distance.

If in Doubt, Just Run Easy:

Not only is it difficult to run fast in cold temperatures – it can be risky. The more you sweat, the more you risk hypothermia. Cold weather running is also hard on your tendons and muscles. You may experience less peripheral blood flow, which may make certain tendons stiffer. Interval workouts already have a heightened risk due to the quick accelerations and decelerations. This can create the perfect scenario for a sprain or strain.

If you desire a bit more intensity, opt for a progression run. Aerobic progression runs involve picking up to a moderate (faster than easier, slower than tempo) effort for the end. You can run a bit faster, but won’t sweat too much, will avoid chilling during recovery intervals, and will be able to head indoors immediately (vs completing a cool down jog).

Indoor Training is a Viable Option

You do not have to prove yourself as a runner by training in dangerous or unpleasant conditions. Training on a treadmill is just as effective as outdoors. In fact, on days when the roads are icy or the risk of frostbite and hypothermia are high, an indoor run may be more productive. On those days, try one of these treadmill workouts (including easy run options!). Having a positive mindset also makes a difference. Stop calling it the “dreadmill”, and instead embrace it as a tool for consistent running all winter long.

The treadmill does not have to be an obstacle to marathon training. You can complete a long run on the treadmill. Try these tips for managing a long run on the treadmill. If the thought of two hours on the treadmill sounds miserable and you cannot skip a long run, you may find it beneficial to split your run instead. In this example, you could run 75 minutes, take a break and refuel, and then run 45 minutes later.

No treadmill? You can still get your heart rate up with an indoor workout! A format such as 30 seconds on/30 seconds off or every minute on the minute can add a cardio focus to your strength workout.

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How do you adjust your running for winter weather?

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7 Responses

  1. That’s a great idea with the progression run in cold weather.
    Especially at the end of a run I tend to cool down very fast, so being able to head indoors immediately sounds very appealing!

  2. It definitely helps to have good cold-weather gear, but there are still days I opt for the treadmill. At this point I just dont even bother trying to run outside if it may be icy. It doesn’t usually get too cold here, but once its in the single digits or super windy I usually move my workouts indoors.

  3. I keep asking myself how low is too low to run, but last winter, I ran when it was -24F. There was no wind and the sun was shining. I bundled up and truly, I was fine. The wind and ice are the 2 things that will keep me inside. I truly loathe running inside, so I’m pretty open-minded about when I go.

  4. We have finally ordered the replacement for my 20 year old treadmill — important to me, since we do live in a cold, usually (but not always) snowy area. Hopefully it comes before winter’s over. 🙂

  5. These are all great, but our winters are fairly mild. Even our coldest days sound warm to runners in other parts of the country. We layer in what we have (I don’t get special gear for the two or three freezing days), and collect our street cred for running in “winter” conditions.

  6. What I hate about winter running is wearing the right clothes. After years I finally realized that you just need a few layers. I’ve given up on jackets. (2 shirts & a vest).

    I also hate the early darkness and the ice/snow – both which limit where I can run.

    Fortunately COVID has helped me in both of the above because I work from hone now and can run during the day.

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