My first half marathon was a memorable one. I exceeded my goals, placed second in my age group (it was a small race), and fell in love with long-distance racing. But most of all, I remember just how cold that race was.
I hovered by the space heaters, bundled up in sweatpants until 10 minutes before the race started. Even though I wore shorts, I donned a lightweight running shirt, a jacket, and gloves to stay warm. The 25+ mph winds colored my nose pink in the race photos. Afterward, I bundled up even more and shivered my way through the awards ceremony.
Since then, I’ve raced numerous other times in the cold, including a January 6K trail race in 20 degree temperatures, wind, and snow. When you live in Northwest Indiana, you either don’t race at all from November to March, or you learn how to make racing in cold weather comfortable and even enjoyable.
While I’m certainly not an expert on cold weather racing, I’ve coached enough runners through winter races and successfully completed enough myself to have a few tricks for racing in cold weather. These tips are what I’ve found valuable for running a strong race and actually enjoying racing in cold weather.
Fueling and Hydrating for a Cold Weather Race
Normally, you can rely on thirst cues while racing, but the cold can hinder your normal thirst cues. Dehydration is just as much a concern as it is a race at normal temperatures. Low temperatures diminish your sensation of thirst, so you cannot rely on thirst cues as easily. You should already have a hydration plan by the time you start the race (as you would for any race), so follow that even if you don’t feel thirsty.
Generally speaking, you do not need significantly more carbs or calories for racing in the cold (although when it doubt, it’s usually beneficial to consume extra fuel on race day than not enough). However, what you take as fuel may require tweaking. On very cold days, gels can freeze. Pack gels close enough to your body to keep them warm, or (if you’ve practiced in training), consider non-gel alternatives such as chews, candy, or whole foods.
Bundle Up Before the Start
Waiting in the cold will only make you colder. This isn’t just uncomfortable. Being cold before a race will leave you with a lowered core temperature and stiff muscles before the race begins. While this is generally common sense, bundle up while waiting at the start line, then shed your layers within just a few minutes of the start gun. If you are really worried about the cold, wear a throwaway layer for the first mile or so. Old t-shirts or arm warmers will keep you warm until you begin to generate more body heat.
Adjust Your Warm-Up Accordingly
Cold muscles are stiff and less efficient muscles, which can negatively affect you at the start of the race. You might feel more sluggish with cold muscles. Starting out too fast in the cold can increase your risk of pulling a muscle if you haven’t warmed up. A short warm-up jog before your race will send oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, loosen up your joints, and elevate your core temperature slightly.
However, a warm-up jog is not advisable in all circumstances, such as extreme cold, winter storms, or race day logistics that require waiting for a prolonged period of time. In those scenarios, you might choose to skip your warm-up to minimize the risk of hypothermia (more on that below) or to avoid cooling down all over again, thus negating the benefits of the warm-up.
If you skip a warm-up jog, adjust your race strategy to make the first mile a warm-up mile. (Here are sample pacing strategies for the marathon, half marathon, and 5K/10K.) Do not skip your dynamic stretches – those will make a significant difference in how you feel and perform.
Safety For Racing in Cold Weather
When the temperatures drop low enough, issues such as slippery roads and hypothermia can pose real risks on race day.
Hypothermia is the most significant health concern during a cold weather race. To minimize your risk of hypothermia, take extra precautions before, during, and after the race. Dress appropriately (see below) for the race itself. After you finish, change into warm, dry clothes as soon as possible to remove any moisture from sweat.
In terms of footwear, you want to opt for shoes with good traction if the roads are icy or snow is present. These can still be racing flats or your favorite pair of long run shoes, or you can wear trail shoes for very snowy conditions. Unless conditions are extreme with snow and ice, you want to avoid wearing crampons such as YakTraks. These will add extra weight to your foot and can be uncomfortable if you encounter clear pavement. If you have the option, trail shoes work well in snowy conditions without the downside of crampons.
Be cautious if a race feels too dangerous to run because of the weather and road conditions. It’s preferable to DNS than to risk falling and potential injury. No single race is ever worth your health and risking a serious injury such as a fracture from falling on ice.
What to Wear for Racing in Cold Weather
The same general rule of thumb applies to cold weather racing as any temperature: you want to dress as if it is 10-15 degrees warmer than it actually is. Bundling up too much can be as detrimental as under-dressing.
That said, you want to factor in the wind chill, not just the temperature. 30 degrees with no wind will feel much warmer than 30 degrees with 25 mph hour winds. When dressing for a cold weather race, take into consideration the wind chill. If there are bitter winds, be sure to keep your core and appendages warm. One effective trick I’ve found from living in Northwest Indiana? An extra tank top under your layers makes a huge difference on a windy, cold day in keeping your core warm without too much risk of overheating.
The answer ultimately depends on your individual comfort and preference. Ask yourself the question: what would I wear for a speed workout or tempo run in this weather? If you would wear capris and a long sleeve shirt for a hard workout, then wear that for the race when the temperatures are very cold. (And if you would wear shorts for a tempo run in 30-degree weather, then wear shorts for your race!).
At the same time, avoid bundling up with too many layers that you cannot easily discard. You want to avoid sweating as much as possible. Even if you are wearing wicking material, sweat cannot easily evaporate off of your shirt if you have another layer on top. Cold sweat against your skin will cause you to chill, which will make you uncomfortable and possibly even lead to hypothermia in long races in very cold conditions.
When in doubt, wear layers that you can easily discard: gloves, hats, arm warmers, and throw-away tops. These will keep you warm as long as you need. Once you are comfortable, you can easily toss them aside once your core temperature raises.
Mindset Makes a Difference
Racing in the cold will be an awful experience if you go into your race with a negative mindset. (If you are immensely dreading it, seriously consider skipping the race. Running should ultimately be enjoyable, not unbearably miserable.) If you prepare yourself well and focus on the positives, you will have a more enjoyable race experience – and likely run a stronger race. Embrace the challenge, smile, and have fun with whatever the day presents – even if that’s frozen eyelashes and windburn.
Never limit your potential for race day based on the conditions allow. As with any race, focus on what you can control, embrace the discomfort, and give your best effort for the day.
What’s the coldest race you’ve ever done?
How do you handle racing in the cold?
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