9 Key Tips for Winter Running

Photo: Joe Klementovich/Tandemstock

Here’s how (and why) to keep running outdoors all winter long.

It’s been scientifically proven: Running in cold temperatures is hard. A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Environmental & Science Education confirmed that motor skill function and muscle efficiency decrease in cold weather. Other studies have shown that our hearts need to work harder in cold weather to circulate blood.

All that said, running outdoors in the winter is still good for you. In fact, it’s great. Breathing fresh, albeit cold, air and exposing yourself to sunlight (and the Vitamin D that comes with it) can help ward off seasonal affective disorder. Exercising outside has proven mental health benefits overall. And let’s face it, we could all use a boost during the dark and sometimes gloomy days of winter.

Winter running, however, doesn’t come without its challenges. To arm yourself with the right mindset, gear, and strategies, follow these tips.

1. Celebrate Your Toughness

Getting out and running on potentially challenging surfaces can boost your confidence. Gearing up (see Tips 2 and 3) and braving the cold will leave you feeling like you can tackle anything. This sense of self-reliance carries over into any race plans you may have throughout your year, but also applies to everyday life challenges. If you have spring or early summer races on your calendar, envisioning your race and embracing a mindset of toughness will be critical for getting you out the door. If you lack motivation most winters, put a spring race on your calendar.

2. Layer Up

Being comfortable during winter runs is all about dressing strategically. A breathable base layer close to your body will help with heat regulation, while wearing a midlayer or outer shell, depending on the weather conditions, will add extra protection needed. Sweat-wicking tights (thin, fleece-lined, or windblocking) that suit the weather will also keep you comfortable, as will wearing longer-cut socks that bridge the gap between your shoes and running bottoms. Cover extremities with gloves and a beanie (or a winter running hat) to best deal with colder temperatures. And to keep feet warm in cold conditions, consider wearing waterproof running shoes. Shoes with uppers made of Gore-Tex or other weatherproof liners keep moisture out and warmth in.

3. See and be Seen

Due to winter’s shorter days, you might find yourself running in dark or low-light conditions either on occasion, or all the time. Arm yourself with a good headlamp, handheld light or waist- or chest-mounted light to illuminate your path ahead. That light will also help cars see you, but you should add to your visibility by wearing clothing, shoes and accessories with reflective details—and/or dressing in high-visibility colors. (Stay away from wearing all dark colors with no reflectivity!)

Low angle view of the bottom of trail runner's shoes with microspikes on snow covered trail. Park City, UT Photo: Michael DeYoung Photography/TandemStock

4. Arm Yourself with Traction

When fresh snow turns neighborhood roads into soft, trail-like surfaces, or if you’re running trails covered in fresh snow, reach for your trail-running shoes instead of your road-running shoes. The lugged outsole traction that’s built into trail runners provides surefootedness (less slipping) in fresh snow. On icy surfaces, or if there’s ice underneath fresh snow, cover your shoes with a pair of traction devices, or with shoes that have metal traction built into the outsole—metal traction provides the most grip on slick surfaces.

5. Warm Up

Since your muscles, lungs, and heart need to work harder in cold weather, it’s important to slowly ease into your run and/or do a proper warm-up. Jumping straight into running at your warm-weather paces could cause injury. Consider doing some dynamic stretching indoors where it’s warmer; at the very least, jog slowly for 10 to 15 minutes at the start of your winter runs before picking up the pace.

6. Take Shorter Steps

Whether or not you’re wearing traction, shorten your stride on slick surfaces. It’s a lot easier to recover from a slip when your stride is short than it is to recover from a slip mid-stride. Shorter steps will give you more overall control of your footing.

7. Shorten Runs in Snow

The natural give of snow means that your muscles, ligaments, and tendons have to work that much harder with each step. The toll that extra stabilizing work takes on your body should be factored into your runs. Start off with shorter runs in snow in early winter and build up to longer outings. Increase your self-care with foam rolling and stretching.

8. Stay Hydrated

You may sweat less in colder temperatures and not feel as thirsty, but it is still important to hydrate on long runs and stay hydrated throughout the day. Warm food or drink post-run can help regulate your body temperature, and a toasty shower or bath will feel fantastic after braving a run in the cold.

9. Build Your Base

Winter is a great time to run slow, easy miles, and build up a solid foundation for what spring and summer have in store. Look at the winter months as a time to build your aerobic endurance. Consistent running at an easy pace will fortify you for the year to come.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.