Beat Old Man Winter: How to run through winter safely and comfortably.
Updated: Oct 20, 2021
So, you have signed up for a spring running race (like the New Jersey Marathon or Half Marathon)- that’s awesome. Spring is beautiful, the birds are chirping, everything is coming back to life, the sun is out and the days are getting longer. Spring running is just fantastic; race day will be great. But wait, you have to train to get there right and that means running through January, February and March …… wait, wait, wait, before you go curl up on the couch and watch Netflix all winter or rush to the store to buy a treadmill, there are a lot of things you can do to make running in winter more tolerable, safer and dare I say, downright enjoyable.
Dress for success
There are a lot of things you need to keep in mind when dressing for winter running. Gone are the days of throwing on your favorite shorts and best singlet and heading out the door, but don’t worry, they will be back for race day this spring. For now though, we have to be smart and deliberate about what we wear when we head out the door.
In general it is good to think about winter running clothes in terms of three layers. The first layer, or base layer is right against your skin and helps with moisture, the second layer is on tp of that and is your insulative layer designed to keep you warm and the third layer is the outer layer designed to protect against wind or weather.
Stay warm - but not too warm (Mid Layer)
A good rule of thumb is to dress for conditions 15-25 degrees warmer than the temperature outside. This is because as you run your body's core temperature will rise, making you more comfortable. If you were to be comfortable and warm at the start of a run in 20 degrees wearing a down parka, ski pants and mittens, you will be sweating bullets and uncomfortable shortly into your run. So dress for conditions only slightly warmer than it is when you run. It is ok if you are a bit chilly as you start your run, but you shouldn’t be shivering.
Stay Dry (Base and Outer Layer)
Moisture is your enemy! We need to protect ourselves against moisture in winter, and it attacks from inside your clothes and outside!
First, wear moisture wicking fabrics in winter. You want to remove sweat from your skin as quickly as you can, so wear a layer of moisture wicking fabrics.
Next, we need to protect against wind, rain, sleet, snow and hail- after all, it's winter in New Jersey and we never know what we are going to get. So wear a light outer layer designed to be waterproof or moisture resistant when there is a chance of inclement weather during your run. Shells and jackets with zippers and vents are often a good choice as they allow you to open or close depending on the conditions and as your core temperature changes.
Your feet are amazing, 26 bones, 30+ joints and all designed to take you anywhere you want to go. Your feet can do amazing things, what they can’t do is stop your from slipping, sliding and falling all over the place if you wear the wrong shoes! Take care of your feet and they will take care of you.
Wear shoes that give you additional traction in wet and slippery winter conditions. Trail running shoes are often built for this exact purpose, and in extreme conditions using additional traction cleats can be a safe option.
Choosing a shoe with less mesh will help keep the cold air, snow and wet mud out of your shoes. The nice, light airy shoes you wore all summer may not be great for that midweek run in wintery mix conditions.
Choose socks that are designed to be warm and wick moisture; wool running socks are great for this… and I promise they don’t itch like that sweater you have had for the last decade and never wear.
With the shorter days of winter it is increasingly likely you may be doing your running in the dark or close to it; either way, it is important to light things up a bit. There are a lot of products out there designed to keep you safe while running in the dark, but there are two primary concerns you need to address: (See my full post on running in the dark here )
Visibility: Reflective vests are a great start to improving your visibility, but having a lighted vest and/or strobing lights attached to you will help keep you visible and safe at all times. If you might be mistaken for a roaming night club DJ, then you are probably on the right track here. so wrap yourself in lights, more is always better. LIGHT IT UP!
Field of Vision: Light up your path with a headlamp, hand torch, knuckle lights or some other direct beam light. The brighter the better. The purpose of this is twofold. First, it allows you to see where you are going and adds to your night club DJ disguise, making you more visible to everyone around. Second, it allows you to see your path and avoid injury causing hazards.
Shivering does not count as a warm up exercise!
The warm up plays a critical role in preparing your body for the workout ahead in all conditions. In extreme winter conditions it can be challenging to warm up properly. Instead of suffering in the cold and accomplishing little, warm up inside. Move a bit and break a sweat BEFORE putting on your outer layer and heading out the door. Running in place, air squats or moving through a short yoga flow are all great options to get warmed up before heading into the cold.
Change Quickly After
This one may require some logistics if you don’t consistently run from your home, but it will pay to plan ahead and change quickly after you are done running.
The body's core temperature rises when running and then begins to drop quickly after stopping. This effect can be magnified and have some bad ramifications if you remain in cold, wet, sometimes icy clothes long after a run.
Instead, quickly change out of what you can. If you are in public change into a warm, dry outer layer or use a public bathroom to change; this will help keep your body temperature more consistent.
If you start shivering after a run, it is time to change your clothes!
If I don’t sweat, I don’t need to re-hydrate right? WRONG!
Winter is sneaky; it dehydrates you without you even knowing it. In winter we tend to drink less water because the body’s thirst response diminishes as the temperature drops. On top of that, the lower humidity and colder air makes our sweat evaporate more quickly AND we lose more water in our breathing; this is visible every time you see your breath in winter- THAT is you dehydrating! Go! Drink!
The solution here is simple: hydrate. When you first get out of bed in the morning, maybe even before your coffee…. I know that part scared me a little too…. drink a glass of water with some electrolytes in it- same goes for after any physical exercise. Just be sure to drink water and know the signs you are getting dehydrated (I use my lips as a guide- if my lips feel dry or chapped, it is likely I am getting dehydrated)