Cold Weather Running Tips

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Two runners crossing a bridge in the early morning light.
The scene outside your window on a cold, dreary day may not look like the ideal conditions for a run. But just because temperatures are dipping doesn’t mean you need to put your running shoes away for the season. With some planning and winter-focused gear, you can keep running all winter long.  
 
Cold weather running can help you maintain your fitness and train for spring races. It offers a chance to enjoy the fresh, crisp air. And you might even find that your body moves better in the cold than it does in the heat of summer.
 
Before you step into wintry conditions, there are a few pointers that will help make running year-round an activity you enjoy for years to come. This guide covers:
 
 

The Benefits of Running in the Winter

Running in brisk temperatures can be confidence-boosting—you are doing this!—and can make you feel rejuvenated. Running through the winter can provide accountability and structure during the darker, colder months when most people tend to be less active.

A growing body of research shows running may benefit your mental health. And fewer people tend to run in the winter, so the running paths and trails you love mid-summer might be entirely yours.

If you’ve signed up for a running race—whether virtual or in-person—it may not be canceled due to inclement weather. Training and running through all seasons and conditions can help prepare you in case you wake up on race day and it happens to be snowing or cold. You’ll already know what to do.

 

How to Get Started

Getting going with winter running is much like starting to run in general. Here are some tips to get you started.

Start slowly. Begin with a walk, then slowly add in a jog. Don’t worry about your distance or pace.

Give yourself an attainable goal. Maybe you try to run for 15 minutes the first time out. Once you’re feeling comfortable, you can work on staying out for five or 10 minutes longer than you did before.

Check the weather before you go. You don’t want your first winter run to be in subzero temperatures or blizzard conditions. (In fact, it can be very tough to run in those conditions at any time, due to low visibility and extreme cold, even when you’re more experienced.) Look at the weather forecast and find a day with moderate temps and no oncoming storms.

Make a plan. Know where you’re going and how long you’ll be out. Notify a friend or family member where you’re headed and when you expect to be back. Whether you’re running a loop around your neighborhood or driving to your favorite trailhead, check conditions beforehand and adjust accordingly: If you’re not up for running in ankle-deep snow, opt for a different location. If conditions are slick, wait until the sun has a chance to warm up the sidewalks, and always equip yourself with the gear that’s right for your run. Never head out into blizzard conditions or conditions that make you feel unsafe.

Choose the time of day wisely. Winter brings fewer daylight hours, so if you’re used to running at 6 am in the summer months, remember that it’ll probably be dark at that time of day come December or January. Carry a headlamp or move your run back an hour or two, if possible. The same goes for the evening: It gets dark earlier, so if you’re running after work, plan on bringing reflective gear and a headlamp for safety. Find more advice in Tips for Running at Night.

Hold yourself accountable. It’s easy to bail from a run when the weather isn’t ideal. So, consider making plans to run at the same time as a friend—whether virtually or in person, following local health departments rules when it comes to social distancing, due to COVID-19. Other motivational ideas: Join a running group (many of those are virtual now, too) or use an app to track your workouts and share them with friends. 

 

What to Wear Running in Winter

Unlike warm weather running, winter jogging requires a bit more thought when it comes to what to wear. Nothing ruins a winter run like overheating because you’re wearing too much, or freezing because you’re not wearing enough. It’s all about smart layering. You can always shed a layer, but you can’t add a layer when you’re miles from home. You’ll warm up once you start moving, so dress so that you’re a bit on the chilly side when you get started. 

  • Warm Base Layer: Start with a technical base layer, most likely a long-sleeve one, depending on the outside temperature. Wool makes for a good winter base layer fabric because it keeps you warm even if it gets wet. A polyester or nylon blend top will wick moisture away from your skin and help you stay dry. Avoid anything cotton, as it may get soaked with sweat or precipitation and won’t dry quickly—which could send you running back inside with the shivers. Thumb loops on long-sleeve shirts are nice if you don’t plan on wearing gloves but still want a little protection for your hands.

  • Pants: On the bottom, opt for long leggings or running pants if it’s cold. Tighter clothing like leggings can help you avoid chafing, compared to looser garments.
  • Running Jacket: You may want a lightweight running shell—a slim, breathable jacket built for high-output activities. Look for something that will cut the wind; waterproofing is less important since water-resistant fabrics tend to be less breathable, meaning you could overheat. Another nice-to-have feature: packability. Many running jackets can fold down into the size of a deck of cards and fit into a pocket or vest if you need to take it off.
  • Shoes: Most likely, you can keep using the same shoes you love running in the rest of the year. (Just make sure your shoes aren't worn out—most experts suggest retiring a pair of shoes after about 300 miles). If you’re running on snow or ice, you may want to consider winter traction devices. Learn more about finding the right running shoe for you in How to Choose Running Shoes.
  • Socks: If you run with short ankle socks in the summer, you may want a thicker, higher sock in the winter. You’ll be surprised at how much just covering your ankles can help keep you warm. Opt for a sock made of a performance fabric like wool instead of cotton, which can bunch, get wet and cause blisters. Some runners choose a knee-high sock to give them extra coverage on their legs.
  • Accessories: A warm hat or headband and lightweight fleece gloves can help keep you comfortable out there, as can a breathable neck gaiter. Your hat and gloves may be layers you end up shedding a mile or two in, so make sure you have a pocket or place to store them if you start to warm up. If you’re really prone to cold hands, hand warmers may be a good idea.

For more inspiration on gear and clothing options, check out our Cold-Weather Running Kit

 

What to Bring Running in Winter

You'll also want to bring along a few essentials, especially if you're headed out for a long run (more than 45 minutes) or plan on exercising after hours. 

  • Lights and Reflective Gear: If you’re running early in the morning or at the end of the day, remember reflective gear, bright colors and a headlamp so others can easily spot you and you can see your path ahead. 

  • Hydration: You may not feel thirsty when you’re running in the cold, but you still need to hydrate, especially on longer runs. You may want to bring a handheld water bottle or a running hydration pack for any workout lasting longer than 45 minutes. If you’re carrying a reservoir with a hydration tube, know that those tubes can freeze in cold temperatures, so consider a different system, or invest in an insulated hydration tube. Get tips on when and how much water you need while running in Hydration for Runners.

  • Sunny Day Essentials: If you're running in daylight, remember that there are plenty of clear days in winter. Don’t forget sunglasses, sunscreen and/or a brimmed running hat.

 

What to Do Before, During and After Your Cold Weather Run

Much of running in the cold is the same as running in any weather—you’ll be focusing on your form and your breathing; hopefully you’ll be enjoying the sights and staying motivated. But there are a few unique considerations when temperatures drop. Keep these cold-weather tips in mind for how to prepare your body, what to watch out for during your run, and how to cool down and warm up your core temp afterward.

How to Warm Up for Your Run

When it’s cold out, you need to warm up your body before launching straight into a run. Prior to setting off, do some dynamic movements: Windmill your arms, do jumping jacks or squats—anything to get your blood flowing and loosen your joints, which can feel stiff in the cold. You may want to start with a short, five- to 10-minute warmup—a brisk walk or a slow jog. When you start to run, go at a conversational pace—you should be able to breathe and talk comfortably while running.

During Your Cold-Weather Run

Your first few winter runs may be slower than what you’re used to as your body is adjusting to the colder weather. Don’t plan on setting a personal record or logging your most miles ever on your first few attempts.

Like always, you want to focus on having good form. Keep your shoulders relaxed and let your arms swing forward, not sideways. Plant your feet squarely and steadily and keep your chest upright, not hunched over. Your lungs may feel tight if it’s extra cold out, but just slow your pace, return to a walk or take shorter strides if your breathing becomes strained.

You’ll also want to pay attention to where you step. Avoid slippery ice or snow. And be mindful of puddles—you don’t want soaked shoes and socks. If you’re running with a friend, you can call out to them: “Ice ahead!” (They’ll be thankful, trust us.) It’s always OK to walk if you’re crossing a challenging or slippery section of trail or sidewalk. If your hands get cold, try curling them into a ball inside your gloves, sticking them into your armpits during a break or moving your shoulders up and down to get some movement into your fingers.

Remember that, due to the cold, your body may not be registering thirst like it does when you run in the heat. You still need to hydrate and fuel your body if you’re going on a run longer than about 45 minutes.

Recovery After a Cold Run

Your body should be warmed up by the end of your run, but you may feel cold due to the weather. Still, consider doing a five-minute cooldown, like a slow jog or walk to bring your heart rate back to normal. If you’re ending the run at your house, change out of your damp clothes right away. If you’re returning to your car or someplace else after the run, consider bringing a change of dry, warm clothes to swap into, so you’re not traveling home in a wet T-shirt and sweaty hat. Remember to hydrate—warm fluids like tea can be nice afterward, as well as plenty of water—and do some light stretching.

For more running advice, check out our other running articles.

Remember: Safety is your responsibility. No internet article or video can replace proper instruction and experience—this article is intended solely as supplemental information. Be sure you’re practiced in proper techniques and safety requirements before you engage in any outdoor activity.


Article by Megan Michelson. Megan is a contributing writer and editor for Expert Advice and the Co-op Journal who is based in Tahoe City, California. She’s formerly an editor at Outside magazine, Skiing magazine and ESPN.com. REI member since 2009.

 

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