Winter makes running more difficult, but it doesn’t have to curtail your training. “Running in bad weather makes it easier to get out there the rest of the year,” says Graham Keggi, activities and exercise product manager at Fitbit and the top American finisher in the 2016 Antarctic Ice Marathon. And, as an added bonus, the colder temps can make winter running more rejuvenating—even when the mercury dips below freezing. The key is being prepared and staying safe.
If you’re one of those runners who would sooner run across Alaska in a Snuggie than slog through miles on the treadmill, here are five ways to nail—and enjoy—your outdoor run regardless of the temperature.
Tips For Running in the Cold
1) Dress appropriately. Too much clothing can be just as dangerous as too little—you have to strike a balance between being warm and not overheating. Brad Hudson, a Boulder-based coach of elite runners and author of Run Faster From the 5k to the Marathon: How to be Your Own Best Coach, recommends dressing in layers that you can adjust on the fly in changing conditions.
“You need to be careful when running with the wind at your back that you don’t get too hot and then turn around and get cold,” says Hudson. Wear shirts and jackets with zippers that you can open up to vent excess heat and close when it gets colder. And don’t be afraid to get creative with your layers and accessories. One of Keggi’s favorite ways to repurpose his gloves is to tuck them into his hat for an extra layer of warmth when his ears are colder than his hands.
2) Ease into it. “The worst thing you can do is step outside and try to run at your normal pace,” says Hudson. When it’s cold you need to give your muscles and joints more time to get warm and supple before you start pushing them. Ignore the GPS and start as easy as you can handle, taking quick, short steps. Wait until you’ve started to sweat a bit and can feel blood surging through all of your limbs and extremities before you take full strides and speed up.
3) Trust the effort. Even after you’re warm, don’t worry too much about your pace—go by your perceived effort, i.e. how hard you feel like you’re working. Even though you may be running slower, you’re expending extra effort to run in the cold, and if you’re bundled up, all those extra layers could be restricting your stride a bit. Plus, soft and uncertain footing can slow you down. Rest assured that you’re getting a good workout, albeit one that stresses you somewhat differently than fast, warm-weather running. You’ll still be fitter and faster come spring.
4) Get loopy. Running loops can be useful when you’ve got a lot of cold-weather miles on tap and don’t want to risk being too far from home. For example, if you’re going out on a 20 miler, Keggi suggests running a 16-mile route and then adding on one four-mile loop or a few shorter loops that end closer to home.
Loops are also a great way to figure out exactly what you need to wear. On the first cold day of winter, Keggi suggests starting out wearing lots of clothes and running short loops, approximately one mile long, which circle past a mailbox or some other place where you can shed a layer each time you pass until you reach your comfort level. Take note of the temperature and the layers and thickness of clothing you find most comfortable, and use it as a guide for future runs. Later in the winter, you may still want to do one small initial loop with an extra layer to warm up, then stash it when you head out for a longer run.
5) Keep moving. “Structured speedwork can be really tough when it is cold,” says Keggi. If you do an interval session, you’re not only trying to accelerate fast with cold muscles, but also standing around and getting chilled between repeats.
To keep moving, try doing a fartlek (speed play) workout, which incorporates different intensities into a continuous run. For an early-season workout, Hudson recommends something he calls “Introduction to Power Endurance Fartlek.” Here’s how it works: In the middle of a 45- to 60-minute run, increase your speed to what feels like a 5K to 10K pace for 2 minutes “on,” then slow to an easy jog for 1 minute “off.” Repeat 15 to 20 times. Since you’re still moving during the “off” segments, you’ll stay warmer than if you’re standing around between intervals. Plus your speed during the “on” portion is based on perceived effort versus targeted splits, which can keep you from overexerting yourself in the cold conditions.
Tempo runs, which involve running fast but comfortably for 15 to 30 minutes, are also excellent in the winter. They allow you to get in a faster-paced effort without doing an intense speed session, which can cause you to tense up, risking injury.
Training for something in particular? Check out The Secret to Achieving Any Running Goal.