Tips for First Time Cold-Weather Runners

First-time cold run

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Whether it's to boost your physical or mental health, improve your endurance, or even introduce fresh air to your workout, there are many reasons to take up running. But you need to be smart in your approach. This is especially true for first-time cold-weather runners who are less acclimated to working out in colder weather.

Come wind, rain, or ice, there are hazardous elements to maneuver around once the temperature drops. That's not to say running during cold spells should be avoided, though. In fact, studies have suggested a dip on the thermometer may be the secret to optimizing your run.

So, whether you are new to running or experienced at hitting the trails, there are special considerations for cold weather running. Here is what you need to know about cold weather running.

Cold Weather vs. Hot Weather Workouts

There are a number of differences between running in cold weather and running in hot weather. For instance, in the heat, increased body temperature can hinder your physical effort. In other words, to maintain a high output (such as speed), you want to avoid your body temperature rising too high. In cold weather, it takes longer for the body to reach such heat.

As an example, a study measuring runners participating in the Boston marathon between 1972 to 2018 found that even a 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature combined with a small hike in atmospheric pressures reduced the running performance across many groups.

Mike Thomson, Personal Trainer and Coach

Running in the cold lowers your heart rate, which should allow you to run faster at your aerobic heart rate [between 70-80% of your max rate].

— Mike Thomson, Personal Trainer and Coach

This is due to a more leveled core temperature, which makes for a faster and more efficient run. In addition, you are less likely to experience dehydration, dizzy spells, and fatigue that can so easily result from running in hot weather.

"Running in the cold lowers your heart rate, which should allow you to run faster at your aerobic heart rate (between 70-80% of your max rate)," says Mike Thomson, personal trainer and run coach at Life Time.

On the other side of the pendulum, cold air temperatures below freezing can lead to complications such as hypothermia and frostbite. A study on cold-weather running in less than -15 degrees Celsius found that such conditions affected the bronchi and lungs, causing a cough, chest tightness, and a sore throat for some participants, all of which are linked to inhalation of cold air.

As such, it's crucial to acclimate to outdoor conditions and consider running indoors if the weather drops to below freezing conditions.

What to Wear in Cold Weather

As the weather shifts with a palpable chill to the air, dressing appropriately is essential to avoid underdressing or overheating. Remember, each individual will respond to cold differently depending on your bodily measurements and any underlying health conditions.

"Although you might feel a little cold during the first mile or two, do not overdress" cautions Thomson.

What you should focus on is wearing base layers that wick sweat. To remove and dry out moisture, aim for sports gear that breathes, such as merino gear, and avoid any items that don't allow the body to vent well.

"[A lack of ventilation] causes clothes to act almost like a greenhouse in which they hold onto heat," says Thomson. This, in turn, traps excess moisture on the skin that can actually leave you feeling colder.

Alongside this, Thomspon suggests investing in a quality running jacket (preferably waterproof!) with a wind-breaking front panel and breathable back to allow you to break through the wind and for sweat and heat to filter out the back.

"Also, opt for running gloves that have a shield on them as this breaks the wind if things get really cold and windy," he says.

Cautions for Running in Cold Weather

As we know all too well, with wintry weather often comes ice or snow, and just one slip of the foot can cause a painful twist or ankle sprain. If the weather forecast looks unforgiving, carve out a path on main roads where the ice and snow are likely to be cleared, and stay within close proximity to home.

Jonathan Cane, Exercise Physiologist / Coach

While it's true that cold muscles are more susceptible to injury, that's not an argument against running in the cold, as much as it's an argument against running in the cold without warming up first.

— Jonathan Cane, Exercise Physiologist / Coach

Another consideration is that that the soft tissue of your body, such as tendons, ligaments, and muscles, needs additional time to warm up in the cold, says Thomson.

"If they are cool, they have less elasticity and therefore won't contract as well, [meaning they need sufficient priming prior to the run]," he says.

But don't let that keep you from running in the cold. Just make sure you take to properly warm up.

"While it's true that cold muscles are more susceptible to injury, that's not an argument against running in the cold, as much as it's an argument against running in the cold without warming up first," explains Jonathan Cane, an exercise physiologist and coach. "Yes, you have to be aware of practical issues such as icy roads, but ultimately, there's nothing inherently dangerous about running in the cold."

How to Warm Up

A good rule of thumb is the more intense the workout, the longer the warm-up should be to allow soft tissues and muscles more time to prepare for the elements. To better adapt the body to cold weather and encourage blood flow, dynamic warm-ups are a must.

"In cold conditions, it's best to do [the prep work] indoors so that you're geared up before hitting the road," says Cane.

Potential Warm Up

  • Leg swings: Forward, backward, and laterally (to the side) for 30 seconds on each leg.
  • A-skips: Drive your left knee to the height of your waist, keeping your left leg straight and reaching up on your toes. Swing with alternating arms at the same time. Switch between legs and go for 30-45 seconds.
  • High knees: Alternate between lifting or hopping the left and right knee up high above the hip joint. Aim for 30-45 seconds.
  • Butt kicks: Flexing at your knee, kick your right heel back towards the right glute before switching to the other side. Repeat for 30-45 seconds.
  • Lunge matrix: Lunge in all planes of motion with a forward, back, curtsey, and lateral lunge for at least three repetitions in each lunge.

"It's also important to ease into the run rather than pushing full speed right from the start, and don't stop your run before an easy cool-down jog or walk to help redistribute the blood flow," adds Cane.

Following this, static stretching is optimal as the muscles are primed to respond to a deeper lengthening. Cane suggests gentle stretches to target large muscle groups, specifically standing stretches in the leg that include the hamstrings, quads, IT Band and calves—i.e, the major muscles worked during your run.

Training Tips

Given that the sun rises later and falls earlier during colder months, daylight is drastically reduced during the winter when compared to summer. Therefore, it's important to equip yourself for running in dusk and darkness.

Thomson recommends running with a headlamp to avoid stepping on branches or slipping on an ice patch. It is also important to make sure you are taking precautions to keep yourself safe during a run, especially if it is dark.

Safety Tips

  • Wear reflective gear: Bands or lightweight running vests will ensure you are visible to drivers, other runners, and pedestrians.
  • Charge your phone: Bring your phone on the run and keep it handy. You never know when you'll need it.
  • Choose appropriate footwear: Select quality running shoes with sufficient grip, along with warm, ventilating socks.
  • Plan ahead: Keep an eye on the weather forecast in case of an unexpected turn and plan your route so you know where you are heading at all times.

A Word From Verywell

If you are new to running and not looking forward to training in the winter months, rest assured that working out in the cold can not only be invigorating but also boost performance. Just be sure you take the proper precautions. If you warm up effectively and practice appropriate safety precautions, you may find that you actually enjoy running in cold weather.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Knechtle B, Gangi SD, Rüst CA, Villiger E, Rosemann T, Nikolaidis PT. The role of weather conditions on running performance in the Boston Marathon from 1972 to 2018PLOS ONE. 2019;14(3):e0212797. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0212797

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Running in the heat: Tips to handle hot weather while getting in your miles.

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  6. Cleveland Clinic. Everything you need to know about running in cold weather.