While the days are getting shorter, colder, and grayer, I love nothing more than combating the winter blues with running shoes, an extra layer, and an hour on the trails. I realize I might be in the minority here. I do know it feels like pulling teeth to step outside into the ice-cold air and take that first step.
Once I start moving, I’m routinely reminded that I actually prefer running in the winter. I’m here to gently persuade you into realizing that winter running might not be as torturous as you think, while providing some suggestions to make it, dare I say, enjoyable! I spoke with a few experts too, who helped explain why exercising in the cold is actually proven to be easier on the body. With science on our side, there’s no reason not to fall in love with running in the cool, crisp air.
Yes, it’s actually easier to run in the cold.
One reason I prefer running in the cold is it actually feels less strenuous on my body. I wanted to find out if there’s actually a reason why moving in the cold might be advantageous.
“Running in the cold is massively easier on the body,” says Doug Casa, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut. He explains that with the warm weather, you have to cool yourself down and your body works to bring a massive amount of blood supply to the surface of the skin to avoid overheating. In cooler temperatures, you don't need to sweat much. Therefore, your blood can be conserved for the muscles and your heart. The outcome? You may find you can reach a faster pace with the same amount of effort.
“There’s a reason all distance records occur in the 45-degree weather,” he adds. This makes sense to me; think of all the iconic marathons that take place in late spring or fall, when the temps are usually in the 40s: New York City, Chicago, and Boston, to name a few.
Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.S.D., associate professor in nutrition and exercise science agrees, reiterating that when the body doesn’t have to fight the ambient temperature to stay cool, we likely feel better. “It’s easier for the body to maintain homeostasis in terms of core temperature in a cool environment.”
However, it’s not just about the weather. How you feel and exert energy when you run will also vary depending on the environment you’re acclimated to. “If you live in a hot and humid climate your body is more efficient in that environment than someone from a cooler climate who's traveling to that area,” Pritchett explains. So if you live in a very warm place year-round, jumping into the cold might feel harder for you than someone who is a little more used to cooler temps. If you live in Alaska, I’m sure this winter running stuff is child’s play.
There are a few ways you can make it more bearable, and honestly, fun.
If you’re now even slightly convinced that running through the winter months could be do-able, here are some tips that’ll help you stay warm, safe, and injury-free.
1. Warm up inside.
In cold weather, it takes longer to get your body temperature up and muscles warm in order to reach your maximum efficiency. Furthermore, jumping straight into sprints could increase your risk of injury if you’re not properly warmed up. When it’s extra chilly, Casa recommends hopping on an exercise bike or treadmill for a few minutes before heading outside. If you don’t have that at home, try doing burpees (I know, I know), mountain climbers, or use a jump rope to get your blood flowing. Heck, you can even run in place!
Another advantage to warming up inside is you’re less likely to wear too many layers when you journey out into the cold. How many times do you feel like you want to strip off a jacket once you’re 10 minutes into a run? By warming up first, you avoid bringing more clothes than you typically need.
2. Don’t worry too much about speed, distance, and all the other data you normally track on your runs.
While running in cooler temps might indeed be easier on the body, once you start running in the extremes, it takes a toll on the body. Small studies suggest that exercising in extreme heat or cold (we’re talking below freezing) can play a major role in exercise performance. Plus, the introduction of snow, ice, or a loss of light will inevitably make you pump the breaks a bit. In other words, your data might look different in the winter. That’s why I suggest giving your trackers and apps a break and running by feel versus getting hung up on the numbers.
3. Get good gear.
Perhaps the most important part of winter running is wearing the right clothing to make sure you’re warm enough, but don’t overheat either.
Here’s my go-to gear guide for staying warm:
Start with a skintight base layer. “The best thing you could ever do is the initial base layer—as tight as possible—so your legs, arms, and chest are covered,” says Casa. I personally love Oiselle’s Wazzie Wool base layer, which absorbs moisture and has convenient thumbholes. After a good base layer is on, you can add one or two layers on top, depending on how cold it is. For anything under 30 degrees, I throw a long-sleeved tech shirt over my base layer (races often include these in your entry fee!) and if it’s extra cold, snowing, or windy, I top it with a water and windproof jacket. Pro tip: Target carries the Champion brand, which has great jacket options at a more affordable price.
Cover up as much as possible. Make sure that most of your exposed skin is covered—this includes ankles, neck, fingers, head, toes—where heat can be easily lost. I always wear good socks that cover the space between my heels and the ends of my running tights. I personally love Stance crew socks. I also always look for layers with thumbholes to keep my wrists covered, wear Smartwool liner gloves, and usually throw on a buff so my neck and chin can stay covered, too. I also never leave the house without a good running hat. If you have long hair, make sure to buy one that has a hole in the back for your ponytail!
Use reflective gear—and a headlamp. With dark mornings and even darker evenings, you’ll most likely find yourself running with the sun either rising or setting. It’s critical you wear some reflective gear, and if it’s super dark, always bring a headlamp. Many clothing brands carry clothes that are reflective. I am personally a vest fan; you barely notice they’re on, and it keeps you fully in sight!
Invest in weatherproof shoes. In the winter, you’ll most likely come face to face with snow at least a few times on your runs. Weatherproof shoes will prevent moisture from seeping through to your toes and will ensure your sneakers last through the harsh winter months. I wear Altra Lone Peak trail shoes, which allow me to run through muddy puddles and sleet-filled trails. These shoes also prevent me from having any excuse to get out the door. As I like to say: If your clothes can be weatherproof, so can you.
With the right layers, attitude, and perspective, running in the winter can actually be fun, I promise! I always have to remind myself that the hardest part is stepping out the door. Once I start moving, my body quickly warms up, and I remember the reason I fell in love with running in the first place: No matter where I am or what time of year it is, running provides a sense of strength, freedom, and joy.