Visibility is crucial for running in any kind of weather. With fewer hours of sunlight during the winter months, being visible becomes more of a challenge. If you are fortunate enough to find some daylight time to run, choose clothes that are in contrast to your surroundings. For snowy days, bright clothes work well because they provide contrast. Reflective clothing is a must for running at dusk or in the dark so drivers or others on the road can see you. Headlamps or other lights will also increase your visibility.
Today’s fabrics make it easier than ever to run in the cold. The best approach for cold weather running is to dress in layers. Layers work in 2 ways. They trap heat to keep the body warm, and they can be removed as conditions change. Runner-friendly garments have zippers and vents to let out excess heat, and they can be easily folded and carried. One thing to keep in mind—it is okay to be a little chilly as you start your workout because once you start running you will warm up quickly.
Running specialists recommend dressing in 3 upper body layers. The first layer should be made of a wicking material, such as polyester, silk, or polypropylene, so that moisture is drawn away from the body. Avoid cotton since it absorbs and holds moisture in, increasing the chance for chills. The next layer is the insulation layer, the one that keeps you warm. Fleece is a good choice for this middle layer. For the final layer, look for windproof, waterproof materials. Protect your legs with running pants of appropriate material and thickness.
The same layering technique is recommended for hands and feet. For hands, wear a glove liner followed by an outer mitten or glove. To keep your feet warm, try inner polypropylene socks followed by wool socks. Keep in mind that this doubling up may make your running shoes too small. If your feet feel constricted, opt for a larger pair. When you buy running shoes, take this into consideration. It is best to buy shoes at the end of the day when your feet are their largest. Bring your running socks with you when you get fitted.
Finally, since body heat can be lost through your head, make sure to wear a hat. Consider choosing one made of wind-block fleece for warmth and protection.
A few safety measures go a long way. Before running, tell someone where you are going and how long you expect to take. Always carry identification when you run. Some runners write their names, phone numbers, and blood type of the inside sole of their shoes. You might also want to consider bringing a small amount of cash (in case you need a cab home), a cell phone, and a whistle.
Icy trails or roads should be avoided. When running in snow, use shoes with “nubs” or attached traction devices for better traction. Plan your run so the wind is at your back on your return home since built-up sweat can cause a chill.
Hypothermia and frostbite are the 2 most common cold weather dangers. Some runners opt for inside workouts during extremely cold weather. But, if you decide to run outside, make sure you take additional measures so that no skin is exposed (wear a face mask) and seek medical attention if you develop symptoms of frostbite or hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops below normal. Hypothermia may present with symptoms of intense, involuntary shivering and difficulty doing complex tasks. It progresses to violent shivering, slurred speech, and loss of fine motor coordination. In the most severe and life threatening form of hypothermia, shivering stops, heart rate slows, and loss of consciousness can occur.
Frostbite is when part of the body freezes—most typically seen on the fingers, toes, ears, and nose. Frostbite starts with an itching or burning sensation, then the area becomes numb. Skin appears white, cold, and hard and then turns red and swollen. Severe frostbite causes the skin to blister and harden.
Running in cold weather requires good preparation. Cold air makes your body work harder, so make sure you eat enough calories to keep your muscles working.
If you have exercise-induced asthma, your symptoms may be worse in cold weather. Be sure to follow your treatment plan. Ask your doctor if running in cold weather is safe for you.
Dehydration is a danger even in winter because the dry, cold air increases water loss through breathing. And you may not realize just how much you are sweating when bundled up in extra layers.
Adjusting for the conditions with the proper clothing and running shoes are essential. Listen to your body and keep alert for signs and symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia. Above all, enjoy the freedom and serenity that running can bring.
American College of Sports Medicine
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology
Accidental hypothermia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated December 21, 2015. Accessed June 14, 2016.
Cold stress. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/coldstress. Updated February 11, 2016. Accessed June 14, 2016.
Exercise-induced bronchospasm. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated December 10, 2015. Accessed June 14, 2016.
Frostbite. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated December 15, 2011. Accessed June 14, 2016.
Selecting and effectively using clothing for inclement weather. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: http://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/selecting-and-effectively-using-clothing-for-inclement-weather.pdf. Accessed June 14, 2016.
Tips for a safe running program. American Academy of Othropaedic Surgeons Ortho Info website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00132. Updated July 2011. Accessed June 14, 2016.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.