What You Need to Run in the Cold

It’s important to have a good attitude when running in the cold. Think of it as an adventure or a challenge. Try to have fun – have you ever run in a blinding blizzard? Try 40 below zero – I did. It made me a better runner and a stronger person.

What you will hopefully find is that it’s easy to run in the cold, especially if you have the right gear. Most of this gear is not expensive and you may already have some of it in your closet. So let’s start at the top and work our way down.

Half the heat is pouring out of your head when it’s cold, so headgear is imperative. Just don’t overdo it. A simple stocking hat combined with something to cover your face is more than adequate. A balaclava will combine as both or maybe you have a windmask if you’re into skiing. In a pinch a bandana tied around your neck and pulled up over your nose works great. As you run, your breath will freeze the bandana and it will not only stay up by itself but act as a marvelous windbreak.

For your torso, start with a long or short sleeved undershirt that is dry wicking in nature. In other words, not a cotton t-shirt. A Cool-Max type of shirt works great, or any other shirt that won’t accumulate sweat as you pour on the miles. Avoid thick fleece tops, they will be too warm. A good rule of thumb is you should be cold the first five minutes of the run, the rest of the run should be quite comfortable. If you wear fleece, you will be comfortable at the beginning of the run and way too uncomfortable for the rest of it.

A thin fleece or wool top will go over the shirt. It’s ability to wick moisture through is far more important than it’s warming capabilities. Trust me, when you top this with a nylon windbreaker jacket, staying warm won’t be a problem.

Gloves should also be minimal, windproof, and breathable. Mittens are a little warmer than gloves, all other things being equal. I have some thin glove liners and GoreTex mittens. With the options to wear the one, the other, or both you can be comfortable over a very wide temperature range.

Your legs need the least amount of warming, since they’re doing most of the work and they’re the biggest muscles. Try a pair of tights or thin running pants covered by a pair of nylon windbreaker pants. Again, avoid fleece. In real cold weather wear another pair of shorts over the tights but under the windbreaker.

Your feet are not likely to get cold, but a pair of wool socks are far more comfortable than cotton because of their ability to wick away moisture and still stay warm. Don’t wear socks that are too thick for your shoes or you will lose any insulation and probably screw up your stride as well.

You don’t need special shoes to run in the winter. Maybe get a pair that’s less ventilated and has good traction for snow and ice.

Now that you’re all dressed up, let’s head outside. Before we blast off, however, you may want to adjust your running to the conditions.

First of all, don’t get too hot and sweat like crazy, which is the likeliest scenario if you’re new to winter running. Your first priority should be to sweat as little as possible. You should be a bit cold the first five or ten minutes of your run. From then on you should be comfortable for the duration, even if you run for two hours at five minute pace.

If you get too warm you can make a number of adjustments. Unzip your torso underlayer first, then the jacket, if need be. Maybe put the gloves in your pockets and just wear the liners. Pull down the face mask whenever possible or pull your stocking hat up a bit.

With a little experimenting and patience with the above gear, you should find yourself able to run comfortably from 20 degrees above down to 40 degrees below zero and never mind the wind chill.

You will also want to adjust your running style when the conditions are cold and slippery. First of all, shorten your stride and avoid any snapping action of the hamstrings or calves. Your workouts should be focused on long, slow distance and endurance.

Also watch for slippery stretches and slow down for them. You may need to find new running routes for the winter where you have a minimum of ice, snow, and cars.

Go easy on your muscles. Spend a bit more time (at least ten minutes) warming up before shifting your run into high gear.

And now for the best part – you’re done. Now take a long hot shower or sit in the hot tub for an hour. Be sure and do lots of stretching after you run. Hot pads are not just for old guys, they are quite useful for warming up the big muscles hours after you have finished your run.

Stay flexible, stay warm, stay injury-free.