The Secrets of Running in Cold Weather

I’m sitting crossed-legged on my carpet with a well-snuggled schnauzer to my right and a cup of coffee to my left. It’s my fifth cup of the day but with the first rocky mountain snow storm hitting outside it feels like no amount of caffeine can get me motivated. I can’t help craving the summer-like running conditions I enjoyed just a few weeks ago.

Although there will be an adjustment period, my longing for warmer temps will soon fade and I’ll embrace the frigid grind of training through the colder months. If you get these details right, it’s entirely possible to exercise safely and comfortably outside in much colder temperatures than you might think. Here are three tips to surviving the coldest winter workouts so you have one less excuse to get out the door.

Lubricate The Lungs

When you’re running in extreme cold, you’ll feel like your lungs are going to freeze. Rest assured, they won’t. But while your lungs won’t ice over, deep-breathing super-cold air still has an effect. I’ve found that training in very cold temperatures triggers coughing—and I know I’m not alone. Moreover, elite winter athletes are more likely than the general population to develop asthma-like symptoms. But research says the cold itself isn’t the problem; the dryness of cold air really irritates our air passages.

If you find that winter exercise triggers coughing fits, a simple fix is to breathe through a scarf, bandana or balaclava. The cloth barrier humidifies the air you breath. You don’t have to completely block your mouth—I have an old wool buff that sits loosely in front of my mouth and allows for moist breathing without making it difficult to intake breath.

Layer Strategically

Everyone knows that you should dress in layers for exercise in cold conditions. In practice, though, it can be pretty cumbersome to add or subtract layers in the middle of a run. We end up throwing on enough layers so the cold doesn’t bite when we step out the door, start running and pretty soon start sweating.

This is a problem. Water and sweat cool the body. Even in high-tech permeable wicking clothes, you’ll still lose heat about twice as quickly once you start sweating.

As a result, in cold weather I layer up so I’m uncomfortably cold during the first minute or two of my run. Within a minute or two, if I’ve judged it right, I start warming up. Within five or ten minutes, I should no longer feel cold.

The exception is your extremities. Your hands, feet and noggin should start warm and stay warm throughout your workout. Wear warm socks and mittens and cover as much exposed skin as possible. But the best way to keep the fingers and toes happy is to keep the head warm. An oft-cited 1957 study found that  when people dressed in winter clothes but kept their head uncovered, half the heat lost at rest is lost from the head. To keep our brains warm, our body shunts blood away from other extremities toward your head; keeping your head warm and keeping your fingers and toes warm.

Don’t be a Hero

Exercise is safe in any temperature. Again, your lungs won’t freeze! Even when the mercury falls well below zero you can safely train outdoors if properly dressed. However, on especially cold days the risk of hypothermia and frostbite is increased even if you have taken every precaution before heading out the door. For example, if you encounter a situation where you are forced to stop exercising far from home (such as muscle cramping), your body will produce much less heat and you could be in trouble.

Play it safe on the most frigid days. Avoid straying too far from home. Run familiar routes and carry a cell phone and a credit or debit card in case of emergency. Take precautions to prevent getting wet as evaporative cooling could send your body temperature spiraling downward. If you experience signs of hypothermia or frostbite, such as tingling in the extremities, get inside as quickly as possible. Also, avoid running or cycling on slick surfaces such as black ice regardless of the temperature.