Welcome to the off-season! With fall races behind us and spring races on the distant horizon, for most of us, cold-weather running can be easygoing, unstructured, and fun. However, there’s no way around it: Winter can be a challenge for doing anything outdoors, and if you don’t have your routine locked down, the cold weather can easily turn a fun run into a nightmare. Whether you struggle with ditching the weighted blanket for your running shoes, fighting the burning in your lungs, or simply don’t have the time to lace up in the limited daylight, this guide will help you get out the door safely and happily, no matter the temperature.
There are so many compelling reasons to skip your run when it’s cold and dark, so finding motivation to lace up is key. Things like challenges (such as completing a set number of miles per week, committing to at least one mile per day, or competing in a competition with your friends), scheduling runs with a training partner, following a spring race training plan, or even treating yourself to something special once you hit a mileage goal for the season can really keep you on track. When the winter blues hit, remind yourself of how good you feel when the post-run endorphins kick in, and let those euphoric feelings be your motivation to hit the pavement. Finally, when you’re really having a hard time getting up and out, commit to something short, like 10 minutes or a trip around the block. Chances are, once you get out the door, you’ll likely keep going beyond the bare minimum (but even if you don’t, those 10 minutes still make a difference!).
Dress for success
In most cases, when the temperatures drop, the solution is to bundle up. However, exercise raises your core body temperature and therefore can easily cause you to overheat when dressed too warmly. As a general rule of thumb, dress as if it’s 10 degrees warmer than it actually is to compensate for rising body temperature. For example, if it’s 30 degrees outside, dress as if it’s 40 degrees. This might mean ditching your thick sweatshirt for a sweat-wicking pullover or switching from fleece-lined leggings to your normal spandex. Once you get moving, you’ll be sweating in no time, so dress for how you’ll feel mid-run, not when you first step outside.
Speaking of sweating, you’ve got to be mindful in the winter of the moisture that builds up under your clothes and be sure to wear sweat-wicking fabric that pulls moisture away from the body. These fabrics (such as nylon, spandex, and polyester) keep you dry and ensure that you won’t be at risk for hypothermia. Dress in layers that can easily be removed and added back as necessary so you can adjust your wardrobe on the fly based on how you feel. Factors such as exercise intensity, sunlight, wind, and precipitation can change how you feel on a run without warning, so being able to add or remove layers is crucial. A waterproof shell jacket that can be tied around your waist can easily make all the difference in unpredictable winter weather.
Avoid the dreaded lung burn
Winter runners who experience burning lungs are usually suffering from discomfort due to how dry the air is. This sensation is more likely to occur when breathing in through the mouth instead of through the nose because the nasal passages and windpipe work together to warm and humidify the air before it reaches the lungs, so be sure to stay in control of the breath and inhale through the nose. Additionally, utilizing a muff, scarf, bandana or running mask can help warm the air before it’s inhaled to help keep the face warm and dry. For a bonus, add a drop of your favorite essential oil to the inside of the fabric to soothe the senses and create a more pleasant breathing experience.
Warm all the way up
It’s not a stretch to suggest that most runners cheat their warmups by simply easing into their runs before sinking into their desired pace. While this might be an OK practice in the warmer weather, cold-weather running demands a much more thorough warmup process. By giving the lungs, muscles, and joints more time to adapt to the temperature, the body will perform better and be far less shocked by the cold.
Warming up inside before going outside can be an easy way to transition into the cold. Start your warmup with some core exercises, then increase the heart rate and body temperature with movements such as jumping jacks, jump rope, high knees, and mountain climbers. These exercises not only get blood pumping and the temperature up but also target the main muscles used while running. Once you feel warm, step outside and ease into those miles.
Winter months mean far less daylight, and that can put a real damper on your run schedule. No matter the season, safety should always be top priority for runners and joggers, so when winter running brings a whole lot more darkness, be sure to have plenty of lights, reflectors, and bright colors on at all times. Headlamps, reflective vests, neon apparel, and shoe lights are great for ensuring that cars can see you in the darkness, especially when running in areas that are poorly lit.
Double down on traction
Ice, snow, and slush can all present issues for runners, so when the ground gets slippery, it’s time to invest in some shoes with extra grip and traction. You’re more likely to slip if your current running shoes have soles that are a little worn out, so ensure that your shoes are fresh and grippy by looking at the bottoms and checking for signs of smoothness. If your outsoles are smooth and worn out, it might be time for new, winter-specific traction-based running shoes, such as ones with bottoms that have pronounced spike-like features. The winter models of your favorite running shoes are also less likely to be made of thin mesh, and the thicker fabrics will keep moisture from snow and slush out. Staying warm and off your butt are two very important things to focus on in the snowy months!
Take it to the treadmill
Despite all the ways there are to outsmart the winter weather, sometimes snow, wind, darkness, or plain old inconvenience can easily derail even your best laid running plans. When something gets in the way of your outdoor run, pivot to the treadmill. While treadmill running isn’t quite the same as hitting the pavement, indoor miles are better than no miles at all, and staying safe is far more important than risking dangerous conditions. When in doubt, err on the side of caution by staying indoors and consider the treadmill a tool for motivation to get outside when you can. Winter running can be tricky, but with the right mindset, gear, and plans in place, there’s no season you can’t enjoy getting a few miles in.