Winter is coming. And if you’re tempted to blow off a workout in anticipation of snow, ice, cold, or rain, you’re not alone. Research from the Journal of Sport and Health Science suggests that many people use winter weather as an excuse to forego exercise.
Outdoor exercise, including running outside in the winter, can be good for you in a number of ways. It provides opportunities to boost your vitamin D exposure. It can also help you get some of the physical activity that your doctor (and other experts) are always encouraging everyone to get on a regular basis.
You’ll want to approach running in winter with safety in mind. Here are some tips to keep you safe and warm.
Don’t just tie the laces on your running shoes, jam a hat on your head and head outside. Take some time to prepare in advance of your winter runs.
- Check the weather forecast. Find out how cold it really is, as well as whether any rain or snow are likely, which could affect the safety status of your running path.
- Dress appropriately. Think layers. With several layers of clothing, you can gradually shed one (or more) of them when you warm up and start to sweat. Then you can put them back on when you need them so you don’t get chilled.
- Start slowly. If you haven’t been running much up until now, resist the temptation to launch yourself into a sprint right away. Spend some time building up your endurance gradually.
- Wear something reflective. If the weather is gray and cloudy, it may be harder for drivers to see you. Add some reflective tape to your running jacket or clothing.
- Stay hydrated. You might not remember to drink fluids as often as you would in the hot summer months, but your body still needs water. Drink some beforehand and take water with you to drink along the way.
- Warm up and cool down. Give your body some time to adjust on both ends of your run.
- Tell someone where you’re going. Just in case something unexpected happens, make sure a friend or family member knows where you’re planning to run and when you’ll be back.
- Pay attention to the weather. Monitor the wind and temperature in case you need to cut a workout short.
- Stop if something goes wrong. If your chest starts to hurt, you feel lightheaded, or you worry that you might have pulled a muscle in your leg, don’t keep pushing forward. Head inside and call a doctor if you’re concerned.
There’s an old expression often attributed to the people who live in Scandinavia that’s applicable here: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” So, if you want to run outside when the air is frosty, it’s important to have good clothing.
Remember: You’ll warm up and start to sweat, so keep that in mind when you get dressed. That’s when those layers come in handy.
Here are suggestions for your basic outdoor run wardrobe. You may need to vary some of it, depending on how cold it is where you live:
- Gloves. In cold weather, your feet and hands are especially vulnerable to the cold — and at risk for frostbite. Don’t forget the gloves or mittens, whichever you prefer. You could even wear a pair of thin gloves made from a material that wicks away sweat, then put a heavier pair of mittens or gloves on top.
- Socks. Put the cotton socks back in the drawer and choose socks that will wick away perspiration and keep your feet dry and warm. Wool socks are a good choice.
- Running hat. A lightweight hat or beanie that covers your ears should be on your must-have list. Again, it’s never a bad idea to choose a fabric that wicks away moisture.
- Base layer. Wool or a technical fabric should be your go-to choices for long-sleeve shirts that function as a base layer to keep your body warm. As with your socks, avoid cotton since it can get and stay wet next to your skin.
- Pullover. Don this item of clothing after you put on your base layer. Some people like wool, others like fleece.
- Jacket. Here’s another layer for you. Some runners prefer a wind-resistant layer on top. Depending on the weather, a waterproof or water-resistant jacket might be a good option for you. Pockets are a matter of personal preference, but remember, they can be a good place to temporarily stash your gloves if you need to do so.
- Running tights or pants. Some runners love a fleece-lined legging to run in. In very cold climates, some runners layer a pair of tights under a pair of pants.
- Running shoes. Make sure you wear running shoes that fit your feet correctly. If you wear thicker socks in the winter, make sure your shoes accommodate them. Look at the bottom of the shoes, too. You want to make sure they have enough traction to grip the road or trail, so you don’t slip if it’s slippery from rain, snow, or ice.
- Sunscreen. If your face is exposed to the elements, it’s vulnerable, too. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
Optional: sunglasses or goggles. Some runners prefer to wear eye protection to block the glare from the sun, or even from ice or snow.
While there may be some risks associated with running in cold weather, there are certainly some benefits, too.
Increases your aerobic activity
A major benefit of running in cold weather is that you’re getting some aerobic exercise.
Adults need an average of
Revs up your metabolism
Additionally, the cool temps themselves might actually rev up your metabolism and help change your body composition.
If you’re looking to shed a few pounds — or keep the weight off that you’ve already lost — this could be a benefit that motivates you to keep on heading out the door.
Running outside in very cold temperatures can be exhilarating. But it can also be risky for some people.
Be careful if you have a history of heart disease
People with a history of cardiovascular disease may want to be careful. Exercising outside when it’s very cold could potentially cause strain. For example,
The combination of cold with sudden or intense exercise has been shown to be potentially dangerous for some people with heart disease. Ever heard of someone who had a heart attack after shoveling snow?
If you have a history of cardiovascular disease, or even if you just have some risk factors, talk with your doctor before attempting a winter 5K.
Exercising in cold, dry air may stress your lungs
Your lungs could also be vulnerable. The combination of dry, cold air and prolonged exercise can put stress on your airways.
Research has documented inflammation in the lungs of cross-country skiers who, by nature of their sport, spend a long time outside, exercising. But more research is needed to determine the best way to measure and potentially reduce the effects.
Watch out for hypothermia
Additionally, you can be vulnerable to hypothermia if you’re outside for a long period of time during very cold weather (especially if you’re not dressed correctly).
With hypothermia, your body begins to rapidly lose heat, which can lower your body temperature and begin to affect your ability to think and reason.
So, if it’s really, really cold, or the wind chill is especially frigid, you might want to cut your workout short. Temps below 0°F (-17.8°C) might inspire you to opt for treadmill work inside.
Running outside can be a great way to get some aerobic exercise, but you have to prepare and dress appropriately. Start slowly and build up.
Keep a close eye on the weather forecast, too. You can then decide whether or not you feel safe to run, based on the temperature, as well as the precipitation and road conditions.