Winter is notorious for presenting a unique set of challenges: freezing temperatures, snow, ice and sleet. So why on earth would you leave your warm bed to run or walk in those conditions?!
The simplest answer is that physical activity outside in the winter helps you to become stronger. And, the good news is, if you’re prepared to handle those conditions, winter activity can be pretty enjoyable!
Challenges of Running or Walking in the Cold Weather
- Your muscles work less efficiently in colder temperatures.
- Your body produces more lactate in the cold, which can slow your tempo pace as well as all other race paces.
- Cold, dry air can make breathing more difficult, especially for those who suffer from asthma.
Benefits of Running or Walking in the Cold Weather
- You will burn more calories as your body works to increase your core body temperature.
- Running and walking in snow and ice requires engagement of your core muscles.
- Your heart works harder to distribute blood throughout the body, thus strengthening this miraculous muscle.
- As the body works harder to stay warm, the amount of endorphins produced also increases, leaving you with a stronger sense of happiness and lightness following a workout in the cold.
- Going out to run or walk in the freezing cold can be painful at first. But it gets easier. And those cold days won’t seem so bad later.
The benefits of walking and running in the cold weather far outweigh the challenges. The key to staying warm and dry when the temps dip, is to layer.
Layering for Cold Weather Running and Walking
Wearing too many heavy layers of clothing that doesn’t breathe well can make you sweat excessively, which can leave you chilled. Dress as if the weather were about 15–20° warmer than the actual temperature, as this takes into consideration the body heat you’ll generate once you start running.
- Base layer: Technical fabrics. For women, a quality, moisture-wicking sports bra is an absolute necessity. A fitted, wicking shirt (like Under Armour ColdGear).
- Second/middle layer: This layer may or may not be necessary, depending on how cold it is outside. You can use a heavier, less fitted running shirt or even a fleece if the weather is in the single digits or below.
- Jacket/outer layer: This layer may also vary depending on the conditions. A windproof jacket is essential. Single digit wind chills or subzero conditions may require a heavier outer layer, as opposed to a thinner shell.
- Bottom layers: Tights will be your legs’ first line of defense in colder weather. Heavier, lined or windproof tights can be beneficial as the temperatures drop. When it’s especially cold or windy, a second layer like thin, windproof pants can help keep your legs nice and toasty.
- Extremities: Your hands, feet and head are particularly susceptible to cold, and they are an easy place to lose heat if not covered appropriately. While a headband that covers your ears may provide enough protection in above-freezing temps, choose a warm hat as it gets colder. Gloves will work well for most runners in the cold weather, but if your hands are sensitive to the cold or conditions are extreme, mittens are an ideal option, as they help your hands conserve body heat. To keep your feet and ankles warm, choose mid-calf or even knee-high socks made out of moisture-wicking materials like merino wool. Such socks will keep you comfortable even when wet.
Must have (and nice to have) gear for winter running and walking
- Sunglasses: These may seem like a less obvious choice in the colder months, but sunglasses are a necessity to protect against the glare of the winter sun—particularly when there is snow on the ground. They can also protect your eyes from dry air, wind and blowing snow.
- Balaclavas: Otherwise known as a face mask, balaclavas are definitely a case where function trumps fashion! They are often made of fleece or neoprene fabric that provides wind protection as well as breathability. When the temperatures drop precipitously and the wind is howling, a balaclava will be your best friend.
- Neck gaiters: These neck coverings come in all types of fabrics and weights. They cover the space between your hat and scarf, keeping the cold air off your neck.
- Traction devices: When packed snow and ice make roads and sidewalks a slippery mess, you can still get out safely with a variety of traction options for your shoes. Three possibilities are Stabilicers, Kahtoola Nanospikes, and Yaktrax. All three slip over your running shoes and have cleats and/or metal coils to give you better grip on slippery surfaces.
Tips to Running and Walking in the Cold Weather
- Make yourself visible by wearing reflective gear.
- Never assume a car can see you, especially when snow is piled high on the side of the road. A bright headlamp will also light your way and make you more visible to oncoming traffic.
- While toughing it out in cold, blustery weather is admirable, sometimes conditions are just too treacherous to head out the door. Although pushing yourself to get outside regularly in the winter will benefit your running, know that it’s OK to stay indoors (run on the treadmill or cross-train) when conditions make injury or frostbite a real possibility.
- Traction, air temperature will change your running gait, pace, and overall time. Winter running slow and steady. And that’s ok!
- Similar to trail running, keep your stride short to help navigate any slippery patches. And when in doubt, slow down! Keep your pace easy, and try to schedule more rigorous workouts like intervals or tempo runs when the conditions are dry and clear.