3 Hot Tips for Surviving Cold-Weather Runs

From an email I recently received (subject, “O’dark thirty”) :

Hi Matt,

It’s a tragic time when days are dark by the time I leave work and am ready for a run (living in Northern Ontario, this is the case for at least 5 months of the year).  And living downtown it’s not just the weather and lack of sunlight that’s demotivating, it’s also safety reasons.  I’m getting a group of ladies together who live in the area, but any recommendations on how to keep running during -40*C or or when it’s pitch black at 5:30pm would be fabulous.  I know that this isn’t a vegetarian-specific topic, but 80% of the ladies I’ll be running with are vegetarian so does that count???

The way to run in cold weather is simple. Develop a “mental thermostat” to trick your mind into believing you are warm so that you can withstand ice baths. Outside. In sub-zero temperatures. Naked. Like this guy.

Once you’ve got that down, hitting the trail for a quick five miles in a pair of sweatpants when it’s -40 degrees out is no sweat. (Wow, there haven’t been nearly enough terrible puns around here recently!)

Honestly, there’s really not all that much to running in the cold; no secret is going to make it just as comfortable as running in the spring or fall. But there are a few basic things you can do to make it bearable — more so, certainly, than having to do your entire 15-miler on the dreadmill.

Step 1: Get some cold-weather running gear.

I wish I had a solution that didn’t involve buying expensive stuff, but getting a few nice items can make such a difference in how warm you stay. A long sleeve running shirt and running pants are a good start, but if you’re dealing with anything below about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll probably want more.

It’ll take some experimenting to find out what you like and what’s too much, but Runners World has a nifty tool you can use to gauge what you should start your run in. Think about asking Santa for a few of these:

  • Hat and gloves are essential; keep those extremities covered. And these items are small enough that you can usually take them off and carry them once you get moving and heat up.
  • A tight-fitting underlayer keeps you nice and toasty. I own a single Under Armour mock turtleneck top that has helped me through my coldest runs for several years now. That’s right, mock turtleneck. Nobody said you wouldn’t look like a dork. You can get running tights for your legs, too, but I’ve found they’re not nearly as necessary as the top.
  • Arm warmers are great. It’s not that they’re any warmer than an underlayer — it’s that you can take them off, roll them up, and carry them easily if you get too hot. Once you squeeze into a set of full-body tights, don’t think they’re coming off until you get home.
  • As for darkness, a headlamp will solve the problem of seeing, and keep you visible to cars. I use this one, but New Balance makes a hat with lights built right in. For safely, reflective clothing is also a must.

Step 2: Get dressed, then do a warmup before you go out.

Admission: I almost never do a separate warmup before running unless it’s a short race, because I usually treat the first mile or so of the run as the warmup.

However, if it’s cold out, getting yourself all hot ‘n’ bothered beforehand can make the cold slightly more welcome. Raising your body temperature beforehand means you won’t have to wait until several miles into your run to start feeling good.

What you do to warm up doesn’t matter too much — pushups, burpees, jumping jacks, stretching (dynamic, not static) and anything else that requires movement will do the job.

Step 3: Plan to run past your house or car after about half an hour to peel off some layers.

When you first step outside on a frigid morning, especially if it’s still dark out, it feels like you will never get warm. Never. You bundle up with every piece of cold gear you’ve got and reluctantly start running, certain that you will freeze solid and never return.

Half an hour later, you’re in the fifth ring of hell, sweating profusely and now carrying your hat and gloves in your hands, making an ill-advised fashion statement with your jacket/sweatshirt-thing tied around your waist. You consider leaving items behind on the road, because there is no way your body will ever know cold again.

The solution, of course, is to plan for this. Set your route so that it swings by a place where you can drop off some stuff you don’t need anymore, or pick up something else in the rare case that you underdressed. For me, it’s about three to four miles until I start feeling the heat.

Most importantly: don’t let cold weather derail your training!

If you started running this year and you haven’t yet trained through a winter, don’t let the cold weather stop you. It’s alright if you’re not up for making major gains right now — with short days, good food, holiday parties, and limited-release microbrews, it’s tough.

But don’t neglect exercise entirely: if you can just get in a few runs a week, even short ones, it’ll save you from having to dig out of a rut in the spring.

And don’t forget non-running options. How about hitting the indoor pool, the weight room, or doing something else you’ve been itching to try that lends itself to the indoors?

Do something to keep moving, and you’ll be happy you did. Not only will you be more conscious of your holiday indulgences, but you’ll be raring to go when spring rolls around, marathons are on your mind, and all you want to do is run.

PS – Although we don’t offer battery-powered, heated cold gear to simulate a mental thermostat (yet), a No Meat Athlete shirt makes a great gift for the veggie athlete in your life. And now through Cyber Monday, everything in the store is 25% off! Click here to visit the No Meat Athlete store.

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Comments

  1. Great article! I live in up north in the Yukon and trained and ran for the Yukon Arctic Marathon last year, most of the training was done in -30 C. My tips -> run with a group!!! (sounds like those ladies in northern Ontario are already on to that). I usually run by myself.. but when it’s -30C I really need my buddies to get me motivated and out there! Once you do a few runs in the cold temps you’ll realize that temperature doesn’t really matter that much when you ruN! Another tip, pay attention to the layers you need at different temps (and wind chill) so that you get better @ dressing for the temp. I find even at -20 if I have big gloves on, I’m taking them off. If you are doing long runs in snow I’d look into gortex runners. I have some North Face ones w/ antifreeze in the sole.. your shoes can freeze and then it hurts. If you’re toes get cold you can also cut off wool socks and attach to the toes of your shoes on the outside (keeps the snow/wind out and doesn’t seem to affect grip that much..). Also, keep your water inside your coats. Playtpus’s seem to freeze a lot.. if you are using the mini water bottles, and are a female, you could keep them in your sports bra.. that’s my trick @ least. HAVE FUN!!! love winter running

  2. i have found after several years of running in michigan winters that there is no substitute for experience. in any given set of temperature, wind, and distance conditions, i know ahead of time what will work. and the best part of that is that it doesn’t matter if i’ve felt cold all day, it’s 40°F and i’m not going to overdress for it. you should be a little cold when you’re not running outside in what you wear to run.

    another tip i’ll offer is that runners aren’t the only people out in the cold. nordic (cross country) skiers also have a lot of the same needs as runners for clothing — range of motion and temperature regulation under high exertion. look at what they’re wearing for hints of what might work for you. ski socks, cross country tights or baselayers, and wind jackets all work really well for running.

    finally, layers. everyone should know this. you’re going to get hot, and you’re also going to cool down, especially throughout the course of a long run. when doing 10+ miles at 20°F, you will get hot at some point, and you will also get cold. it’s nice to be able to take something off and then be able to put it back on at some point. i like to wear lots of thinner layers rather than one or two really warm items. i have a thinner jacket and usually wear two thinner layers of tight warmth underneath.

  3. Hello I would like to chime in to answer the reader as well. I am a fellow Ontarioan. James Bay specifically. Very far North! Starting at the head I recommend a sweat wicking hat, such as merino wool. Nothing worse than sweat freezing to your head. Throw on a neck warmer if -20 to warm the air before you breathe it in. Put on chap stick and thick moisturizer on your face so the wind won’t chap your skin. Sweat wicking fitted base layer. Add long sleeve, then a wind resistant jacket. For bottoms, get tights lined in a tech fleece. For -30 or less I put on regular tights, and then wind resistant pants. Wear long socks, leg warmers. If icy, put spikes on your shoes so you won’t slip. Ease into the run and don’t put pressure on yourself to maintains fast pace. If you tire and have to walk, your body will cool dramatically and you can put yourself at risk for hypothermia. Keep it nice and easy and take pride that you are getting out there!

  4. Although winter where I live doesn’t really count as winter by most standards, it does require a mind and wardrobe shift. We get some snow but mostly it’s just about 5 degrees C with lots of rain. Somehow though, it’s one of the most invigorating seasons to run in for me. You have to work your mindset up to a point that fair weather running doesn’t require. It’s a bit like running early in the AM. We would all rather be in a warm bed but we feel so great after. So for me the mindset is just as critical as the tech gear that prevents frostbite like the IceMan had at the end of his run!

  5. Great tips!! Since it gets dark here around 4:30pm in the winter, the hubs and I run with headlamps and lots of reflective gear. We also wear the cleats if it gets too icy!

  6. In the theme of thanksgiving I’m just grateful I don’t have to deal with this. In Texas I can still run most winter days in shorts. Worst case I’ll do warmup pants and maybe a sweatshirt if it gets really cold (below 50F)

    Running this summer is 3 digit temperatures was another story. Just gotta tough it out really.

  7. Thanks for sharing an amazing, uplifting video, and useful tips. The hardest part about winter is getting out of bed and on the street, but after a mile or two you really do forget about the cold, and it feels so incredible to watch rising sun and feel its warmth! An Under Armour top I felt was expensive turned out to be a great investment for me, too. Perhaps the best thing about running first thing upon waking throughout the year is it becomes almost subconscious exercise.

  8. I agree that you want the clothes near your body to be good moisture wickers, but I’d also suggest something absorbant on the outside of your arms. That way, you can wipe down your face from time to time. Otherwise, all that sweat and water-laden breath will hit the cold air, and your face will be in a world of hurt: http://www.flickr.com/photos/katn77/5438468632/

    Double sock layers are also a must for me. I wear relatively minimal shoes, and they’re great in hot weather because they breathe so well, but they’re useless for keeping my feet warm as I slog through poorly shoveled streets.

  9. One of the favorite cold weather accessories I use in the cold is a tube of muscle rub (non-greasy for dry days, petroleum based for wet and rainy days). The menthol and capsaicin warm the skin very well and could keep me comfortable until i got warmed up. I would rub it on my chest and legs to get the blood flowing to the skin and to keep me warm. It works great for waiting around at the start of cold races as well.

  10. What do you do about footwear? I usually run in five fingers, but not sure they would work on the frozen ground….

    • I was also wondering how my minimalist shoes are going to work in the winter. I saw someone say double socks, which might help a little, but I’ve found that just a bit of moisture makes my feet wet for the rest of the run. I am not resigning myself to treadmill life yet, but that Chicago wind/snow is a cold devil. It hasn’t been that cold so far … but I love that refreshing feeling after a cold run! Right now I say bring it on!

  11. First off, I am so stoked that my e-mail got posted!! I feel famous! This is a great response, Matt. I especially like the idea of swinging by home and ditching a layer – this will definitely come in handy. I discovered something else that so far has helped my mental thermostat: Beach Boys on my mp3 player. The vision of a beach is enough to get me outside, and once I get that far I’m glad I did because it’s not so bad once I get going. Though I may not be quite as determined as the dude in the video, I think I’ll be able to muster the willpower to brave the (nearly freezing) rain this morning! Happy running everyone :)

  12. When it comes to bitter cold, I wear ski socks under my running tights. I also have 4 levels of gloves, as I have Raynaud’s… bitter cold calls for windproof ski mittens. On top is thin under armour, tank top,then slightly thicker, form-fitting!– running top.You should start out slightly cold IMHO rather than need to worry about peeling layers. Cold air doesn’t bother my lungs, but I’m definitely all about vaseline for the lips and moisturizer for the face.
    p.s.
    all this is pointless for the dead…please don’t forget your reflective gear.

  13. p.s.
    Never ever wear cotton underwear in cold weather…a cold, wet hiney is miserable.

  14. Hi to all here,

    Seeing the video and reading the posts made me remember the times were I lived in Munich, Germany … I had some cold winters there.

    Living now in Cochabamba, Bolivia for some time, I have no problem with a “winter”, there is basically none, none in standards with Munich :).

    Cold air never bothered my lungs, I just needed to really watch out not to overdress, putting on to many layers was a problem at the beginning …

    Vaseline for the lips and moisturizer for the face was something I found out was also very important for me …

    “No cotton underwear” — A rule to be taking seriously :)

    Chris

  15. What a timely post! I’m a terrible winter runner — I avoid it at all costs. I am the queen of digging myself out of a rut in the spring. But not this year! I’ve resolved to find some practical tips to get through the winter.

    The tips about warming up indoors, and doing a loop past your house to drop off gear, are definitely going to come in handy. Thanks!

    Kat

  16. Good tips! For cold weather gear, I actually find the opposite to be true in terms of technical shirts versus pants. I prefer to run with tights and the tops don’t matter to me much as long as I have a little tank top on underneath that I can tuck into my pants. Also, I never buy running gloves and always run with the cheap gloves that you can buy for $1. That way I don’t feel so bad when I inevitably lose them.

  17. O’dark Thirty – you’re not in Thunder Bay, by any chance? I’m intrigued that there’s a group of veggie-friendly runners in the area! I do wonder if there are any suggestions for running on ice? Do the clamper things you can get for your shoes really work or do they throw off your form? Also, how do you barefoot run in -30 degree weather??

    • Hi Aimee,
      We are not in Thunder Bay, but in Sudbury! We’ve got a veg meet-up group called the Northern Vegetarian Society (www.ivu.org/nvs). I was in Thunder Bay the other day for work though. I am awestruck that you folks have 3 vegetarian restaurants!! Fantastic food your way.
      Emily

  18. Joe Kanaszka says:

    Hey Matt – just looking at the UA site. They offer two models of the mock – the form fitted and the compression. I’ve never worn a compression shirt while running because it sounds like it would bother me but i can see how it might keep you warmer than a fitted.

    Which one do you own? Anyone else where compression shirts in the winter during runs?

    Joe

  19. I live on a rutted Vermont country road so I’ve never tried running in the dark with a headlamp – I’m just too afraid it won’t be light enough to show the holes and/or the ice. So for those of you that use headlamps – do they provide enough light to really see where you’re going?

    Also a word of caution, I ran once last winter with cleats and my back and hips hurt for a week. It will be a long time before I try that again.

  20. Burrr!! Just reading that post made me cold. But, those are really helpful tips! Thanks! :)

  21. Just have to say…. am I glad I live in Florida!

  22. Thanks for the great tips. Although 99% of the time I’m freezing (I’m the girl with a space heater on in her office. In July. The AC is always set too low for me), I really like running in the cold because it takes longer for my body to start overheating and wasting energy on cooling itself. As for the gear, it comes in very handy when cycling to work in cold and darkness. I live in Holland, that’s what we do 360 days of year.

  23. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Hi Emily,
    I have a good friend from high school who lives in Sudbury with his wife (she’s a native Canuck, eh?). They both are profs at Laurentian. Small world. They are also both very outdoors people. I will forward this post to them and see what they think as well. They have eben avoiding outdoors when it’s -40 etc.
    Best thing I can suggest is layers of non-cotton. There are lightweight running mittens/gloves you buy (Brooks, Asics) and lightweight hats (Sporthill, Asics)so as you sweat it doesn’t feel too clammiy and heavy. I guess Balaclavas will be huge for you as well. You don’t want frostbite. Smartwool socks will help the toes. Lightweight headlamps (Eastern Mountain Sports, LL Bean) will be useful as well as reflective “Don’t hit me” vests. The wife and I live in New England and avoid treadmills at all costs. I hope this is helpful.
    Enjoy.

  24. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Oh ya. Don’t forget tissues. I’m sure the snotsickles will flow aplenty.

    • Hi Jon,
      Small world indeed! And I work indirectly for LU as well. I am pleased (and ashamed at the same time) that I have mostly mastered the art of snot rockets. Thank you for the gear recommendations!
      Emily

  25. I run with as little clothing as possible.
    shorts t-shirt and maybe a vest. I often just cover my big ears if it gets colder then 35.

    Then when done and after 5-10 of cooldown, I get back inside or to my car.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Cold Weather Running Tips from the No Meat Athlete, Tips for Outdoor Winter Exercise from FitSugar and At Home Workouts that you can do over the holidays from Prevention.com. Or, if you’re in a festive, holiday mood, try the Santa Baby workout from the ladies over at ToneItUp. […]

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