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Woman checks her watch on a cold-weather run

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Don't Let the Cold Get In the Way of Your Run. Here's How to Effectively Navigate Icy Temperatures

You may even have a better workout in the winter weather.

By Dawn YanekUpdated March 27, 2024


Winter is here. Those three little words can upend your entire running routine—but they don’t have to. According to The Peloton Report: Spring Wellness Trends, 60 percent of respondents identified weather conditions as a deterrent to participating in outdoor conditions. But just because the temperature drops, the wind kicks up, and the snow starts falling, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to take your workouts inside.

“As my high school running coach said, ‘All weather is good weather for running—it’s just different,’” says Peloton instructor Matt Wilpers. “In fact, I’d take a cold marathon over a hot marathon any day of the week because you can control your body temperature more easily.” 

But to successfully—and safely—run in cold weather, you have to make some adjustments, whether you’re moving in 50 degrees or 15 degrees. And yes, even 15-degree weather can be good running weather. (The sweet spot seems to be between 39 and 50 degrees, according to a 2012 study of marathoners published in PLOS One.) The key is preparation and careful considerations. 

Here’s what you need to know about how to run in the cold—and why it might even lead to a better workout.

4 Benefits of Running in Cold Weather

Consistency is the most important thing when it comes to running. Whether you elect to brave the temperatures or hit your Peloton Tread for an indoor workout, you’re continuing to do what matters—clocking the miles. However, if you choose the former option and need a little extra motivation to get you out the door, here are a few key benefits to keep in mind. 

It Can Make Running Easier

In colder temperatures, your body doesn’t experience as much “heat stress.” Essentially, your heart pumps less blood to your extremities in an effort to keep your body warm and functioning properly, keeping a greater volume of blood in your core. That means you can run at the same pace but a lower heart rate—up to 70 percent of your normal VO2 max, according to research conducted by St. Mary’s University in London.

Ultimately, cold-weather running may boost your cardiovascular health and endurance, since you’re “increasing the efficiency at which the body uses oxygen as a fuel source,” says Jessica Brown, PhD, an associate professor of exercise science and the director of clinical education of exercise physiology at Carroll University in Wisconsin.

It Burns More Calories

“Running in the cold burns even more calories since the body must expend additional kcals to maintain core body temperature,” Brown says. “There is also evidence that colder air [can increase] brown fat deposition. Brown fat, unlike white fat, generates heat to maintain body temperature, and it’s a key component in the added caloric expenditure.”

And according to a study published in Nature in 2019, activating your brown fat may help treat diabetes and other metabolic disorders.

It Helps You Train for Your Next Race

If you’ve got a big race coming up in early spring, then you should abide by “the principle of specificity,” Brown says. “This principle states that training should be relevant to the specific goal or activity. Therefore, if the exercise goal is to improve health and cardiovascular fitness, switching from outdoor to indoor in the cold is completely appropriate. If the goal is to train for an outdoor event in early spring, then outdoor running is the appropriate mode.”

Need an extra boost of motivation when heading out for a cold jog? Try an outdoor running workout with Peloton—or track your workout on the Peloton App.

Plus, if exercising outside helps you adhere to a regular training plan, don’t let the cold deter your regular runs, says Jeremy Frost, PhD, an associate professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, director of the Holbrook Exercise Physiology Center and a former Nordic ski coach.

It May Boost Your Mood

While there isn’t an extensive body of research on the direct connection between running in the cold and your mood, numerous experts highlight the importance of exercise and being outside as a way to counteract seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Spending more time in the sun exposes you to mood-boosting vitamin D. Plus, the fresh, crisp air can feel invigorating. “Inversely, some cold runs are just cold, but there is a certain satisfaction in having the mental grit to push through those uncomfortable experiences,” Brown says.

Is It Unhealthy to Run in the Cold?

However, running in the cold isn’t for everyone. “Those with asthma or other pulmonary diseases should be cautious, as the cold air can exacerbate breathing difficulties due to bronchial constriction,” Brown says. “Likewise, those with some types of cardiovascular disease should limit exposure to the cold, since it can [constrict] arteries and vessels to preserve warmth. As a result, this can increase the afterload placed on the heart, raising blood pressure and ultimately making the heart work harder.”

If you have Raynaud’s disease, think twice about running in the cold. With decreased blood flow to the fingers and other extremities, you may be incredibly uncomfortable at cold temperatures. This condition also puts you at a greater risk of frostbite and may cause you to develop sores on your fingers. As always, speak to a medical professional to figure out the best strategy for you. 

And sometimes it may simply be too cold to run—period. Temperatures below -8 degrees Fahrenheit can increase your risk of frostbite and hypothermia, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, and it’s possible for tissue injury to occur in less than 30 minutes in these conditions. While cold-weather aficionados may argue that a proper wardrobe can mitigate these risks, it may be smarter to hit your Tread in such conditions.

Tips for Running in the Cold

Remember those adjustments we mentioned above? Here’s what will set you up for success in that cold weather, according to exercise physiologists and running experts.

Breathing Techniques for Running in the Cold 

You don’t have to change your breathing during a cold-weather run, but depending on the temperature, it may feel better if you do. “In extremely cold air, runners may feel more comfortable breathing more shallowly and frequently (increasing their respiratory rate) because cold air irritates mucous membranes in the respiratory tract and throat,” Brown says. “This irritation may lead to a dry and sore throat and coughing.”

In fact, some outdoor athletes may develop exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB), regardless of whether they have asthma, since cold, dry air puts added stress on the respiratory system, Frost says. For this reason, “it is common for runners or Nordic skiers to wear a buff, balaclava or heat-and-moisture exchange mask covering their mouth and nose, particularly for warm-up and lower-intensity exercise,” he says.

If the cold air is still bothering you, Frost suggests lowering the intensity of your run. This will reduce your ventilation rate and the amount of cold air you’re breathing in.

How to Stay Hydrated in the Cold

Sure, the answer is simple: Drink water. But it’s also easy to get dehydrated in the winter because you don’t have the same cues that you do in hot weather. In cold temperatures, you’re not as sweaty since the sweat evaporates more quickly from your body. You also have “diminished thirst response” in cold weather—both because you forget to drink something cold when you’re already freezing and because low temperatures reduce your body’s fluid-regulating hormones that stimulate thirst. Oh, and when you see your breath in the cold? That’s also your body losing water—through evaporation.

To stay hydrated, drink before, during, and after your run, consuming 1.5 times the sweat you’ve lost during exercise within four hours. If you want to get serious about it, determine your sweat rate with this equation from the CDC:

Sweat rate = (pre-exercise body weight - post-exercise body weight + fluid intake - urine volume) ÷ exercise time in hours

While your hydration and dehydration levels will vary each time you run, this should give you a general sense of how much rehydrating your cold-weather runs require. Remember to adjust for distance and time.

Other cues that you might be dehydrated? Headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, muscle cramps, and weakness, according to the Medical University of South Carolina.

What to Wear When Running in the Cold

Of course, good attire is the key to prevent hypothermia, frostbite and, on a less dire note, an unpleasant run. To stay warm, cover your extremities (your ears, hands, and feet). “If it's really cold, you want to be thinking about what you're putting over your face to warm it,” Matt adds. 

And dress in layers. “Layers are necessary because the body naturally generates heat when running,” Brown says. “Like a combustion engine, our metabolism is only about 36 percent efficient in turning fuel to energy. The remaining is dissipated as heat, and runners may actually need to remove torso layers as they become heated.”

Your base layers should ideally be made from merino wool, according to a comprehensive 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The researchers noted that when worn against the skin, it has “greater thermal insulation properties and water absorbency than synthetic underwear”—two crucial elements for runners to stay warm in cool conditions and perform well. They also noted that female athletes tended to shiver more than their male counterparts, making this consideration even more important for women.

Here’s a handy cheat sheet for your cold-weather running wardrobe:

  • Merino base layers

  • Windbreaker or running jacket (You can tie it around your waist when you get hot.)

  • Running tights

  • Thermal or windproof pants when the weather goes below freezing

  • A buff, balaclava, or heat-and-moisture exchange mask that covers your mouth and nose

  • Hat

  • Gloves

  • Merino or thermal socks

  • Waterproof running sneakers with strong treads, lugs, or ice spikes; or crampons to go over your regular sneakers

  • Sunscreen (important in all seasons when running in daylight hours!)

When should you start shedding layers? When you start getting hot, of course. You’ll ideally want to feel a little chilly when you start your run because you’ll warm up quickly.

Risks When Jogging in Winter

Aside from making sure you’re sufficiently warm, there are a few other safety precautions to keep in mind before heading out on a cold-weather run. 

Things You Need to Change When Exercising in the Cold 

When it comes to your actual run, “there is nothing that needs to change other than to prepare for the environmental conditions,” Frost says. “You can do moderate-intensity tempo runs or intervals, or long, slow, distance as you normally would in warmer conditions. But you should stop if you feel like [your] toes or fingers, or your whole body, are colder than is comfortable and/or you are shivering excessively.”  

However, you do want to be cognizant of the surface for your run. “You've got to know what you're running on,” Matt says. “Snow is better than ice. Anything's better than ice. Whenever there's a lot of ice out, I generally try to avoid it or try not to push, try to take it easy, so that way you can watch the road.”

Icy conditions may also naturally shorten your stride length and increase your cadence. “The shorter stride length may offer more stability with an increased amount of foot contact on the ground,” Brown says. “This can naturally occur when trying to account for ice or other slipping hazards.”

You may also need to choose a different route. For example, Frost says you may not want to go as far from your starting point. Consider forgoing those wide, open spaces, which can get very windy. Avoid dark paths, which can make it challenging to see icy spots. 

How to Stay Safe When Running in the Cold

Be aware of acute weather changes—and check the forecast before you head out. “For example, running in light snow can be fun, while running in icy sleet can contribute to poor traction and be dangerous,” Brown says . “When temperatures get below freezing, ice is a major consideration.” She suggests scheduling your run for a time when there’s a lower risk of ice or using traction devices (like crampons) on running shoes to limit slipping.

Additionally, keep motorists in mind. Snowstorms can limit drivers’ visibility, and icy conditions can make cars more of a hazard to you. Plus, there are fewer hours for a daylight run in the winter, so if you’re running before or after work, you’ll likely be in the dark. Make sure to wear clothing with reflectors and be extra aware of your surroundings.

Woman ties sneakers during a cold-weather run

©Studio Firma/ Stocksy United

What to Do Before and After Your Cold-Weather Run

Warming up and cooling down may be even more important in colder weather. Here’s what the experts recommend keeping in mind.

Before: Dress in Layers

Experts recommend running in one less layer than is actually comfortable when you start. That’s because you’ll warm up before you know it…and then you’ll be overdressed. “It's all about how you dress,” Matt says. “And so when it's cooler out, you can easily just unzip a little bit, so it's much easier to control your temperature.” 

And don’t forget about the added elements. “The wind can also be a big factor in maintaining an ideal body temp during exercise,” Frost says. “I am often zipping up a vest or windbreaker as I turn into the wind and then unzipping it as I turn with the wind.”

After: Change Out of Sweaty Clothes Quickly

If you sweat excessively while running, Frost advises getting inside as quickly as possible after your workout. Once you stop producing body heat, that sweat will make you very cold very quickly. Alternately, bring dry items to put on immediately afterward.

Before: Extend Your Warmup

“In winter, the body is much colder to start with, so it will take more time to properly warm up muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments,” Brown says. But it’s still worth it. According to a 2016 study published in Bone & Joint Research, when muscles drop below the core body temperature, they become stiffer and more prone to tears.

After: Cool Down Inside

If you recover for an extended period of time in freezing weather, you can inadvertently cool down too much and start getting really cold. Brown suggests either shortening your cooldown or, ideally, taking it indoors.

Before: Put on a Face Covering

Extreme cold and wind can wreak havoc on your skin, not to mention your nasal passages, throat, and lungs. As noted earlier, a face mask or covering can keep moisture and warmth around the parts that need it, as well as reduce your overall exposure to the elements.

After: Hydrate

Lotion and lip balm will rehydrate your skin and lips. And don’t forget about hydrating from the inside out. In addition to water, you may want to drink something warm and soothing after your run, Frost says. This will help with rehydration, but it’ll also soothe the dry, scratchy throat that can result from gulping in cold winter air.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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