How to Run in the Cold

Wear layers and stay hydrated for cold weather running.

There's nothing like a good run on a nice, crisp, sunny day. When the weather is perfect -- not too hot, not too cold -- your body is comfortable, your breathing is easy, and the sun feels warm on your face. These are the days when you love being a runner.

But then winter hits. You lace up your running shoes and go out for your usual morning run, and it's so cold your chest hurts when you inhale, and to top it off, the freezing wind dries out your skin. If you're like many people, these cold winds drive you indoors to your trusty treadmill. But running in place on a machine just isn't the same. You long to get back outside to your regular route, but you can't stand the cold. It's probably best to sit on the couch and put on some winter weight, right?


Wrong. You can enjoy running during the cold winter season if you take some simple precautions. Here's a list of things that can happen if you run in the cold without proper planning:

  • hypothermia
  • frostbite
  • dehydration
  • wind chill effects

These are all serious and, in some cases, potentially life-threatening conditions. However, if you take some extra time to get ready for your run in the cold, you'll be safe and comfortable.

Later on we'll talk about dressing for warmth, protecting your exposed skin and keeping hydrated. But first, let's talk about your route. You may not be able to run the same route in the winter as you do during the warmer months because it could be snow-covered or icy. So map out an alternate route, if necessary. Keep your route closer to home and maybe even a bit shorter. If you're closer to home, you won't have far to run or walk if the weather gets ugly or if you take a spill on the ice.

And do remember that sometimes it's just too cold to run. Medical professionals recommend you run for no more than 30 minutes in temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 17.7 degrees Celsius), and here's why: You have a decreased ability to feel pain in sub-zero temperatures, meaning if you injure yourself, or if you have a previous injury that flares up, you may not feel it and can wind up exacerbating the problem.

On the next page, find out how to dress for cold weather running.


Dress for Running in the Cold

Dressing for cold weather exercise can be summed up with one simple word: layers. Layers help you stay dry, insulate you against the cold and protect you from the elements. You can take layers off and put them on as necessary. Let's take a look at what kinds of layers you should wear and how you should wear them.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you're warm when you start out, you will probably end up overheated. Remember that running generates body heat, so you should feel a little cold when you begin your run and allow your body to warm itself up naturally.


When you're dressing to run in the cold, two or three layers of clothing should work. Each layer has a different job to do. Your first layer, the one closest to your skin, should wick moisture away from your body. If you wear a cotton shirt, the cotton will pull the sweat away, but it also holds onto that moisture. So, look into athletic clothing made of synthetics like nylon, polyester and rayon that's specially designed to pull away moisture and keep it away from your skin.

The second layer is the one that keeps you warm. This is your insulating layer. Make sure you wear materials like fleece or insulating, heavy cotton. The second layer can also help out your first layer by absorbing any excess moisture to keep you warm and dry.

The third layer is optional, depending on the weather conditions. This layer should be something waterproof, like nylon or GORE-TEX®. Make sure that any zippers or fasteners have closures over them to prevent snow or rain from blowing in. And don't forget about your lower body, either. You can also layer your legs with running tights, or pants with shorts underneath.

Now, what about your extremities? Keep your hands warm and dry with running gloves that are specially made to wick away moisture. You can even buy warming gel at a sporting goods store, which is a lotion that adds a very thin layer of insulation to your hands. In extreme cold, some people even wear a pair of latex plastic gloves underneath their sport gloves. Remember to protect your head and ears, too, since you can lose up to 25 percent of your body heat through your head. Try a water-resistant hat or headband. It should have a snug fit to insulate your head properly. Headbands and hats also work to keep sweat, rain or snow out of your eyes.

Cold weather can wreak havoc on your skin. Keep reading to find out how to protect your skin from the elements.


Cold Running Skin Care

When you're running in this kind of weather, you should wear gloves and a hat to protect your skin from frostbite.

You already know how important it is to protect your skin from the sun. But winter weather brings a whole host of other skin issues. The worst-case scenario is frostbite. Less dangerous but still damaging are the chapping and drying of the skin. Luckily, there are ways to avoid these problems.

But first, let's discuss how to protect your face from the winter sunlight. If you're running during the day, you'll need SPF 15 sunscreen or higher on your face and any other areas of your body that are exposed to the sun. Most moisturizers come with sunscreen built right in.


Guard your skin from the wind and cold and prevent mild frostbite by protecting it with a sports moisturizer. If you use a moisturizer specially made for athletes, you won't be as likely to sweat it off as you exercise. If certain areas of your face are particularly prone to chapping, apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly for extra protection. And don't forget your lips! They'll easily dry out and become terribly chapped by extreme cold and wind. Apply a moisturizing lip balm with SPF every time you run.

Cold weather skin care doesn't end when your run does. You need to take care of your face after you arrive home as well. Wash your face with a gentle moisturizer with warm -- never hot -- water. And finally, apply a light moisturizer to keep your skin from drying out.

If you run in extreme cold, you may be at risk for frostbite on your extremities, usually your nose, ears or cheeks. There are typically four stages of frostbite:

  1. Early cold response is the first warning sign that you should come in out of the cold. Early cold response starts with a slightly painful and cold feeling to your skin. Your skin will also turn a reddish color.
  2. Frostnip comes after early cold response and causes your skin to become numb or slightly numb. It will also turn from red to a whitish color. At this point, you're probably approaching frostbite and should warm up as soon as possible.
  3. Superficial frostbite is when the skin is numb, soft and white. Any form of frostbite requires medical attention.
  4. Deep frostbite is very serious. Your skin will no longer be soft, but firm. Your tissues are actually freezing and, if not attended to, can blister and eventually die. This is a very serious condition and may be irreversible.

Now that your skin is protected, let's discuss how to keep the rest of your body in tip-top shape. We all know how important it is to keep hydrated during long, hot summer runs. But hydration during the cold winter months is equally important.


Cold Running Hydration

You may not sweat as much in the winter, but that doesn't mean you don't need to stay hydrated. Hydration is just as important during the winter as it is in the summer. Here are a few reasons why.

Cold air has less moisture than warm air, which means each time you inhale and exhale, the dry air steals a little bit of moisture from your lungs. Also, lower temperatures trick your body into ignoring its need for fluids. Therefore, you should hydrate even when you don't feel thirsty.


Earlier, we talked about dressing in layers to trap heat and keep warm. It's important to remember that wearing moisture-wicking clothing may prevent you from knowing how much you're sweating. You should keep hydrating, even if you think you're not losing fluids. You can determine how much fluid you're losing while you run by weighing yourself before and after running. It's best to weigh yourself in the nude; don't weigh yourself while you're wearing clothing that's soaked with sweat. For every pound of weight you lost during that run, you should consume 16 ounces of fluids. Any weight lost during running or other strenuous exercise is mostly water weight, so you need to replace it. Now that you know how much you typically lose during a run, you can ensure you hydrate the correct amount the next time you run.

Many runners -- especially long distance athletes -- will wear a water belt so they can hydrate during their runs. A water belt is worn around your waist and it holds bottles of water, so your hands can remain free. An added bonus of the water belt is that the water stays close to your body, which will prevent it from getting too cold in the freezing weather.

For more articles about running and exercise, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • McManus, Melanie Radzicki. "Winter Advisory." Runner's World. August 2004. (Sept. 5, 2010),7120,s6-238-267-269-9262-0,00.html
  • Morris, Rick. "Dressing For Cold Weather Running - Staying Warm And Dry When Running In Cold Weather." Running Planet. 2010. (Sept. 5, 2010)
  • Morris, Rick. "Running In Cold Weather - How To Avoid Hypothermia and Frostbite." Running Planet. 2010. (Sept. 5, 2010)
  • "North Pole Marathon: World's Coolest Marathon." North Pole Marathon. 2010. (Sept. 5, 2010)
  • Pribut, Stephen M. "Running in the Cold." Dr. Pribut's Running Injuries Page. Jan. 23, 2010. (Sept. 5, 2010)
  • "Since I don't sweat much when it's cold, do I still need to hydrate during my runs?" Runner's World. Dec. 5, 2006. (Sept. 5, 2010),7120,s6-238-267--11144-0,00.html
  • Solkin, Mindy. "Running in the Cold." 2010. (Sept. 5, 2010)
  • Switzer, Kathrine. "Don't Let the Cold Slow You Down: Tips For Cold Weather Workouts." Cool Running. 2010. (Sept. 5, 2010)