"Is running in cold weather safe?" This is one of the most common questions I get as a running coach and blogger.
Here's the truth, though. Despite the misconceptions, running during the cold season is not harmful. In fact, running in colder temperatures has a lot to offer, from warding off the notorious winter weight gain to helping to combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
However, to stay safe while running in the cold, there are a few measures and steps you need to take before you start a workout.
Keep reading to learn more about some of the dangers of winter running as well as how to stay safe so you can get the most out of your cold-season training.
What to Know About Frozen Lungs
Whether you're training for your first 5K this year or you’re an experienced winter athlete, chances are you've already experienced some form of chest burning or discomfort while exercising in the cold. This is sensation is commonly referred to as “frozen lungs.”
Overall, this condition isn't dangerous, but it can be annoying enough to make some runners consider either quitting their training or moving indoors.
When you exercise outdoors in the cold, your breath in cold, dry air. As you breathe it in, your lungs heat and humidify the air as it goes into your body.
This cold, dry air irritates your airways and causes them to narrow, making it difficult to breathe. And this is the case even in healthy individuals with zero lung problems, especially when the air is too cold and dry and the amount of air inhaled and exhaled is high. Additionally, if you already have a respiratory disease, such as asthma, freezing temperatures can make your symptoms even worse.
Wear A Mask
Wearing a face mask or scarf over your mouth can help prevent a runner's cough-induced cold. This should help warm and humidify the incoming air, reducing the irritation effect of the cold, dry air. This, in turn, helps soothe some of the strain on your lungs.
Drink Plenty of Water
Hydration also matters. In fact, it's just as important to drink in the heat as it is during the cold. Drink plenty of water during your outdoor winter workouts, even if you don't feel thirsty. In fact, if you feel thirsty, you're already dehydrated. As a general rule, shoot for at least 16 ounces of water for every hour of physical activity.
Know the Risks of Cold Weather Injury
The longer you stay outdoors in freezing temperatures, the higher the risk for cold-weather injuries, especially frostbite and hypothermia. Hypothermia is an extreme reaction to cold exposure in which core body temperatures may drop to as low as 95 degrees Fahrenheit (from the normal 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit). When you're outside for too long in the cold, your body starts to lose heat faster than it can produce more, setting the stage for this condition. When hypothermia occurs, the body’s vital systems will stop functioning properly and the effects can prove to be fatal.
Frostbite is an injury to the body caused by freezing. The condition strikes when unprotected body surfaces come in direct contact with the cold air, freezing as a response. Frostbite can result in permanent damage to the body as the skin, nerves, and tissues freeze in the affected area.
Know the Early Warning Signs of Serious Cold Weather Injury
The best way to deal with cold-weather injuries is to not have any in the first place. Prevention, after all, is better than a cure.
Symptoms of early frostbite onset include:
- Stinging sensation
- Cold, red skin
- Loss of feeling
Warning signs of hypothermia include:
- Intense shivering
- Muscle stiffness
- Slurred speech
- Extreme fatigue
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor coordination and sluggishness
- Memory loss
If you experience any of the above symptoms, immediately seek warmer shelter outside of the cold and winter elements. Call 911 if symptoms don't improve once safely indoors.
Dress Properly for the Weather
Runners need to dress properly to protect their bodies against the impact of the cold during winter workouts. This is where layering comes into play. Wearing proper layers while running in the cold helps keep your body warm and protected against frostbite and hypothermia. To protect your body against the cold, follow the layering rule, which combines three functional layers of clothing for maximum warmth and protection.
How the Layering Rule Works
The base layer – Start by wearing a moisture-wicking material layer against your skin to help keep you warm and dry. The layer can be polyester, lightweight wool, or polypropylene. Avoid cotton fabrics at all times.
Second or insulating layer –The middle layer helps insulate and keep heat in. Choose this layer’s thickness by considering the temperature. And remember, the better the insulation. I'd recommend a fleece jacket or a winter exercise jersey.
Third or outer layer – The outer layer protects you against rain and wind. I'd recommend a waterproof and windproof running vest or jacket for this piece. Try to choose a layer made from breathable materials—otherwise, sweat can build up and make you cold.
Protecting your head, face, neck, feet, and hands is also crucial when running in cold weather. Depending on weather conditions and your activity, you may need the following:
- Exercise hat
- A sport belt like this one
- Face mask or balaclava
- Scarf or neck warmer
- Gloves or mittens
- Warm exercise shoes
- Wool or polypro socks
Slipping and Falling During a Winter Run
The other risk of venturing outdoors when it's cold, especially when it's raining or snowing, is slipping and falling. Cold temperatures, rain, and snow can make for slippery paths and sidewalks, which can be a hazard for runners or anyone exercising outdoors.
Check out what you need to do to make sure you stay steady on your feet while logging the miles in cold weather.
Choose the Right Path
Not all running roads are created equal—this is especially the case during the winter.
Choose a path you're sure will be cleared. Most university campuses are diligent about clearing and keeping their sidewalks safe and pedestrian-friendly. I'd recommend avoiding trails since they might not be as well maintained, and many have hidden obstacles that might put your safety at risk when it’s cold or icy outside.
Are you planning to run often on wet or icy surfaces? Consider attaching spikes to your running shoes to improve traction. This, in turn, reduces the risk of slipping and falling.
I'd recommend Yaktrax, which is a product designed to slip onto the outside of footwear and has extra traction. It can also be slipped one and off with ease. This makes navigating slippery surfaces safer. Just remember to stay off hard surfaces if you're wearing spikes. Since they're designed to pierce snow or ice, spikes may compromise your balance and comfort on paved surfaces.
Now that you’ve gotten a grasp on all of the tips for running in cold weather, it’s time to finally get back to clocking mileage. Grab your AfterShokz headphones before you go and stay safe out there!
About the Author
David Dack is a runner and writer based in Bali. Learn more about Dack and get tips on how to improve running techniques and performance on his blog, Runners Blueprint.