Don’t Freeze Your Butt Off: Winter Running Tips

Key Points

  • Running in the winter requires physical and mental strength. 

  • Starting slow, staying warm, and focusing on warm breathing make running easier in colder temperatures. 

  • Running in the winter improves metabolism, immune system function, muscle energy, recovery, fat burning, and mental health. 

Oh, the dreaded winter months. There's less sunlight and a lot more sitting — probably under a blanket with a warm cup of calories! It seems like the world is closing in on you. Running in the winter, however, is a hidden gem.

Getting the mental and physical strength for running in the winter is challenging but attainable. Running in the winter offers more benefits than an average run. 

Benefits of Running in the Winter

Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise posted a study that found running performance decreased when the temperature rose. Running faster and longer is easier in colder temperatures. The study's authors said, "marathon running performance slows in warm weather conditions."

Running has enough benefits as is, but adding in frigid temperatures elevates your performance. Winter runs lead to better physical, mental, and emotional health. 

Better Immune System

Running in the winter is beneficial for the immune system. The immune system has to work harder during a chilly run, so you're essentially working out your immune system in addition to your muscles and cardiovascular system.

During exercise, the immune system creates and releases cells similar to those released during sickness or injury. Repeatedly producing these cells keeps them in the body and ready to fight any viruses you encounter.

A robust immune system helps you fight off illnesses. If you end up sick, a healthy network of immune cells prevents you from having such extreme symptoms. 

Faster Metabolism

Your metabolism is responsible for turning food and drinks into energy. A faster-moving metabolism burns more calories than a slow-moving one. Fewer calories burned means more fat stored in the body.

Running in the winter boosts metabolism, leading to more calories being burnt and less fat stored. This is because your metabolism works harder in the cold to turn food into heat for the body.

More Energy for Muscles

Your body doesn't have to work as hard when it's cooler outside. When it's hot, your body has to work to cool itself down. Using energy to cool the body leaves less available for running. Running is more effective in the winter because all the energy goes to the muscles for movement. 

Quicker Recovery

Exercising leads to slight levels of inflammation in the body. Inflammation contributes to the pain and stiffness often felt after a jog. Running cold doesn't create as much inflammation as running in normal temps or in the heat. Less inflammation means a quicker recovery. 

Prevent Weight Gain

It's easier to gain weight in the winter because fewer opportunities exist to move and burn calories — candy from Halloween, turkey from Thanksgiving, and desserts on Christmas pack on the pounds. Getting out and running prevents your body from storing the extra food as fat. 

Burn Fat

Brown fat is good fat. Yes, you heard that. . . good fat. Brown fat breaks down sugar and fat molecules to create heat. Sugar and fat are the two most prominent molecules stored as white fat — the bad fat. Too much white fat leads to obesity. Running in the winter activates brown fat, which helps burn white fat. 

Improve Mood

Seasonal depression is very prominent. In the winter, there's less sunlight, movement, and outdoor activities. Winter runs combat depression associated with the colder months. Running in the winter also releases a hormone, dopamine, that works to make you feel happier.

Knowing the benefits of running in the winter is the first step in getting motivated. Before you lace up and head out, ensure you wear the right gear for winter running.

What Should You Wear When Running in Winter?

It's not a secret that you need a strong coat when running outside, but what else? The main goal of dressing to run in cold temperatures is layering. Layering is putting on multiple pieces of clothing on top of one another. 

If it's less than 40 degrees, wear at least two layers on top and one or two on the bottom. Temperatures less than 30 degrees require three top layers and two bottom layers. Dress as though it's 10 degrees higher than the actual temperature to account for the layers and body heat that builds up when exercising. 

Your first layer should be against the body and moisture-wicking, meaning it absorbs any sweat that develops. Absorbing sweat keeps you from getting damp and chilly, which drops your body temperature. A bulky first layer restricts movement. A thin item makes it easier to layer. Other vital parts of a winter running outfit include:

  • Leggings, long johns, or tights

  • Hoodie, coat, or jacket

  • Gloves

  • Scarf, neck goiter, face mask

  • Sweatpants

  • Hat, toboggan, or ear warmers

  • One thick pair or two thinner pairs of socks

  • Tennis shoes with a firm grip

Knowing what to wear outside is great, but staying warm on the outside is only half the battle. Improving mental strength makes it easier to run outside in the winter. 

Convince Yourself to Keep Going

You can convince yourself of some wild ideas. Distracting yourself from the cold makes it easier to complete your winter journey. Being mentally strong keeps you from giving up. 

Winter is a lovely time to bundle up in some blankets, light a fire, turn on a movie, and binge on your favorite snacks. It's much less challenging to stay on the warm couch than to go on a run. 

Running in the winter requires self-discipline and determination. You have to make yourself get up and run, then persevere through. You can't give up just because it's cold.

Improve mental toughness by:

  • Focusing on body movement. Listen to your feet on the ground or your headphones playing. Think of something other than the bitter surroundings. 

  • Setting aside time to run. Worrying about plans or what you could be doing instead only holds you back. Schedule time to allow yourself to focus on the run. 

  • Meditating. Meditation targets the areas of the brain responsible for mental resilience and makes them stronger. 

  • Practicing self-care and compassion. Being mean to yourself is detrimental. Approaching yourself from an area of sympathy, understanding, and concern keeps you from dipping into despair. 

  • Setting boundaries. Boundaries develop your independence, build self-esteem, and improve your mental health. 

  • Reaching out for help. Don't fight mental health issues alone. Getting support means you're strong enough to want someone there to help. You're courageous enough to show vulnerability. 

  • Running in a good mindset. Running is repetitive and rhythmic. After some time, you don't even realize you're running. This makes it easier to get caught up in negative thoughts and stew on them. Starting your run with a good mindset makes it easier to succeed. 

  • Redirecting negative thoughts. Negative thoughts are natural and unavoidable. Simply let them pass and focus on your next train of thought. Don't dwell on them, or it'll take a toll on your mental energy. 

  • Focusing on goals and motivations. Remember why you started and where you want to finish. Focusing on the positive outcomes encourages you to keep going. 

  • Setting realistic expectations. Make sure to distinguish your goals from your expectations. Wanting to run five miles on your first winter trek isn't practical or safe. You're just going to get down on yourself for "failing." 

  • Use a running app. Tracking your runs and progress increases motivation and makes you less likely to skip a run. If apps aren't quite your thing, at least consider using a device to track your steps.

It's going to be challenging to get up and get out there. Who doesn't love the idea of a warm bed over chilly winds? Improving mental strength helps you in your battle against the cold. 

Don't Freeze Your Butt Off on Winter Runs

Sometimes layering up isn't enough. Three shirts aren't going to protect the face from frosty gusts of wind. Keep your face and neck warm by using sunglasses, scarves, neck goiters, or face masks. Everyone seems to have an extra face mask lying around from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Prevent wind flow from coming into your clothes. Open sleeves and pant legs leave the limbs exposed to the unforgiving winter wind. Keep the current out by wearing cinched sweatpants and sweatshirts and tucking your top layers into the bottom. Some companies even sell heated jackets. 

Use chapstick on your lips to prevent cracking and splitting. Putting petroleum jelly on hands and feet before getting dressed provides an extra layer of protection and prevents dry skin. Cold air is usually dry, so exposure creates the risk of dehydrating the skin. 

Running in winter comes with a fair share of risks. Become a winter runner by knowing important pointers for surviving subzero conditions. 

How to Run in the Winter

Running in the winter is easier than you might think. If you want to run in the winter:

  • Warm up inside. Warming up before you step out the door makes you eager to reach the cold. 

  • Use a gripper on your tennis shoes. Add a traction device to your sneaker if your shoes don't provide enough anti-slip support. These are usually chain and rubber objects that you stretch around your shoe to increase traction. 

  • Get enough sleep. Running on fumes won't leave you with enough energy to fight the cold and move forward. 

  • Avoid ice. Running on snow is safer, but it's best to find dry land with traction, such as gravel.  

  • Run with the sun. Wait until the sun is out, the hottest part of the day. Bring sunglasses, though, because the sun reflects off snow and affects your sight. 

  • Start running into the wind. Sweat accumulates at the end of a run. Having the wind at your back near the end of your run prevents you from catching a chill due to moisture on your skin. 

  • Prepare for a fall. Make sure someone knows where you're going, how long you'll be gone, and your location. Slipping and knocking yourself out could mean laying out for hours if no one knows. Set up Fall Detection if you have an Apple Watch, and keep your phone safe so it won't get damaged if you fall. 

  • Start slow. Start with short training plans, such as 15 – 20 minutes or a mile until accustomed. 

  • Dry off. You'll get colder faster if you're damp. Change out of sweaty and snow-soaked clothes as soon as you return from your run. 

Running in the winter is calming. It's quieter from the snow absorbing the sound. It's refreshing and rejuvenating. Most of all, it's more doable than you think. One of the biggest concerns about running in the winter is how to breathe when it's so cold. 

Breathing in the Cold

Cold air is dry and irritates the nose and throat lining. It's hard to breathe sometimes, and you feel an almost burning sensation in your chest. Not to mention your nose feels like it's going to break off. 

Mucous linings in the nose, throat, chest, and lungs play a role in heating oxygen as it goes into the system. Breathing through your nose gives the oxygen longer to warm up before it reaches the lungs. Wearing a cover over the nose and mouth also helps prevent the air from being too cold. 

Ensure the covering is easily removable in case you get dizzy or smothered. Check the cover's fibers for hair, lint, or debris, so it doesn't get into your nose or mouth and choke you. Make sure it's a breathable material and won't get in the way of your vision. 

Avoid heavy training or sprinting to offset the symptoms of breathing frosty wind. Large, quick gasps of wind don't have enough time to warm up before reaching the lungs. Large, cold air constricts blood vessels in the lungs and creates the sensation of insufficient oxygen. 

Check the Weather

Running in the winter is a challenge, both physically and mentally. Staying dry, covering skin, preventing air flow, improving mental toughness, and focusing on breathing techniques are crucial to running in the winter. Now you're layered up, have a plan, and are ready to take off into the winter wonderland!

Getting benefits from running in winter takes work, but it's worth it. As Aristotle said, "To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake, it is necessary to stand out in the cold."

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