Have you ever wondered what you should change about your routine when running in the winter? You are not alone – this is one of the most common conversation topics brought up by our clientele at Perfect Stride as temperatures begin to drop in New York. Read on to learn more about how to stay safe and fit with winter running and modify for conditions without disrupting your training cycle (especially for all of you Boston marathoners!)
While many balk at the idea of winter running in below-freezing temperatures, there are a host of physiological benefits to training in colder weather. While there are no specific injuries correlated with cold weather running, poor preparation for the elements can increase your chances of a running-related injury (more on that below).
Just like training in the heat, it will take practice and time for your body to acclimate to winter running. However, once you nail your winter running routine and get consistent efforts in, your nervous system will adjust to the additional stress brought on by the cold, stimulating fewer stress hormones (cortisol and norepinephrine) into your bloodstream.
Psychologically, it is helpful to get your miles in when the conditions are less than ideal. We cannot control what the weather looks like on race day. Having the prior experience of lacing up for chilly runs pays dividends in the event that the forecast is extra cold or dreary for race day. Note: if you are not prepping for a specific race, give yourself permission to make a more conservative judgment call on colder days.
Another positive health benefit of winter running is the opportunity to increase your sunlight exposure (depending on time of day). This assists in regulating circadian rhythms for proper sleep/wake cycles and may help ward off seasonal affective disorder in individuals who have a history of it.
Regular cold exposure has been linked to other holistic physiological benefits, such as improved fat utilization, immune and cardiovascular system stimulation, blood sugar regulation, and improved metabolic rate. Running in the cold (theoretically) presents an opportunity to capitalize on these benefits in combination with the regular exercise benefits. Due to vasoconstriction stimulated by colder temperatures, your heart has to work harder (heart rate is increased) to pump blood throughout your body to your extremity muscles. As a result, your lungs work harder (respiration rate is increased) to offset this change and supply adequate oxygen to extremity muscles. While these changes make those first winter runs feel more challenging, over time you will reap additional cardiovascular benefits that aid overall aerobic fitness, for at least 4 weeks following.
Before your run:
There are a few ways to set yourself up for success when it comes to any run, not just a winter run. A dynamic run warm-up (check out our instagram for ideas!) and general mobility routine helps mitigate any running-related injury during the effort.
Additionally, you have likely heard the importance of drinking water, but runners tend to underestimate the amount of fluid they need with winter running. Just because you are not sweating as much as you are in the heat of the summer, proper water and electrolyte intake during the winter months is key to healthy training. Similarly, proper fueling helps aid overall performance, muscle recovery, and mitigate overuse injury risk. Check out our blog post with Registered Dietician Claire Shorenstein for more information on hydration and fueling for runners.
Dressing smart is one of the most important steps to consider when running in colder weather. A general rule of thumb is to dress as though it is 15-20 degrees warmer than it actually is to account for natural body heat increases due to exercise. Pro tip: look at the “feels like” or “real feel” and base your calculation on that to account for wind chill and humidity effects. When layering, start with a wicking base layer no matter the temperature. This helps avoid any sweat you accumulate on the run from chilling your skin. If you start sweating during the run, it is helpful to ditch a layer to help mitigate more moisture from sitting on your skin, which will ultimately cool your body too much. For similar reasons, moisture-wicking gloves, hat/headband (that covers your ears), and neck warmers are smart choices to protect air-exposed spots. One last step: make sure to have an outer reflective layer or accessory if you are racing the sunset.
During your run:
One of the most fundamental safety considerations to be mindful of with winter running is awareness of the route you are running. Slick trails, snow, ice (especially black ice) are common culprits in falls and near-falls with winter running. Adequate lighting (whether daylight or via overhead lamps) can help improve your visibility to spot potentially slippery patches of ground. When in doubt, find a more stable surface to run on (even if it means going inside to a treadmill). For all of the health benefits listed above, no run is worth a fall or ankle sprain due to hazardous conditions. As discussed above, hydrating and fueling appropriately throughout your run (if doing a longer effort) is equally important, even if the cold weather suppresses your thirst. One last tip: be mindful of hypothermia and frostbite warning signs. Excessive shivering, fatigue or drowsiness, confusion, pain or redness on exposed skin, or intense numbness are signs it is time to go indoors and warm up.
After your run:
Following your run, step one is to get rid of your cold (potentially damp) layers. You want to change into warmer clothes or take a shower as soon as possible to help warm your body up. Sitting in cold, wet clothes will make it harder for your body to recover and establish your preferred resting body temperature. Then, you can grab a snack and drink electrolytes to begin your recovery process. A cool down mobility routine is always helpful in addressing any muscle tightness from a colder winter run.
Curious to learn more about how to train safely (in the winter months or generally)? We offer run coaching, gait analysis sessions, personal training, and physical therapy to help you achieve your fitness goals safely. Reach out today to schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute discovery call to see if we are a good fit for you: