Winter Running Basics

Outdoor running in the winter presents unique challenges for even experienced runners.  Whether it’s your first time braving the winter weather as a runner or you’ve been running for years, Matt Roth, MD, a family and sports medicine with ProMedica Physicians answers our questions about outdoor winter running.

Are there any benefits from running outside in the winter?
Exercise has been shown to boost immune system and improve energy levels, which can be particularly helpful during the cold winter months. Outdoor running adds the benefits of fresh air and sunlight, both which can improve your mood. Also, the wind resistance and work needed to propel yourself forward when running outside (as opposed to treadmill running) means a better cardiovascular workout. If you’re running in the snow, you gain strength benefits as well.

How can I prepare for the physical challenges of winter running?
If you have a history of asthma or a have had a recent respiratory illness, breathing in the cold air may make it harder for you to catch your breath. If you have diabetes, heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, uncontrolled asthma, or any other condition that affects breathing, talk with your doctor before braving the cold.

Also, because it’s cold you may feel less thirsty running in the winter. However, your body needs just as much water as it does when you run in the warm weather, so be sure to drink enough fluids. Remember to warm up for 8-10 minutes before your run. It’s important to be patient, too, with some challenges – your stride may be affected by less secure footing on slippery snow and some of your energy goes to keeping your body warm in cold weather.

What should I wear for my run?
In general, you should dress as if the temperature outside is 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the actual temperature. Layering your clothing is a good idea because you can shed layers to prevent overheating as your body warms up with exercise. Performance gear that wicks moisture away from the skin can also be helpful in preventing your skin from getting damp. Remember to cover your head, ears and fingers to prevent heat loss and to protect them from the cold.

Safety is probably the biggest concern with outdoor running. Trail shoes or coil-based attachments for shoes can provide added traction in slippery conditions. Because sunlight is limited in the winter months, Wear reflective clothing and stay in well-lit areas to ensure that you are seen by others in the dark, as visibility can be challenging when sunlight is limited on winter days.

When is it best to stay inside?
There are a few weather conditions that can make it too unsafe to exercise outdoors. If the temperature dips below 10 degrees Fahrenheit or the wind chill is less than 0, stay inside. If conditions are icy, exercising indoors will eliminate your risk of slipping and sliding, which can cause injury. If you unexpectedly come upon an icy patch while you’re out, carefully slow to a walk and use caution to prevent sliding.

Running outside has its benefits, even in the cold winter months. But it can be hard to stay motivated and brave the cold. Working toward a goal, such as a spring race, or joining a running group can keep you accountable during the cold weather. Sometimes the conditions are too challenging to run outside in the winter, so stay a little flexible with your workouts. And remember, that even if you aren’t breaking personal records during the winter, you’re still lapping everyone who’s skipping out during the cold months.