How to Prepare for Winter Running

Now that the warmer days of summer and fall have passed us, it is time to think about how to exercise safely in the winter. According to aSweatLife’s 2021 State of Fitness results, running continues to be one of the top 5 forms of exercise. While running continues to be popular, winter running carries its own challenges. Below are tips on how to stay safe while running in the winter and look great while doing it!

cold weather running tips

How to stay safe with cold weather running

Winter running comes with unique safety risks. Most regions experience more darkness due to shorter days. Additionally, regions that experience cold weather put runners at risk of injury due to ice, snow, and low temperatures. These challenges do not need to keep runners off the road. If a runner is properly prepared, they can continue to enjoy their experience safely.

Prepare to run in the dark

As a morning and evening runner, I am beginning to notice just how dark my preferred running times can be. Living in an urban environment, I often do not feel safe running alone in the dark. To add a level of safety to dark runs, I offer these tips:

  • Run with a group or with a pet. During the winter, I often will bring my dog Zola on my run with me because I know that if something were to go awry, she would protect me. If I am not running with her, I will invite my partner or a friend to join me.
  • Wear reflective clothing and/or running lights. Running in the dark can make it challenging for cars and cyclists to see you. It can also make it more challenging to see crevices or other holes on running paths. To minimize risk of collisions and falls, consider purchasing running lights or a reflective vest.
  • Stay on more populated streets. If you are running alone, it may feel helpful to run on a street that is populated by foot traffic, shops and restaurants. In the event of an emergency, there will likely be another person nearby. For an added layer of safety, share your location with a friend or loved one and let them know when you expect to finish your run.
  • Run in the lighter hours of the day: If running in the dark is not something you feel comfortable doing, but you prefer to run outside, look for flexibility in your schedule to complete your workout during your lunchbreak or in the lighter hours of the day.
  • Utilize a treadmill. While the treadmill is more lovingly referred to as a dreadmill in my household, it is an excellent tool for winter running. If you are unable to run outside, a treadmill may be a safe option to complete your run. Treadmills are also useful for completing speedwork without having to be concerned about icy conditions or training for a warm weather race in the colder months.

Be mindful of more slippery conditions

As discussed above, colder weather can create slippery and unsafe running conditions. Whether there is ice, mud, puddles, or piles of leaves, there are many possibilities to take a fall. To account for slippery conditions, prepare to run at a slower pace. More muscles in our legs and feet are activated when stabilizing on slippery foundations meaning our paces will slow. Additionally, consider investing in winterized running shoes. These shoes are designed to prevent slips and keep your feet dry in winter conditions.

Be aware of cold weather health considerations

Just as dehydration is a concern in winter running, there are health concerns for winter running. Below are some specific conditions to be mindful of:

  • Hypothermia: Hypothermia occurs when t the overall internal and external temperature of the body begin to lower. This can lead to negative impacts on breathing, cognition, and mobility. Hypothermia can be prevented by dressing in appropriate layers and being mindful of internal body temperature. If temperatures are lower than 0°F, the risk of hypothermia is significantly higher and it may be worthwhile to shorten your run or run inside.
  • Frostbite: Frostbite occurs when the layers of the skin begin to freeze. The first stage of frostbite, frostnip, does not result in permanent damage if treated. The next two stages of frostbite, superficial frostbite and severe frostbite, can lead to permanent damage.
  • Heart disease: Running in the cold weather can increase blood pressure. This can be a larger risk for those who have a history of or are at risk of heart disease. If you have personal concerns, consult with your physician.

Best cold weather running gear

Part of managing safety concerns while running is dressing appropriately. A general rule of thumb is to dress for what would be comfortable to walk in if it were 10° warmer. For example, if you are running in 30°, wear what you may walk in for 40°. Specific clothing recommendations are here:

  • Gloves and wool socks: Our hands and feet are the most at risk of frostbite so keeping them warm is important.
  • Hat: Significant amounts of heat are lost through the head and our ears are also at risk of frost bite. Invest in a moisture wicking running hat that covers the ears to keep your head warm and dry.
  • Layers for your core: To keep your core warm, include base layers, pull-overs, jackets, and vests in your closet. For layers closer to your core, consider wool or technical materials. For outer layers, consider water and/or wind resistant materials.
  • Running pants and/or tights: Keep your legs warm by using fleece-lined running tights or a base-layer running tight with an outer-layer running pant.
  • Sunscreen: Exposed skin is still at risk of sun-exposure in the winter and can be more at risk when snow and ice reflect the sun.
  • Neck gaiter: This layer of clothing can cover the nose, mouth, and neck to keep those areas covered in particularly cold weather.

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About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.