And no. I do not mean forty to fifty degrees. Since I’m from Chicago, cold means below freezing. Cold means a nice, freezing wind chill. Cold means below zero. So if you’re an outdoor runner like me and enjoy being outside no matter the elements, let’s took a look at some tips and tricks for running in the cold.
There are three basic tips that I have that keep you going throughout winter. Be warm. Be wise. Wear wool.
But there’s a lot more than that.
First up: Be warm.
It goes without saying that when you’re going for a genuine cold run you’ll want to be warm. But it’s trickier than it seems. It’s not just about bundling up. It’s definitely not about being hot. And there’s the weather to consider.
This is a really broad topic but we’ll break it down into bite sized bits starting with socks. Compression socks and sleeves are my favorite thing in the winter. I like wearing a thin compression sock underneath a thicker wool sock for medium cold days. For colder days, two pairs of wool socks plus compression sleeves for my shins and calves. This keeps my lower leg nice and toasty.
Next up: pants and base layer. A good pair of running tights goes a long way. As does thermal compression gear. I’m a big believer in wear whatever keeps you warm so for some people that’s underwear and loose fitting warm pants. For me, I need a nice base layer. Whether that’s running tights, compression thermals, more running tights or all of the above at the same time, I like keeping my joints and muscles very warm.
Also, with regards to pants, if you’re running in a very cold place…get wind breaking pants. I went years without these which meant wearing extra layers that were really thick. Now that I have them, get them. The wind is extremely dangerous and lots of layers can make running uncomfortable. Pants that protect you from the wind allow less layers. I generally wear thermal compression pants underneath my wind breaking pants and I’m good to go for a huge range of temperatures.
Shirts! Under Armour cold gear is great. I’ve found this brand and I’ve stuck with it for a few years. They’re really warm. They lock your heat in and keep the sweat off your skin which is really important in the winter. For colder weather, I’ll pop on another thick running top on top of it. If it’s extremely cold, do yourself a favor and invest in a warm, thick hoodie designed for very low temperatures. Underneath that, wear your layers.
Neck and head is up next. We forget about our neck. It needs to be warm just like everything else if not more so. For warmer days, keep a face warmer or balaclava on your neck. You don’t need to pull it up around your face if you don’t need it but you can keep around your neck to keep that warm. When it gets cold, you’ll need it on your face. When it gets stupid cold? Ski goggles or other protective eye wear. I know, I sound crazy. But it’s not just me. Other runners do wear ski goggles when it dips below zero and cyclists do it well before that (hello, wind).
But that’s not all. I wear hats because I have next to no hair with my hair cut and I lose a ton of heat through the top of my head because of that. You can wear a headband if you have more hair or a mix of both. The point is that you need to watch out for your ears and the heat escaping from your noggin.
Final bits: gloves and shoes (and your crotch?). Gloves are trial and error. I have a pair of two dollar, cheap gloves. They don’t a lot but they keep my hands warm down to about twenty degrees Fahrenheit…pretty good for cheap cotton gloves. Around 25 though, I change out to warm gloves. Like I said, gloves are trial and error. There are a ton of different brands out there and runners can easily get away with mittens to keep your fingers warm.
The second part was shoes (and other). If you’re due for a new pair of shoes, get ones with less mesh. You’re also going to want to have something for ice and snow but that’s next week’s article! Just make sure you aren’t buying summer shoes. Something thicker, a little bulkier maybe and something with less mesh. And…unmentionables. This is definitely more for men but be careful. There’s always that “third sock” (go on do the research) and different kinds of underwear for various temperatures but it is easy to do damage so be mindful of all of your exposed bits, not just your fingers and toes.
Wow! That’s a lot for just “Be warm” and it’s funnier when you realize you need to be cold when you head out. Which brings us to the next general topic: be wise.
This one is trickier because ultimately, it’s in your hands. This extends to any activity done out in the colder weather and it’s important. Sometimes, you have to go back to change clothes, warm up, or just call it quits for the day. It’s important to recognize when something like that happens but it’s more important to look at what we need to be thinking about and checking in on during our outdoor activities.
First and foremost, “are my toes warm and dry?” A basic question, I ask myself this question every half mile, on wet days, I just keep my mind on my toes. We have got to protect our feet and toes. If at point beyond my initial warm-up of let’s say five to six minutes of running my toes are cold and/or wet, I will go home and add a layer of socks or change socks. It’s plain dumb to run in below freezing temperatures with cold or wet toes. You’re asking for trouble. This is why wool is so good!
The second is more general, “Am I okay?” To me, this one is just a basic check on a few things, eyes, ears, nose, and throat. Is everything warm? Does anything hurt? I also think about my muscles and make sure they’re warm, not getting cold. I focus my attention on my joints to check and see if they’re happy. This is just general body awareness.
The last thing I actively check is my breathing. I, like so many runners, use an inhaler before my run so I don’t end up hacking, wheezing, whistling, and running on lungs that can’t get air out well enough. Cold weather is a big trigger for those of us like me. So check yourself, make sure you can breathe and that you’re feeling good. And hey, if you have coughing, wheezing, whistling in your lungs, tightness in your chest, or an inability to breathe well after your run go to your doctor. It’s a solvable issue.
All right, one more thing. Use your judgement. Each day our bodies are in a different place. Maybe you’re getting sick. Maybe you’re tired. Maybe you just are cold today. Listen to your body. If you feel like you’re doing something not so good or like you aren’t prepared for the conditions outdoors, do cardio indoors. Try some cross training.
Finally, wool (thanks sheep). This year’s MVP is wool. If you’re looking into purchasing any sort of gear, especially socks, go with wool. It keeps you extremely warm. It’s generally waterproof or at the very least absorbs water extremely well. It’s the perfect material for winter. There is not enough good I can say about wool. Any blend with about 60% merino wool is the way to go.
I’m just going to say this as a sales pitch: try it. Wool isn’t this itchy, heavy, unbreathable material. It can be lightweight or heavy. It isn’t itchy. It keeps you warm but can also keep you cool. And it’s a pro at moisture management, which is key for winter.
In all, I’m going to say remember the three “w’s”: be warm, be wise, wear wool.
That’s the key. But remember you don’t have to break the bank. Invest in one or two things as you build your winter kit. Socks and shoes are most important. Socks more than shoes, honestly.
You don’t have to buy top of the line things at top of the line stores. Last year I found a bunch of completely unused, tags still on Under Armour cold gear at goodwill. Five bucks a shirt, how about that? Check out places like that. Other stores like Sierra Trading Post, TJ Maxx and stores like them get apparel that has a cosmetic defect. So it doesn’t interfere with the function but they can’t sell it full price. Bad for them, good for us.
Be thrifty! Be warm! Go run.