Well it is here. The days are shorter, and temperatures are plummeting real fast. While this might seem like the natural time to cozy up inside with blankets and warm hot chocolate, I can promise that those things always feel even better after a cold-weather run. I’ve only been running in cold weather for the last six years, but the Yukon sure has its share of cold – with temperatures sometimes dipping down into the -40s C. And while running in the snow and cold might not be everyone’s cup of tea (and that’s totally fine!), I’m going to share some tips and tricks that I have learnt from my experiences running in this very cold place.
Cold is Different for Everyone: I think it is incredibly important to remember that everyone defines and feels “cold” differently. We know that every individual is built differently, which also means we feel cold differently. Some people excel in very cold temperatures, whereas others find it very difficult. Some people get frozen fingers and toes faster than legs, and others find it challenging to keep their core warm. Everyone is different! Some people (like me) prefer running when temps drop below -20, whereas others struggle to find the motivation as soon as the thermometer dips below zero. That’s why I’m keeping this article to talk about cold weather running, and hope you find these tips useful for running in however you define your cold.
Have Good Gear: I have seen many people try to promote that you don’t need the best gear to recreate in the outdoors, and while I feel this is true in some cases, I think that you should not compromise on quality when it comes to cold weather running gear. It’s awesome if you can save money (and help the planet) by finding the gear second hand or on sale, but don’t be cheap, especially if you aren’t an expert in gear and the outdoors, or don’t have much experience with knowing which gear works for you. The cold can be incredibly dangerous, and whereas cold weather essentials like Gortex, merino wool, and good synthetics are not cheap, they will help keep you dry, and therefore warmer and safer.
Planning what to Wear: Unsure how to dress for your cold weather run? This is very common and is truly something that gets easier with experience. While I was training for a very cold race a few years ago, I started to keep a cold-weather log. I keep a little notebook dedicated to cold running and record what temperature it was (including the windchill), what I wore, and then I make notes on how it felt. Was I too cold? Too warm? What would I have worn differently? This has become a very handy resource for me when I’m planning my cold weather runs as I can use it as a reference when getting ready for similar runs.
Get out that door!: Yes, I think you should run, but that’s not what I am referring to here. When getting dressed for your run, you are going to be layered up so well that you will likely find what you are wearing is far too warm for inside. So do not dilly daddle! If you spend too much time inside after getting dressed, you will start building up a sweat – setting your run up for trouble right from the start. As soon as you step out that door, the sweat will begin to freeze, which will be a very hard cold to shake off. Similarly, you also don’t want to be dressed up for your run (which is under dressed for what you would be wearing if you were going outside and not running), and just standing there waiting for your watch to find its satellite friends. Waiting too long outside before your run will bring the cold into your bones which will be hard to recover from. I therefore recommend putting your watch out on a windowsill or outside while you are getting ready inside, that way it is ready to go when you are.
Plan your Route: The last thing you want when running in the cold is bad surprises! Cold runs can go bad, very quickly, especially if you have to unexpectedly stop. The colder the run, the more important it is that you know the trail/route you are on. Do you know how long it will take you to get to safety? Is it quicker to go forward, or back the way you came? Knowing your route well will help you to communicate your location to someone if an emergency were to happen. Plan your route around safety and tell someone who is also familiar with the route, where you will be. Planning your route also helps you avoid surprises like tricky terrain (such as hills!). While you may enjoy challenging yourself with hills in normal temperatures, unexpected hills will likely make you sweat more and breath harder, which can be detrimental in the cold. By knowing your route and planning for the run you know you can anticipate, you’re more likely to be safer in the cold. Don’t worry, the hills aren’t going anywhere and can be run when temperatures warm up!
Slow and Steady: Just like hills, cold weather running should not be the time for you to do your interval workouts or try to beat a personal record (unless you are experienced and acclimatized and well trained in the cold). You really want to avoid anything that is strenuous enough to cause you to breath too heavily and sweat. As soon as you start sweating, you need to be incredibly careful that it doesn’t turn into hypothermia. Just keep your runs casual, and slow down when you can feel your breathing begin to speed up.
Watch for Wind!: Wind can be a sneaky beast, turning a fun run into a nightmare. I would say that out of all of my time running in cold weather, wind has continued to be the hardest learning curve. Before heading out the door, take a look at the current weather on a website. Is there a predicted windchill? What direction is the wind? Knowing this will allow you to plan your route better (if the windchill is really bad, plan to stay in more forested areas vs. exposed spots). Can you plan your run so you are going with the wind when you are most exposed? If the windchill is around five or more degrees colder than what the temperature outside is, I recommend wearing a windbreaker jacket and pant layer (especially Gortex) above what you were going to wear. It will be your face that feels the wind the most, so it might also be time to pull out that balaclava to protect yourself from that nippy breeze.
Now Warm Up: Your run is done! Now it is time to warm up and avoid the post run shivers! Change out of your running clothing as quickly as possible (even if you don’t think you were sweating, you were, and it will start to feel cold very quickly!). Do anything that will help you get warm. Put on that hot shower or bubble bath, brew up a warm coffee/tea/hot chocolate (my favourite after a cold run!). And get that cozy blanket or heating pad ready. I find that no matter whether I run in the summer or winter, about ten minutes after a run I get the post-run shivers. I have been successful at minimizing these shivers by doing quick sets of jumping jacks or sit ups every few minutes. This seems to help to slow down the decrease in my skin and body temperature.
Embrace the cold weather! Have fun and congrats for getting out there!
“If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life, but still the same amount of snow” – Christopher Robbin.
A few more tips
- Wear mittens, not gloves. Mittens will keep your hands warmer. Mittens will allow you to keep your fingers together and warmer. Gortex mittens for cold weather running are highly recommended.
- Gortex running shoes are waterproof and designed to be less breathable. They will help in colder, slushier, and snowier conditions.
- Adding some maple syrup into your water bottle will keep your water from freezing over. I put some endurance tap in mine for added natural fuel.
- Base layers are so important for cold weather running. How you choose to layer on top is up to you and your needs, but I recommend always having merino wool socks, leggings, top, and buff. Merino wool retains a lot of its insulating qualities when wet, making it a top choice for cold weather.
- Technology needs attention too! Depending on the temperature, your watch, cell phone, and safety equipment might not handle the cold too well. Take the time to make sure your watch isn’t exposed, and wrap up your phone/devices in a sock, buff, or other cloth. Putting these inside one of your warmer layers will help to make sure they still work for that perfect picture moment or safety phone call.
- Consider setting up an extra safety plan for your longer or more remote runs. I recommend carrying a SPOT or inReach device, and/or using the watch-based tracking feature on your fitness app if you are in cell reception.
- Remember that just because it’s cold out, doesn’t mean that all the wild animals are asleep. If you live in bear country, it is important to have bear spray with you year-round.