20 Cold weather running tips and tricks

The warm weather of spring will be here before you know it...or not. I don’t love the cold, but I’ve learned to appreciate the unique challenges of snow, wind, rain, ice, and that abominable snowman from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (hot cocoa!). Here are some thoughts on surviving this less pleasant time of year.

First off, it’s about mindset. If you keep telling yourself it’s going to suck to be in the cold, no surprise, it will suck. Have the attitude that you are adaptable and that the conditions are fun or unique in order to shift your perspective. If you have the guts to commit to consistent exercise, you have the guts to tolerate the cold for a bit.

If you struggle with the initial shock of cold when heading outside, try getting your core temperature up indoors first with 2-10 minutes of indoor biking, treadmill running, push-ups, air squats, running in place, butt kicks, or high knees.

It’s never as cold as you think it’s going to be - as long as you are consistently moving. Pretend you are dressing for a temperature that is 10-15 degrees warmer than the actual thermometer reading.

However, if you would happen to become injured by the aforementioned abominable snowman and had to stop moving, how long do you think you would stay warm? Probably not as long as you think. This is where it is smart to carry an emergency item or two, especially if you plan to be far from civilization, home, and other people. We’ve all heard about dressing in layers, but I like to dress with the intention to pack away the outer layer. A tightly packable, waterproof jacket is a great addition, especially on those damp 40-degree days. It’s there if you need it but not a hindrance if you never use it. In a pinch, a simple kitchen trash bag with a hole ripped in the bottom for your head can be used as a rain, cold, and wind barrier. Cheap, simple, and effective, but don’t expect it to be breathable. Space blankets are a great compact option. On long, adventurous trail runs, my ultimate choice would be a bivy sack, especially for going out into a more risky environment that would be less accessible in an emergency. Of course, this is overkill for running roads in a city. Consider that even if you had to stop moving for 60 minutes while waiting for help, a bivy sack or space blanket would be a welcome and potentially lifesaving item that weighs very little. Though it’s a little larger and heavier, the bivy is more ideal than a space blanket because you can actually get inside of it.

It’s not just the temperature that you have to consider. Wind and water will make the temperature feel at least an extra 5-10 degrees cooler. But if the sun is out, it can easily feel an extra 5-10 degrees warmer. The hardest conditions to dress for are when it is raining at 35 to 48 degrees. That’s perfect hypothermia weather. There’s a definite need for a breathable, waterproof jacket in that instance if you plan to stay out for 30 minutes or more.

Wool is an awesome material to layer, especially for socks. Many people love wool for the heat retention it maintains while wet, which can easily happen if you sink a foot in a puddle of slush. The Smartwool socks I’ve had have been amazingly durable and are my favorites so far. Anything but cotton, please!

In full-on cold muck, around 34-48 degrees, consider a waterproof/windproof sock, like this one from Sugoi. I’ve used these intermittently over the past five years. They definitely weren’t manufactured as a hiking and running product as they do slip around in the shoes a little. And they have external seams that might annoy some people. But they are flexible and my feet would only get a bit damp from sweat. (Keep in mind the dampness from sweat can cause chilling though.) They are useless if you dunk your foot deeper than ankle depth.

Check out some running gaiters if the snow is getting deep or if it’s slushy and muddy. Even a thin gaiter can keep debris from accumulating in your shoe. And if the weather is really poor, you might have a hard time untying the shoe to get that debris out in the middle of a run. Prevent it in the first place.

A single, thin layer can go a long way toward improving comfort. You don’t always have to use heavy, thick layers to get the job done. And the nice thing about a single layer is that it is still very breathable. This is why I hang onto a 15 year-old, super worn pair of tights that my wife would like to throw away. They are perfect for the 30-40 degree days. I’ve found that some areas are more sensitive to cold than others. My shins don’t need much coverage so one layer there is often plenty. My hands are super sensitive though and I’ll need to layer up a liner gloves and possibly mittens.

Carry a Buff or other similar multi-purpose garment. Options are nice. This can cover and protect your neck, face, ears, and head in one fell swoop, in any combination.

Cover your hands in a thick moisturizing and protective barrier like Bag Balm, beeswax, Aquaphor, or petroleum jelly. I have pretty poor blood flow in my hands and this, at the very least, buys me some additional time before my hands start to ache and lose blood supply. And it seems like the act of massaging these products onto the skin is helpful to increase blood flow even before going outside. If it was super cold out, I would put this same protective barrier on my face as well. I’ll carry a little tube of this stuff on a long run for reapplication and chaffing problems.

Sheet metal screws tightened into the bottom of your shoes make for cheap, light, and effective studs on slick surfaces. Just three to five of them can go a long way towards enhancing your stability if they are thoughtfully placed.

Cross train on snowshoes, cross country skis, or just go for a hike. Nobody feels their most fit when exercising in the cold. The clothing is restrictive, breathing is difficult, everything feels stiff, and the footing is horrible. These other activities are more than acceptable to provide an aerobic workout. As a bonus, they break up monotony and train your body in ways you might not normally. Were you going to PR today anyway?

Keep in mind any food you take will become more firm, perhaps more… chewy as it gets colder. Which means you will probably have a desire to drink more while eating. If you tuck the food close to your body prior to eating, it won’t be so darn hard to chew.

Similarly, if you use a hydration pack, tuck the tubing into your jacket so that it doesn’t freeze up. Depending on the size of pack, you may be able to place it under an outer layer of clothing. Drink small amounts from the pack often to keep the water moving. The real hard-assess of winter running mix a little vodka or whiskey into their water to help prevent freezing. It doesn’t take much to lower the freezing point.

Warm liquids are amazing in the middle of a long, cold bout. My dad always brought a small thermos of hot cocoa for me when I was a little kid hunting in the cold. I promise you, in the middle of a cold long run there is nothing better than hot tea or chicken broth. I haven’t found a thermos that works better than a Zojirushi

Carry back up charcoal hand warmers. Just don’t expect them to heat up quickly. For that, there are more instant hand warmers. Or make your own out of these inexpensive flexible heating pads.

Make loops that include public buildings where you could warm up for a few minutes if necessary.

Don’t tie your car or house key to your shoe in wintery conditions. Your hands might be too cold to untie the knot or the knot might just be completely frozen. There is no worse feeling than standing outside a locked warm car or house when you are super cold.

That's disappointing

That's disappointing

Find someone to hold you accountable to getting your run done. A consistent training partner can be a great motivator who won’t let you slack off and make excuses. Training groups can provide that same motivation. Plus it’s safer for everybody involved.

Bonus: Make a game out of it. A Hash House Harrier run is the best example of this game atmosphere. You will be so busy wondering where you are on the random course and where you are supposed to be going that you just might forget about the cold.

Bonus: Cellphone batteries die very quickly when exposed to the cold. Keep your phone closer to your body to keep it warm. If it does die, getting it warm next to your body may breathe some life back into it again.

Let me know if you have questions: derek@mountainridgept.com