How Best to Prepare for Running in Cold Weather

Running in cold weather

It’s that time of year when the weather is starting to get colder. And for some, it has gotten quite cold. That means it’s time to start thinking about running in cold weather, if you haven’t already. I’ll talk about some of the common misconceptions of running in the cold, proper gear and what to expect in terms of running performance.

Optimal Running Temperature

A study done in 2012 looked at 1.8 million runners across 60 marathons and found that 43.2 degreesRunning in the cold weather pinterest cover produced the fastest marathon times overall. To break it down a little more, they found elites did best at  38.9 degrees and midpack runners performed best in the mid 40s. The study also showed that temperatures 9 degrees hotter or colder than ideal slowed runners down less than 1 percent. Temperatures 18 degrees hotter or colder than ideal slowed runners down 3 percent.

Another study found that the ideal temperature was 49.4 degrees for men and 51.8 degrees for women at the marathon distance. That same study showed that 72.6 degrees for men and 73.4 degrees for women was ideal for the 100m dash.

Although research hasn’t really been done to look at races between the marathon and 100m, you can estimate what temperatures may be ideal for 5K, 10K or 1/2 marathon.

So keep all of that in mind if you’re planning to race or do hard workouts over the winter. If it’s 20 degrees out, don’t expect that PR or a stellar hard workout.

Breathing in Cold Air

I’ve had more than one person tell me that I’m crazy for going out and running in sub zero weather. They tell me, “your lungs will freeze from the cold air!” Sub zero temperatures are pretty cold, but will it actually freeze your lungs? Not if your lungs are healthy. The body is pretty good about warming and adding moisture to that cold, dry air. Air is quickly warmed to body temperature and achieves 100% humidity. However, things are a little different if you have asthma. The cold air can cause spasms in the lungs, which can make breathing difficult. So if you do have asthma, keep that in mind and plan to use your inhaler.

For those with asthma or those that find the cold air uncomfortable, try wearing something over your nose and mouth like a balaclava. This will help pre-warm the air before it hits the lungs.

Cover That Head! Or Should We?

Most of us have heard that we lose most of our body heat through our head. However, it’s not actually true. We lose body heat through whatever skin is exposed. When scientists first made the claim that we lose most of our body heat through our head, it was because the subjects were completely covered, except for their heads. Of course that’s where the heat is going to escape.

We have hair on our heads to provide some protection from the cold, but the ears can be a little sensitive to the cold. So even if you don’t want to wear a hat, it may be a good idea to cover the ears.

Is That Cold Weather Getting You Sick?

Possibly. Research suggests several reasons for increased illness during the winter months.

  • Cold, dry air dampens the immune system.
  • Some viruses transmit faster in the cold air
  • We spend more time indoors with less humidity and ventilation
  • Exposed to more germs inside

So is going out in shorts and a t-shirt in 20 degree weather going to get you sick? Not necessarily. However, you’re going to dampen your immune system and make yourself more likely to get sick. The solution? Be mindful of your nutrition. This will keep your immune system strong and better able to fight whatever is going around. And keep those hands clean.

If you do find yourself sick, should you still plan to exercise? Check out the post on exercising while sick.

What to Wear When Running in Cold Weather

There’s almost an art to carefully choosing what to wear when the temperature drops. Sometimes it takes some trial and error to figure it out. Over the 20+ years that I’ve been running, I feel pretty confident about how well I can choose my gear in the cold. However, this can be a little different for everyone. It can vary according to body fat, muscle mass and how fast you’re planning to run. These factors will determine how much heat you’ll be generating.  The common rule of thumb is that your running temperature is 10-20 degrees higher than the outside temperature. So if it’s 30 degrees outside, your running temperature will be 40-50 degrees.

Another good rule of thumb is if you’re warm when you step outside, then you’re overdressed. You shouldn’t be warm when you start out. You’re only going to get warmer when you start moving and generating body heat.

When the temperature starts to drop, your body’s response is to move the blood more towards the internal organs and away from the extremities. Therefore, it’s a good idea that you keep the extremities covered. Try to keep the feet, hands and ears covered

Dump the cotton and go with something that is moisture-wicking. This type of fabric allows the moisture to be pulled from your body, which helps you avoid getting chilled or even becoming hypothermic in extreme conditions. They make different thicknesses of moisture-wicking products, depending on the type of weather you’re running in. Obviously, you’ll want a thicker one for colder weather.

It’s a good idea to layer, using a good moisture-wicking article of clothing as your first layer. I like to use a compression type of garment as my first layer. These wick moisture well and additional layers can easily go over them.

Additional Gear

Shoe Traction: In snowy or icy conditions, it’s a good idea to have something like Yak Traks on your shoes. This allows for a significant improvement in traction and can help you avoid coming to see physical therapists like me during the winter after sustaining a fall on the ice.

Reflective Gear: More people are running in the dark during the winter due to less daylight. It’s a good idea if you wear something to increase your visibility.

Choose Your Route Wisely

A day that is 30 degrees outside can feel very differently if you add a 10-15 mph wind, especially one out of the North (Note: 30 degree ambient temperature and 15 mph wind creates a windchill of 19 degrees). Therefore, if you are dealing with windy conditions on a cold day, you may want to consider where you run. Specifically, if you choose a route that will be running into the wind, it’s best to do that at the beginning of your run.

By running with the wind at your back to start your run means that you get sweaty and then have to run into the wind at the end of your run. This can cause you to get cold very quickly, even while running. In extreme conditions, it can lead to hypothermia. So be mindful of how the wind is blowing and if you need to consider altering your route.

Drink Up

There are several reasons why you may want to consider increasing your fluid intake during the winter.

  • Our sweat evaporates faster in cold weather as compared to warm weather. This leads many to think they don’t sweat and thus don’t need to drink as much water during the winter.
  • Wearing multiple layers of clothing can increase the sweat rate because our body heat is trapped in the clothing
  • Research has shown that thirst hormones are actually suppressed in cold weather, leading you to believe that you don’t need to replace any water.
  • We experience increased fluid loss through just breathing in cold area. We’ve all experienced seeing our breaths in the cold air. That’s the moisture escaping.

What does all of this means? It means that you need to drink more water than you think you do during the winter! The risk of dehydration is actually higher in the winter due to the above factors. Don’t depend on thirst though as the research indicates this response is altered. Instead monitor the color of your urine. You’ll want a light yellow or clear urine to know that you’re hydrated.


Treadmill is a Good Alternative

Not quite ready to get out into the cold? Treadmills, although boring to many, can allow you to get in that run. Want to some fun treadmill alternatives? Check out this post.

Keep training!








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