The Ultimate Guide to Winter Running: How to Make Running in Cold Weather Actually Enjoyable

The winter of 2007 was one of the worst running experiences of my life. Every weekday, my blaring alarm woke me at 5:00am sharp.

Winter Running

After putting on 37 layers of running gear, I left the house for an average run of 12 miles (I was running about 85 miles per week at the time)… in the dark.

Northwest of Boston, where I grew up, this particular hellish winter running experience had me grappling with 0 – 10 degree temps.

I remember one day specifically: I was wearing two pairs of pants, four shirts, two hats, two pairs of gloves, and a scarf wrapped around my face. Ice crystals formed on the scarf and I struggled through a session of hill repetitions.

I wondered, why the hell am I doing this?!

My warm bed was at home, as well as hot coffee and bacon. Lots of bacon.

But I persevered. And like most runners who stay disciplined through crazy winter conditions, I reaped the rewards: in February, I set my 10-mile personal best of 54:50. In March, I ran my half marathon PR of 1:13:39.

Despite the cold weather, freezing ice, and running in the pitch black predawn every day I had quite the successful season.

Now I always run through winter weather. I’ve developed the discipline necessary to “just do it” – and I want to help you do the same.

So welcome to SR’s ultimate guide to winter running. After this post, you’ll know how to tackle your training even if you live in Siberia.

Winter Running Gear

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” – Sir Rannulph Fiennes

You simply can’t run in freezing cold weather without proper winter running gear. And it’s all about layering. 

There’s a reason I wore so many layers when the temperature approached zero: each small layer of air in between the fabric helps insulate your body, keeping you warmer despite whatever winter is throwing at you.

The base layer: The first article of clothing should be a sweat-wicking, warm fabric. I prefer form fitting material (like spandex tights, except for your upper body) that makes it easier to add more layers.

One of the best base layers I’ve found over the years is Under Armour ColdGear. It’s warmer than material designed for the summer and still hugs your body. This mock turtleneck is a perfect base layer in cold weather conditions.

Second layer: This layer isn’t as important, but serves as another buffer between you and the outside air. I use one of my thicker long-sleeve synthetic running shirts.

Or, you could try a fleece layer if the temperature is sub-zero.

Outer layer: Depending on the exact temperature, wind, and conditions (like freezing rain or snow), you’ll want either a windproof jacket or a very warm running shirt.

A windproof jacket that I love is the Sugoi Firewall jacket that combines warm material with extra features like plenty of pockets and a mock turtleneck.

Legs: In most conditions one pair of ColdGear tights will keep you warm enough while running, but if the wind is blowing and the temperature is under 10, you may want a second pair of running pants.

I recently got a pair of Sport Hill running pants and they’re a great addition to my collection of winter running gear as a second layer for my skinny legs. Here’s what they look like.

That’s the big-ticket winter running gear you need, but you’ll also want a few extras:

  • Your normal running shoes will work fine, but if you’re running through snow a product like Yak Trax may be helpful
  • If the conditions are wet, you may want to spray your shoes with a water-proofing spray
  • Gloves – a must! I recommend running mittens with a cheap pair of cotton gloves underneath if it’s brutally cold and windy
  • Hat – another must! I have a double layer thick cotton green hat that makes me look homeless. I wouldn’t trade it for the world
  • Face protection: optional depending upon your personal preferences. A scarf works but a balaclava is the best option (bonus: you’ll look like a ninja!)

Even though I don’t consider myself a gear junkie, I have a good amount of winter running gear because I grew up outside of Boston, went to college in Connecticut, and now live in Denver. I’m used to the frigid cold.

My gear philosophy remains unchanged even in winter, though: keep it simple. You don’t need the newest high-tech fabric. You just need to put on another shirt.

Safety First, People!

Running in the winter is challenging:

Short days that make most of us run in the dark…Winter Running Safety

Icy, slippery roads…

Sidewalks covered in snow…

Road shoulders hidden under snow piles…

It’s amazing that any of us make it out alive!

But running safety in the winter is no joke. Remember these safety tips as you’re trudging through the cold, snow, ice, and dark of the glorious winter season:

  • Avoid roads with no shoulder – cars will hit you!
  • Run on cleared sidewalks or walking paths whenever possible
  • When in doubt, slow it down so you don’t strain a muscle or fall
  • Wear reflective running gear if you’ll be out in the dark (like this vest)
  • Always run on the left side of the road toward traffic (so you can see oncoming cars)

Writing about safety isn’t sexy, I know. But I’ve had former teammates hit by cars (and a few close calls myself) and I’ve fallen on black ice more than I can count. Luckily I have the speed of a mongoose and reflexes of a cat so I always land on my feet.

My training philosophy of “It’s better to be 5% under-trained than 5% over-trained” fits well with winter running safety:

It’s better to be 5% too safe (and alive) than not safe enough and in a wheelchair.

Why is harder to run in the winter?

Besides the unpleasant feeling of running through the movie Frozen, running is also more physiologically taxing during the winter months.

Colder temperatures actually cause your muscles to contract less forcefully, making them less efficient. Even if you’re warmed up and wearing proper gear, you still won’t be able to run as fast as you can in ideal conditions.

You also produce more lactate (better known as lactic acid) in the cold. A practical application of this phenomenon is that your tempo pace (and all race paces) will slow in cold weather. Don’t fight it – it’s normal.

We have to remember that while running in the winter is entirely possible, we have to adjust our expectations (just like with summer running)

If you’re racing a 5k when it’s 50 degrees, you’re probably going to perform a helluva lot better than either 90 or 10 degrees. Our biology limits us and we must take that into consideration. Other issues include:

  • Thinner athletes are more susceptible to lower body and muscle temperatures (why I’m always cold in the winter!)
  • Colder, drier air can contribute to breathing problems or asthma
  • You rely more on carbohydrate for fuel than fat, making long runs or winter marathons more challenging

Even though winter running presents a host of new challenges, it’s necessary to achieve your race goals in the spring.

Staying disciplined in the dreary months of winter will help you crush any spring races on your calendar. Use these suggestions to stay on top of your training:

  • Commit to running with a friend a few times per week
  • Have your partner shove you out of bed in the morning (or put your alarm clock on the other side of the room so you have to get up)
  • Get your running gear and everything you need for your morning run ready the night before so there are fewer barriers
  • Schedule a late winter or early spring goal race so you have to run through the winter
  • Plan a vacation in January or February to escape the cold, run in a warmer climate, and escape the drudgery of winter running

While I’m not a big fan of “motivation,” these tips can keep your spirits high when the temps are low.

Winter Running Q&A

If running in cold weather froze your brain, I’m here to help with a brand new edition of Q&A with Coach!

Today’s special Winter Running episode answers three questions from a Q&A I did with Lifehacker on their “Ask an Expert” series.

Remember, you can get your running questions answered by tweeting them to @JasonFitz1 with the hashtag #RunQuestion.

What other questions about winter running do you have? Leave them in the comments and I’ll be sure to reply to every one.

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Comments

  1. Your article is great, but made me instantly think of this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPTt6MgsOt8

  2. Great article. As I look at the 23 degree reading on my thermometer as I type (also Boston resident), I am waiting until noon to head out. At least I’ll have a couple more degrees. The thought of the pre-down 10 degree run makes me shudder. I know what that’s like!

    I am thankful for no appreciable snow as of yet, but realize it will be here soon enough. So scary with the cars, whose drivers are not necessarily paying attention and with a limited shoulder (or no shoulder!), winter runs (especially the long ones – more time to get hit) can be harrowing. I totally avoid our roads that have any more than a couple cars every 10 minutes. I am fortunate I have that option and don’t have to run on Route 1A all the time!

  3. Any tips for socks or foot care while running in wet conditions such as rain or snow?

    • Alison, get some Smartwool/Icebreaker socks. I ran Saturday in wet snow and slush and my feet got wet but they were still warm due to the Smartwool socks. When it’s really bad, I wear my Goretex trail running shoes.

  4. I’d also add a headlamp for dark winter running. Reflective gear is great but if headlights aren’t shining at you, there will be no reflection. Add 1 or 2 clip on flashing lights and you’ll be seen 1/4 mile away. One of the best purchases I made last year for winter running was Smartwool/Icebreaker clothing. Wool keeps you warm even when wet. Also, Ice Spikes. They are durable, I get 2 seasons out of mine, work great on black ice as well as snow and don’t change your gait. For fun, a pair of running snowshoes can also change things up.

  5. This email was extremely informative and helpful. I appreciate the advice. You can really mess up your run with the wrong gear or I should say lack of gear. Transitioning to outdoor running has been a learning experience and I needed this laundry list of what to layer with. Thanks!
    Liz
    Haverford, PA

  6. Great reminders for layering for cold weather!

    I’d also add a pair (or two) of good, warm socks. I like a thin summer sock under a wool sock made for running.

    Also, if the number on the thermometer in the early morning hours is frightening, why not run after work? A few more degrees of warmth might make getting out to run less scary and easier to take on.

    Keep the great articles coming!

  7. Shoes: One word – Icebugs with the built-in studs. They are made for winter running, with warm uppers, the studs, and good packed snow traction. I rarely wear a thin inner sock with them down to -20F, and my temperature record with just a thin sock under wool socks is -49F.

    Layers: This is key, of course, but don’t add so many that you sweat too much. Sweat is the enemy of the comfortable as you drop below 0F.

    And a headlamp is must-have gear, as Michele says. I rarely use it, but it’s a big safety booster when anywhere near a road, or if the trail gets a little rough. And rearward red flashing lights have saved me a few times.

    Typing from Fairbanks, Alaska.

    • hmmmm I never heard of that shoe before, I will have to look into it! I know there are a few shoes out their designed for winter running such as a minimalist one by New Balance, and even one made by Salomon.

      BTW,

      I thought I had experience running in the winter here in upstate, NY. You got me beat sir! lol

  8. What do you do with barefoot strides (and general barefoot work like toe walks etc.) in the winter? Unless someone wants his/her feets frozen off, are there any solid alternatives?
    My plantar fascia and foot arch both cry a little when I skip them during my winter base phase 😉

    • You just have to do indoor barefoot exercises in the winter…

    • Jason is right you may have to find a facility to do them inside.

      Some alternatives would be an indoor track, an indoor soccer facility (I know there are a few in my town here) or just in your own home.

      I know it is not a lot of space for strides but you can do plenty of plantar fascia exercises from the seat of your chair.

  9. A bunch of great tips here, and I definitely try to practice all of them in the winter. When the temperature hits near -20*C, running outside can seem particularly unfun. My question to you Jason would be about the lower body gear you wear. I’ve always worn tights, because I thought that pants would just get in the way all the time. Is that not the case? I’ve never actually tried, but I’m curious to know, since that would definitely be the next purchase for me!

    Great article, and just in time for all of the winter weather!

  10. I’m not where it gets super cold and tend to tolerate it pretty well, so I go in shorts until it gets to the mid-20s. As it gets colder but not cold enough for long pants/tights, I often use an extra cotton glove — if you follow.

  11. Personally, I am becoming quite the fan of Smartwool. they have great baselayers mid layers and outer layers to make it through the cold. They even make compression socks now too!

    Great tips about the YakTrak grips, those are quite useful for the halfway shoveled sidewalks!

  12. Hi,

    First time in your blog and already liking it. It is a great article, though I haven’t experienced such brutal winter running till date but I prefer running in winters. It feels good when your body is gradually warming up, especially in the early morning. To me, the best gear or to say the most expensive investment in running gear is shoes.
    Thanks for your writing.

  13. Great article. I always look forward to winter running and the challenges it brings. Having the right gear and clothing is definitely a must.

  14. This was a great post for me, thank you so much!
    I always hate to run in the winter but I know I need to do it. As you say in your video, discipline is one of the keys and I need to have more of this definitely. Thank you for the tips and advice.

    Happy new year to you

  15. Kate Wright says:

    Interesting post – I have a question about doing marathon training over the winter. I live in Michigan, and my town has a marathon at the end of March. I would love to run it, but I can’t see how I could work in three 20 miles runs between January-February in this climate, which is the training plan I’ve followed for previous marathons. Any suggestions? Please don’t tell me to run 20 miles on a treadmill. I’d rather die. Do you think there’s a way to front-load training before it is too snowy and icy (say, in Nov-Dec) and then maintain for the three months leading up to the marathon?

  16. Running Club North, the running club here in Fairbanks, Alaska, just launched a new Web site. As part of the new site, we overhauled our Cold Weather Running page, which you can find at http://runningclubnorth.org/cold-weather-running. A number of our members, some with decades of winter running experience, contributed ideas and tips. Take a look and see if there are some ideas you can use. Even if it doesn’t get to be -50F where you are!

    • Kate Wright says:

      Wow! Nice site. I think I would have trouble with stamina being outside running in 15-20 degree weather for 20 miles. That might be the real hold-up with winter marathon training for me.