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Running Outdoors This Winter

There is a lot to enjoy about winter running. Crisp air, glistening white trees and crackling snow under your feet. Most importantly, you will feel adventurous and brave for being out there. That said, it requires some thinking ahead to enjoy the outing.

I am a runner, just like you, and have been at it for a couple decades now. Specific to winter running, there were many lessons learned, frozen fingers and a few slips along the way. I am delighted to share those realizations with you. If this is your first winter of outdoor running, read on for a nugget or two.

How do I stay warm on a winter run?

We each have different tolerance levels for the cold, different sweat rates, etc. For that reason, finding what is right for you will take a little experimenting. Here is a starting point:

  • Head and Hands – Extremities are important players. The big wool tuque your grandma knitted for you is likely a little too heavy :) A lighter material hat will make a big difference in keeping your whole body warm. Hands…. for some of us they tend to get cold easily on a run. Some considerations:
    • Choose mitts over gloves, even when you think it is warm enough to wear gloves.
    • Layer a wind breaker cover over your running mitts on colder days.
    • Bring a second pair of mitts with you on longer runs. Tuck them somewhere they will not get sweaty and voilà, dry mitts for the way home.
    • Wiggle your fingers every 5 or 10 minutes, it makes a difference.
  • Core and Legs – Keeping the legs warm is important to keep muscles working well.  Running or not, we always want a warm core. Different layering combinations can be effective, here are options to mix and match:
    • Top - thermal underwear and/or long sleeve fleecy shirt and/or light or insulated jacket.
    • Bottom - thermal underwear and loose-fitting exercise pants or insulated running tights.
  • Finishing touches… a pair of wool socks and a neck warmer are big impact add-ons to stay warm.

How do I know what are the right clothes for me at a specific temperature?

By testing it. Put on the clothes you think are right for today’s run and stand outside your front door. If you feel:

  • Nice and warm – Likely wearing too much
  • Frozen – Likely not wearing enough
  • A little chilly – You nailed it!

Once you start moving you will warm up.  Take it gradually, figure out the right clothes for -5C, then -10C, etc. If you are unsure of your selection, you can adjust your route to do shorter loops close to home. This way it is easier to add/remove clothes quickly as needed.

What about footing?

It is an important consideration especially in the winter. The surface we run on will vary from dry, to wet, to snowy, to icy, to ice covered by snow (tricky!). How can our running shoes possibly handle all these different conditions? The short answer is they do not. Like winter driving, good tires alone will not keep us on the road, the driver must also adjust how she drives.

Best advice for safe footing and enjoyable winter runs is, “slow down”. If pace is a consideration for you, let go of monitoring it on a winter run. It is best to run/jog/walk at a speed that makes sense for the surface you are on in the moment:

  • Actively scan the ground in front of you, 5-10 meters ahead, to pick out and adjust to varying conditions.
  • Assume wet pavement is icy pavement until proven otherwise.
  • Choose running on snow instead of ice (in the absence of dry pavement), you will have better grip.
  • Pay particular attention when going downhill or around a corner.

Do I need to hydrate on a winter run?

Yes, you do. Many of us tend to drink less while running in colder temperatures; maybe because we do not feel we are sweating or drinking in the cold is just not that enticing. We sweat while working out at any temperature, so what can we do the get ourselves to drink on a winter run?  

Before heading out, consider warming up your hydration a little (or let it sit at room temperature). It will be more inviting to drink than ice cold water once you are out there. It will also help keep you warm (or at least not make you cold).

Is there a point where it is just too cold to run outside?

Fair question, we live in a Nordic country after all. Individual tolerance levels come into play. As a guide I would say that at -15C or colder, it can be more difficult to keep nose, ears, cheeks, extremities from freezing or your running shoes from stiffening. Personally, that is the threshold where I start to consider factors such as: wind, humidity, how long am I planning to go for, can I do a route in the sun and out of the wind.

Some days the treadmill is the reasonable alternative, and that is ok. Running is an endurance sport but we should not endure frozen bits and pieces. Actively monitor extremities, nose, ears, cheeks. Ice forming on eyelashes makes for a great story (so I have heard) but we are pushing the limits. On those very cold days, proudly wear that wool tuque your grandma knitted for you along with ski mitts! By the way, wearing sunglasses reduces the formation of ice on eyelashes smiley

With all that said, there is a lot of raw fun to be had winter running. ….. Moving through knee deep snow to avoid an icy section on the pathway wondering where your snowshoes are when you need them…. jumping over snowbanks feeling like a kid again ….. exchanging a nod with another brave winter runner on the path ….. pausing to help a neighbour get his SUV out of the snowdrift …. the list goes on.

Be brave and adventurous, enjoy the season and see you out there!


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