Unless you plan on sitting out a quarter of the year’s workouts, running in the cold is a necessity. But training in cold weather can be more than just uncomfortable—it can slow you down and wear you out.
People have different thresholds but performance goes down when the weather is below freezing, says Matt Johnson, the founder of Runner Academy and host of the popular Runner Academy Podcast. At low temperatures the body burns energy to maintain its core temperature, reducing your fuel reserves.
With your body burning energy to stay warm, the infamous wall that long distance runners are so familiar with hits a little earlier. Your body transitions from carbohydrates—its first fuel choice—to fat much more quickly than usual, Johnson says. This switch typically limits your top-end speed and power.
The colder the temperature and the harder the workout, the more noticeable the decline in performance—especially when it comes to intense efforts. “Your brain can’t tell your muscles to move at the same rate as it can when it’s warmer,” Johnson says. With your nervous system running slower your muscle contractions also weaken. Less noticeable in endurance training, this will greatly affect hard track work and sprinting.
But with preparation and some slight adjustments to your regimen, you can maximize your winter workouts even when the temperature dips into the teens.
Winter Running 101
- Extend your warm-up. When it's cold, muscles don’t contract with the same intensity as they normally do. But by extending your routine, you can help your body acclimate before you hit the pavement, Johnson says. So if you’re somebody who doesn’t generally warm up, consider breaking your habit on colder days.
- Don’t overdress. Try under dressing when you go running in the cold. Wear what you would if it were 10 to 15 degrees warmer outside. It will be chilly at first, but once you start moving and your body warms up, you’ll find yourself much more comfortable. In fact, overdressing can chill you—sweating becomes the enemy in cold weather. So layer wisely and with breathable pieces.
- Go by feel. Instead of worrying about percentages and your pace, run by feel and gauge your performance based on how hard it seems, Johnson says. If you force yourself to maintain the faster times you average in ideal weather, you'll wear down quickly and your run will suffer.
- Get acclimated. Don’t just tough it out. If you push the pace and have a poor performance, that will carryover into your next run, Johnson says. Keeping your mind fresh can’t come second to your body. So avoid attempting a breakthrough workout on the first cold day of the season when you likely won’t be able to hit the mark.
- Stay hydrated. Hydration is equally as important in cold climates as it is in warm climates. However, because your body doesn’t give the same indicators, many athletes forget to hydrate when it’s chilly.