The Science Behind Maximizing Your Winter Run
Make the most of your next cold-weather workout with these 5 expert tips
Your weather app may be filled with words like “wind chill,” “gusts,” and “wintry mix.” But here’s the thing: Running outside in the winter is just as good as—or even better for you than—pounding out miles on a rigid treadmill. The only catch? To reap the cold weather benefits, you’re going to have to make some adjustments.
1) Start Cold
We know you don’t want to be cold, ever. But one key rule of winter running is to dress as if it’s 20 degrees warmer than it actually is. This will prevent you from overheating once you warm up—and then getting chilly once the wind hits that sweat or you start to cool down a bit. It takes practice to figure out the perfect amount of clothing. Try to opt for light layers of technical fabrics that can wick sweat and a windproof jacket with zippers that will allow you to vent air as you warm up.
2) Warm Up Properly
Ever feel like your legs are made out of lead when you try to get them moving in the winter? That’s totally normal. Cold temperatures cause the muscles themselves to be cold, which makes them—and your tendons and ligaments—feel stiff and less efficient. “This emphasizes the importance of proper warm-up routines prior to exercise in cold environments,” explains Tom Heinbockel, a master’s candidate in integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Get moving with a quick session of body-weight squats, lunges, high knees, jumping jacks, and some dynamic stretches before you head out the door.
The one key rule of winter running is to dress as if it’s 20 degrees warmer than it actually is.
3) Outsmart the Wind
Wind can be the ultimate nemesis of a winter run. “Wind will always make the environment colder than if there was no wind at all, and that extra dose of chill in an already-cold environment can present a thermoregulatory challenge to the athlete,” says Dr. Dan Craighead, a 2:26-marathoner and postdoctoral fellow in integrative physiology at UC Boulder. So wear windproof outer layers to beat the chill and, if possible, start your run into the wind and then turn around midway, so you can run downwind once you’ve broken a sweat. And know that the headwind is actually improving—not hindering—your training. “A headwind will increase the quality of your run even as it slows you down because of the extra intensity it requires to run into the wind. It’s about your body’s effort, not your pace.” So factor in a few extra seconds for your mile splits if needed on a windy day.
4) Breathe Easy
It’s not pleasant to experience burning lungs or a dry throat when running in the cold—but don’t worry, you’re not doing any damage. “Cold environmental temperatures are very unlikely to affect oxygen availability to the working muscles except during extreme events with factors such as high-alpine environments and hypothermic risk,” Heinbockel says. But we get it: Breathing can be uncomfortable in the winter, even if it’s not dangerous. Wear a moisture-wicking neck warmer, scarf, or bandanna around your mouth to make the air you’re breathing a little bit warmer and to keep coughing at bay.
5) Keep Going
“Humans are great at acclimating to heat, but we don’t really acclimate to cold—instead, we habituate to it,” Craighead says. “That’s why it’s important to get out there and get used to it.” The more time you spend in the cold, the better you’ll be at spending time in the cold. Plus, it increases your ability to acclimate to all conditions, which can come in handy for springtime marathon season.
A sturdy, stable running shoe like the ASICS GEL-NIMBUS® 21 can give you the confidence you need in each step when the conditions are variable. Learn more here.