Come the holiday season, at-or-below freezing temperatures are just as prevalent as awkward family gatherings. But just because some days don't have a forecast over 32 degrees Fahrenheit, doesn't mean you have to shelve your workout routine. That's right: It is possible — and even enjoyable! — to tackle runs come winter.
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"Our bodies can adapt to the cold," says Blake Dircksen, doctor of physical therapy with Bespoke Treatments in New York City. "After toughing it out for about 10 days, the body gets better at handling chilly weather by reduced shivering and increased blood flow to the muscles. Plus, cold weather tends to scare off the crowds! The solitude that brings makes winter my favorite season to train with empty trails."
Plus, it can enhance your mental toughness, says Meghan Kennihan, USATF- and RRCA-certified running coach. "Just as your body benefits from running in adverse conditions, your mind benefits as well," she says. "The mental fortitude gained by running in the cold can propel you to the finish line of a race when the going gets tough."
Ready to lace up and get out there? Here, the experts weigh in on smart strategies to keep you safe during colder runs.
1. Never, Ever, Ever Skip Your Warm-Up
A great warm-up increases blood flow to the areas that will be working during your run and also wakes up the nervous system, says Dircksen. In the winter months, some simple dynamic movements like knee hugs, lunges and butt kicks can be especially important because of the cool temperatures' effects on the body.
"Cold weather decreases nerve conduction velocity, has a constricting effect on blood vessels, and decreases muscle metabolism — all of which can impair performance if the body temperature gets low enough," he says. "If you can get blood flow to those muscles and increase neuromuscular firing before you head out the door, your transition to faster running should be easier."
One word of caution? Don't warm up so much that you start sweating a lot, he says. "You don't want to be drenched in sweat and then jump into the cold environment."
2. Wear Technical Workout Clothes and Shoes
When you're working up a sweat in the snow, it's extra important to not just layer — but make them technical. "Technical clothing will wick the sweat away from your body while still keeping you warm," says Todd Buckingham, PhD, exercise physiologist with Mary Free Bed Sports Rehabilitation Performance Lab.
"Think something like SmartWool that uses 100-percent Merino Wool fabric, which helps regulate body temperature and keep you warm and dry."
Accessories matter, too. Dircksen wears some sort of muffler during winter runs. "The cold outside air dries up the airway surface fluid lining of our respiratory tract, which can generate an inflammatory response leading to that cold weather lung burn," he says. "While the nasal passage does a nice job of warming and humidifying the air going into the lungs, solely using the nose to breathe can only be sustained at lower exercise intensities."
Aside from keeping your neck warm, mufflers are great for warming and humidifying the cold outside air as it enters your lungs — which will reduce that burning feeling, he says.
And of course, your running shoes are of utmost importance. Look for footwear that keep your feet warm on the move. "Look for styles with minimal mesh or the wind will whip right through them and cause your feet to get cold," Buckingham says. "If you're running in the snow and/or ice, make sure you choose shoes with good traction and watch your footing. The road or path you're running on could be slippery."
3. Forgo Your Workout Playlist
Running in the cold requires you to be more attentive to your surroundings. That's why Cortney Logan, RRCA-certified run coach and founder of Denver-based bRUNch Running, leaves her AirPods at home.
"You want to be hyper-focused on the ground and concentrate on where your feet are striking," she says. "Enjoy and embrace the winter wonderland and all it has to offer. It feels cathartic to run without headphones in the snow and cold as there is just something soothing about listening to my feet trek through the snow."
4. Pay Close Attention to the Weather
While a "go big or go home" attitude is admirable, there are some days where it's smart to just stick to the treadmill. "The cold affects everyone differently so you need to figure out what your threshold temperature is," says RRCA-certified run coach Alexandra Weissner, who adds that her personal cut off is around 8 degrees.
"Then of course, there are the elements — ice being a huge one. The worst thing that can happen is that you slip on the ice and injury yourself."
If things are slippery out there, Weissner suggests keeping it indoors. "Especially if you're gearing up for a spring race, the most important thing is to get in those miles in a place that you feel safe and comfortable."