Come the fall and winter months, a few things change. What you're wearing everyday, for starters. A darker commute home after work, for sure. Also on the list? A shift in your fitness routine. The good news: If you're a runner, you don't necessarily need to sacrifice outdoor miles once the temperature drop.
Running in cold weather is safe, as long as you take a smart approach. While there doesn't seem to be a consensus on how cold is too cold to run outside, use your common sense and take your goals, comfort and safety into account. Some runners call it quits when the thermometer hits 0 degrees Fahrenheit, but if you have a medical condition, proceed with caution and check with your doctor first.
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Most of the issues provoked by running in the cold involve breathing difficulties, especially in those with asthma or exercise-induced asthma, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Sometimes winter air that's too rapidly inhaled can cause bronchoconstriction due to the air's dryness and reduced temperature.
Running in cold weather isn't a bad thing if you're dressed properly and prepared for safely dealing with the elements. When conditions are too treacherous, though, you can always take your run to the treadmill.
Reduce Breathing Problems
Depending on the temperature of the air or the wind-chill, even the healthiest runners can experience breathing problems while exercising outside in the winter. Wearing a thin ski mask or muffler when running reduces aggravating effects of cold, since the inside of the mask is warmed by your exhales.
"As the temperature drops to single digits or less, it's best to breathe through a mask or a scarf or both," says Jim Frith, certified trainer and founder of TopFitPros. "This preps the cool air for the lungs. If they hurt from the cold — even when you are warmed up and breathing through a mask or scarf — then I'd say it's too cold, and you should take your running inside."
His expert tip: Wrapping a lightweight scarf around the lower face and nose also provides adequate protection, but it's not as effective as a face mask. Remembering to breathe through your nose rather than your mouth will also lessen potential breathing difficulties. And focus more on endurance running instead of short, speedy bursts of running, to lessen the amount of cold air rushing into your lungs.
Always Warm Up First
Don't head out the door to run several miles in below-freezing temperatures without first doing some dynamic stretches, says Penn Medicine. When that brisk air hits muscles that haven't been properly warmed up, the combination of cold and reduced air pressure causes joint tissues to expand, restricting movement and possibly provoking soreness later in the day.
You're also likely to experience cramping and spasms if you throw your muscles into an intense running session without first fueling them with nutrient-rich blood and energizing oxygen stimulated by invigorating stretching exercises.
"Most runners don't warm up properly year-round, and that's especially dangerous when the cooler temperatures," says Matt Forsman, a USATF- and RRCA-certified run coach. "Try jogging in place (inside) for a few minutes. Follow this up with a few minutes of some dynamic range of motion drills, like lunges, high knees and butt kicks."
Dress to Brave the Elements
When it's especially cold outside, wearing layers keeps the body warm and less prone to frostbite or hypothermia. The best way to layer is to wear moisture-wicking material against your skin, an insulating middle layer and an outer shell, according to the National Ski Patrol.
Wearing a hat is probably the best way to maintain a decent body temperature, as you lose more body heat through your head than any other body part. Many runners wear polypropylene clothes when running because this material is comfortable and good for keeping dry and warm.
"When you're prepping for your run, dress for it to be 10 to 20 degrees warmer than it is," says Frith. "Your body temperature will go up and this needs to be accounted for. The 'feels like' or 'real feel' temperature is what to use here."
Soft, fleecy garments such as sweatshirts and pants make suitable cold-weather running clothes as well. You may have to take several practice runs to decide what amount of clothing works best for you in certain temperatures. Also, be careful when running on wet pavement and avoid running in snow and ice if possible.
Read more: What to Wear Running to Perform Your Best
You'll still sweat in cold weather, and since cold air is much dryer than warm air, staying properly hydrated is another key component of running safely in winter. A higher breathing rate also releases more moisture extracted from your body.
In addition, maintaining hydration reduces the risk of hypothermia and breathing difficulties. To avoid dehydration, ACE recommends drinking 8 ounces of fluid 20 to 30 minutes before your run, 7 to 10 ounces every 20 minutes while running and 8 ounces 30 minutes after you run.