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When the temperature drops, it doesn’t mean the number of miles you run also has to. Cold weather is still easier to work around than hot weather – you just need to take the precautions listed below.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends wearing several light layers of clothing instead of one or two thick layers so you can take off or put layers back on to better match the temperature as you exercise. Multiple thin layers also trap air to provide insulation.
You first layer should be a thin layer of synthetic material that will wick sweat from your body. Sweat or moisture will increase heat loss during exercise in the cold, so overdressing can lead to trouble, especially when it’s windy. Never use cotton as a base layer – it holds moisture. Think thermal tights and a soft, breathable long-sleeve top. Next, add a layer of fleece, wool or a thermal jacket for insulation. Top this with a waterproof, breathable outer layer. In temperatures of 24°F or less, three layers should be worn. The outer layer should be windproof, waterproof materials, such as the 2XU X-LITE Membrane Jacket.
When in doubt, it never hurts to take a hat and gloves along with you, as you can easily tuck them into your waistband if they aren’t needed. At temperatures less than 24, your legs need a wind breaking outer cover and you should consider a balaclava or thermal neck and face warmer. In this cold, there have been cases of penile injury, so be careful with your choice of uninsulated shorts. Consider wearing underwear with an insulated front panel.
Be wary that very lean runners or young runners have the potential to lose a lot of heat. Tall runners are also at a higher risk of hypothermia, because of their larger lungs.
The synthetic foam or EVA in the cushioning of the insole and midsole in running shoes tends to get stiffer when cooled. So at cold temperatures, the shoe compresses less on impact, which means a smaller area of your foot is in contact with the shoe. The result is more localized pressure on your foot – it can feel like you are running on a much harder surface.
Check the wear on your shoes before winter running, because cold shoes can already feel like old shoes that have become stiff as the EVA foam wears out. One adaptation you can make is to wear shoes with softer cushioning – this will work up to a point (below freezing it will feel like any other shoe).
For winter, you might also consider a shoe that is a half-size or one size larger than usual to allow for an extra pair of wool socks that you can wear over a breathable compression sock.
As a precaution, always carry identification when you run. Some runners write their names, phone numbers, and blood type of the inside sole of their shoes. Carry a small amount of cash in case you need a cab home, a cell phone, and maybe even a whistle if you are going off-road.
If there’s any chance you’ll be running in the dark or even if you’re out in the gloomy light of an overcast day, then wear reflective gear and light-colored clothing. If there’s snow about, dress in bright colors or consider wearing a reflector vest.
Despite what you may have heard, there is no such thing as "frozen lungs" – or at least not while you are still breathing. Sure, many people can get "skier’s hack" (a passing cough) during or after training in the cold. Research at Marywood University in Pennsylvania proved that this comes from the dryness of cold air, which causes the "airway narrowing" that produces the cough. Lead researcher Ken Rundell suggests a quick fix is to use a scarf over your mouth and nose to trap your natural water vapor when you exhale, and then allow you to "recycle" it when you inhale.
If you have asthma, heart problems or Raynaud’s disease, then you should consult your doctor before cold-weather running.
Your muscles can’t warm up as effectively on a cold day, making connective tissues more brittle, keeping muscles from relaxing fully, and reducing synovial fluid (lubrication) in the joints. So when it’s cold, take time to do at least part of your warm-up indoors, and aim to do a little more warm-up than you would in warmer weather.
Extreme cold may require you to cool your training and performance expectations. As the temperature drops below 50°F, your performance can decline. It’s only small at first – just a 1-2% increase in your time per mile at 32°F (although a snowy or icy surface and bulky clothes may make it more). At 20°F, the increase is 3-4%, 10°F it’s 5-6% and at 0°F expect an 8-9% increase. Speed work also becomes difficult. Here’s why:
Got snow? You probably need to change your running gait – a stride that is a bit wider and shorter will give more stability. You’ll still slip, and if you try to go too fast, you’ll slip more and could end up with a hamstring or groin strain.
When you run faster, you burn more energy, and so you produce more heat – but you also move more cold air across your body. This means that even in still air, you’ll always be running into a "headwind" that is equal to your running speed. Obviously, this effect is magnified when you run into the wind, and reduced when you are running with it. Consequently, many runners and coaches advocate running into the wind for the first part of your run, then turning around to return with the wind when you may be slower and sweatier.
A study of marathon runners in Scotland found that even in 50°F air temperature and winds of 16 mph several runners had temperatures significantly below the normal range when they finished the race. This had nothing to do with overall race time – it correlated more with runners who were unable to maintain their speed in the second half of the race.
Frostbite commonly occurs on exposed skin, such as your nose, ears, and cheeks, but it can also occur on the feet and hands even when they’re covered. If you feel it coming on in your feet, grab some plastic bags for picking up dog poop and slip them over your feet inside your shoes.
Early warning signs of frostbite include numbness, loss of feeling or a stinging sensation. If any of these occur, get out of the cold immediately and slowly warm the affected area without rubbing it, as this can damage your skin.
You can become dehydrated in the cold just as you would in the heat – it just might be harder for you to notice. In addition to sweating, there’s the fluid loss from respiration, the drying power of the winter wind, plus the cold can blunt your thirst mechanism and increase urine production.
Avoid cold drinks – they will take energy from your body, whereas a warm beverage will provide heat to your body.